No player has been the subject of more on-court scrutiny over the past few years than Russell Westbrook. Other guys have been maligned for off-court choices (most notably his ex-teammate Kevin Durant), but Westbrook’s wildly variable style of play combined with his penchant for chasing statistical milestones has earned him quite a bit of criticism. His detractors will point to his “empty” triple doubles as proof that we’re all too focused on round numbers and that Westbrook’s third straight season doing something that had previously only been done once in NBA history is somehow a bad thing.
Perhaps the most laughed-at component of his game is how the Thunder funnel him rebounds after free throws, which has accounted for a little more than one rebound per contest over the last three seasons (since Durant left for Golden State and Oklahoma City became Westbrook-centric).
The proof is right there in his stats; there’s no arguing that the Thunder’s strategy on free throws revolves around boxing out and letting Westbrook get a free rebound. On the year, he’s grabbed 68.5 percent of available defensive rebounds after free throws, about two percentage points higher than Hassan Whiteside in Miami (the next closest player to have played at least 1,000 minutes with his current team this season).
As one would expect, the top of the list is littered with big men. The first qualifying non-big after Westbrook is James Harden at 41.8 percent and the next point guard on the list is Rajon Rondo, who “only” picks up 23.1 percent of these types of rebounds. What Westbrook is doing breaks every norm and convention surrounding point guards and rebounding, just to rack up as many triple doubles as possible.
Or, perhaps, there’s more to it than meets the eye. Perhaps funneling extra rebounds toward Westbrook does more than stroke his ego. In fact, that’s precisely the case. Just like the stats show that Oklahoma City’s rebounding scheme is designed around getting the ball to Westbrook, they also show why it’s so powerful.
The idea of getting the ball to your best player quickly after a defensive rebound is nothing new. In his heyday with the Boston Celtics, Bill Russell would often tip balls to faster teammates, who could get running in transition. Wes Unseld understood the value of a precise outlet pass before we could have ever dreamed of the kind of in-depth statistics we have today. Coaches have long known that transition offense was better than half-court offense, they just didn’t have the statistics to back up their intuition.
In this day and age, we have a statistic for just about everything (though defense, as a whole, remains a bit of a mystery), which give us hard evidence to support what those around the game of basketball have known forever. Transition offense is somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 points per 100 possessions better than half-court offense, depending on who is doing the calculations, and the best offensive teams are running extensively in order to generate as many high-efficiency looks as they possibly can.