Russell Westbrook, for all of his media difficulty and general man-of-mystery-ness, still has moments of clarity, when he lets you know right where he is.
He can do it without saying a word, as he memorably did the night he chose not speak to the media until more than two hours after a loss to Denver — one in which he made 6 of 23 shots and 1 of 12 3-point attempts — engaging in an in-uniform-empty-arena shooting session instead.
Or, on Dec. 30, in Dallas, after a two-point loss, when he tore into himself before anybody else had the chance.
“It’s really on me. I’ve been [expletive] the last month or so,” Westbrook said. “I’ve got to get focused in and locked back in on what I need to do. I’ve got to help my guys out. I’ve been letting them down, man.”
Yet, even after an exit interview many heralded as a hallmark moment of openness from the Oklahoma City point guard, it’s unclear where Westbrook’s headed.
Like a shooting star, he addressed some of his in-season struggles.
“You know, there’s different ways that we can improve,” he said. “Me personally, there’s a lot of different ways. Obviously, this year, [I] definitely could have played better. But there’s room for improvement every year and I’ll always find a way to be able to come back better for our team and what’s best for our team at the time.”
He also addressed this 3-point shooting.
“I’m just going to continue doing what I’m doing and obviously find a way to pick and shoot better ones, but that’s up to me,” he said. “That’s it.”
It was the perfect Westbrook quote because it put him on both sides of the question.
Will he continue to do what he’s been doing or will he take better shots?
It’s true, addressing Westbrook critically feels odd.
For a third straight season, he averaged a season-long triple double: 21.1 points, 11.1 rebounds, 10.7 assists.
Westbrook led the league in assists, all point guards on the boards and his 1.95 steals per game ranked him fourth in the NBA behind Paul George, James Harden and Chris Paul.
Still, there’s no question that Westbrook suffered great inefficiencies, just about all of them coming down to his inaccuracy shooting the ball.
From the field, he made 42.8 percent of his shots, his 29 percent 3-point shooting marked a nine-year low, only better than his first two seasons, and his 65.6 percent free-throw shooting marked a career low.
Everybody tends to agree nobody plays harder or wants to win more than Westbrook. Yet, he’s rarely accused of being the league’s best decision-maker.
“You know, he’s going to play with a passion and a fire and an energy, which is kind of who he is as a player,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “I think he did a good job with some new people coming in, trying to acclimate those guys as best he could.”
Westbrook’s assist totals, Paul George’s several-month MVP candidacy, Jerami Grant’s continued development and Terrance Ferguson’s ever-growing opportunities as an offensive player point to the rightness of Donovan’s judgment.
At the same time, if Westbrook could do one of two things, or both, the benefit to Thunder might be tremendous.
One, shoot better. Or, at least, shoot free throws better.
Despite two years of struggles, Westbrook’s still an 80.1 percent career free-throw shooter. Get back to that number and he’s suddenly a significantly more efficient player.
It might encourage him to get to the free-throw more, too.
Two, quit trying to be a hero.
He’s gotten better over time at that, yet it happens too often, still.
Five times during the regular season and twice in five playoff games, Westbrook took at least 20 shots from the field and made no more than six. In those games, of which the Thunder won only two, he made 5 of 47 3-point attempts.
He just kept shooting.
They were forgettable efforts offered by the same player who, at the zenith of George’s MVP campaign, played beautifully alongside, notching 11 straight triple-doubles, attempting 20 shots from the field only three times and six or more 3-point tries only twice, helping the Thunder to nine victories over the span that began Jan. 22 against Portland and ran to the All-Star break.
To impose or not to impose? Perhaps that’s Russell Westbrook’s question.
We’ll see if he comes back with any more answers.