As Oklahoma City presents itself as perhaps the strongest challenger to Golden State’s Western Conference supremacy, Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook is mired in one of the of worst shooting slumps of his career.
Westbrook shot 43.5 percent from the field, 31.1 percent from beyond the arc, and 81.4 percent from the foul line in his nine previous seasons in the league. Those numbers have dropped to 42.6/24.1/62.1 this season. Even as Westbrook has tried to modernize his shot profile and trade some midrange attempts for three-pointers (about a five percent swing, per Cleaning the Glass), his points per shot attempt, which has been above league average since 2010-11, has fallen to the 11th percentile among point guards.
The nadir might have come in a 4-for-22 shooting performance against the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday that included eight missed threes. Westbrook only shot two free throws in that game, splitting the pair. His struggles at the foul line are arguably the most concerning part of his shooting slump, given that Westbrook draws fouls on 13.3 percent of his shot attempts, per Cleaning the Glass.
ESPN’s Royce Young posited that the reason why stems from something the league did prior to the 2017-18 season tipping off, which impacted Westbrook in a similar way to how a rule change would hurt a golfer with a specific routine.
The drop-off has little to do with mechanics, but rather a subtle rule change put in by the NBA before the start of last season.
In an effort to crack down on time-wasting at the free throw line, players were barred from walking beyond the 3-point line between attempts. Westbrook’s routine, one he had used since he was 8 years old, was to shoot one, walk back to almost half court, gather himself, turn around, walk back, then shoot the second.
Westbrook acknowledged his offensive tribulations after the Dallas loss, and the current triple-double king vowed to continue to produce on the floor in other ways, like being the best defender, rebounder, and passer for his position.
Nevertheless, the modern NBA point guard derives most of his value from offense, and if Westbrook can’t break through his current slump, he puts a ceiling on what the Thunder can realistically achieve as a team. Oklahoma City can only hope that Westbrook’s splits follow a similar upward trajectory as last year, or just petition the league office to revert to more lax officiating at the free throw line.