December 18, 2018

You know I’m a Coach, right? Says so right before my name: Coach Nick. I ceased being a fan a long time ago, and I can’t watch basketball without my coke bottle thick coach’s rec specs wrapped tight around my head, so my man can’t knock them off while battling for a rebound. While I’m not that old, I’m firmly grounded in the old school, where you better fight through every screen, never get beat backdoor, and jump balls after every basket. Wait – I’m not that old school (that rule was changed in 1938, thank goodness).
One thing I won’t budge on is point guard play – specifically the mindset the point guard must have to be part of a championship team. The point guard of your team is really like your local bartender. He has to serve up the drinks, cut people off when they’ve had too many, know which patrons he can do a shot with, listen to everyone’s sad stories, and brighten their day with a wink and a smile. We’re not talking the intense Tom Cruise’s Tom Flanagan character in Cocktail (great name for a bartender, though), we’re talking something along the lines of Ted Danson’s Sam Malone in Cheers. Sometimes you can get away with the slightly batty but wise old bartender like Coach Ernie Pantusso, but you’re never sure if he’s aware of the wisdom he’s dispensing, and you don’t want him too old where he might pass away before the season is over (see: Derek Fisher).
[Article Continued After The Breakdown]

I’m trying to picture the Sam Malone of point guards, that guy who is the perfect mix of skills, who knows how to set his teammates up, get his shots when the team needs them, keeps everyone on the same page. Magic Johnson had all these qualities, but at 6’9″ was less accessible to most of us muggles. The one guy who still has it amazingly is Steve Nash – perfect shot selection, gets his teammates involved, keeps everyone focused. He doesn’t set the best example on defense, but bartenders tend to give in to excess from time to time. In other words, he’s as close to perfection as they come.
If Rajon Rondo didn’t shoot so poorly from the line, he’d be just as perfect. Chris Paul mixes in a tenacity Nash and Rondo lack – he’d only make shaken martinis – not stirred. Deron Williams is almost there, but the mistakes he makes at times are as batty as the loveable Coach Pantusso. Derrick Rose, at 22% of his team’s shots, comes close to Westbrook’s volume, but with a career high 8 assists/game, he is constantly improving. Oh, and did I mention he’s just plain better?
Problem is, the discussion of the top PGs in the league always leads back to Russell Westbrook. Somehow, he’s shoved himself into the conversation, and the Thunder, like your cool uncle who only serves to enable your binge drinking, has encouraged this perception. And let’s get this straight – Russell Westbrook as a point guard is exactly that: a perception.

“What do you call a point guard that takes 19 shots a game, scores 24 points per game, and averages 5.5 assists?”
“A shooting guard.”

I’ve been saying this for well over a year, and I’m going to say it again louder. RUSSELL WESTBROOK IS THE 3RD BEST SHOOTING GUARD IN THE LEAGUE. We must stop pretending that he has any of the qualities a championship point guard must have. He is hot headed, lets referees bad calls bother him, complains to the refs when he misses shots that aren’t fouls, yells at his teammates, takes some of the worst shots at the worst times, and competes on the verge of being out of control at all times. Does this sound like the kind of guy you’d want to spend a couple of hours with talking about your problems? If Russell Westbrook was a bartender, you’d get half a sentence about how you and your wife had an argument before he’d throw a beer in your face and scream at you to get over it already. He’d try and mix 3 drinks at once, sweat from his brow adding to the mixture, and then yell at you when you winced at the taste.
If you want to remove my coaching bias from this conversation, go ahead. Suppose you like Westbrook, love the Thunder, and have high hopes for this team to go all the way this year. OK, fine, I won’t get in the way of your passion. I will simply point to the following table:

In the last 30 years, there has NEVER been a team that has won a title where the point guard has taken more than 19% of his team’s total shots, adjusted for any games he didn’t play in. “But Coach,” you’ll say, “the Triangle offense was the reason the numbers are like that.” Fine, take out those Bulls and Lakers teams and it still doesn’t matter. When you have a player whose responsibility is to be in charge of the ball, and he tilts the shot distribution too far in his favor, it hurts the team. That team might win a lot of games, they might get through a round or two of the playoffs, but sooner or later, after enough of his teammates hustle down court to their spots only to get whiplash watching Westbrook’s shots go up so fast, they’ll stop playing hard. It might be imperceptible, just barely noticeable, but it’s there. Enough trips down the court where Ibaka doesn’t get to at least touch the ball, he might not soar as high as he needs to get that next block, Durant might not fight around a weakside screen as hard (“What’s the point, he might ask himself, Russ is gonna toss it up anyway?), and the Thunder stop making winning plays.
Watch the breakdown, see for yourself, but let’s not keep deluding ourselves. With Maynor out, the Thunder have talented rookie Reggie Jackson who can be a distributor, tenacious defender, and a restorer of balance. They could also start James Harden and let him bring the ball up more. But Harden does his best work coming off the bench, exploiting the opposing team’s bench, and would only weaken the team’s chemistry even more. So come on, Scott Brooks and Sam Presti – you are 2 of the smartest guys in the NBA, I know the stats back me up, make a move so we can all celebrate a small market team championing over the Goliaths from New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. This is the same moment in Cheers where Sam pours himself a beer, is about to break years of sobriety, and just before picking the mug up, slides it artfully around the bend in the bar to Diane. That, my friends, is a perfect assist.


Coach Nick

Coach Nick is the founder of BballBreakdown, coached the Triangle Offense at the high school level, and counts Tex Winter and Pete Newell as mentors. For more of our conversation, follow him @BBALLBREAKDOWN.

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  • Would you consider Derrick Rose to be in the same category as westbrook (pg body, sg game) or is he a legit 1 who doubles as a two? Also, would your pg fga% rule apply to this years bulls team? 

  • Westbrook is a SG. For Derrick Rose, i feel like if Deng didn’t get injured, Boozer wasn’t streaky and could put in 20+ a game, and Rip stayed healthy, his FGA% would decrease, well at least somewhat to a 19%. Russell Westbrook on the other hand has great shooters to spot up and pull a nice wet shot, including the best scorer in my eyes, Kevin Durant. Also, I’d say that the Bulls players consist of defensive minded players, not really breaking down their man unless set up perfectly by the plays or by Drose driving and dishing. I just hope my Bulls win a ring this year if LeBron decides to not show up again and hopefully slowed down by Deng.

  • Good question. Rose shoots better than Westbrook, takes better shots, and averages 8 assists/gm compared to Westbrook’s 5.5 – so Rose is much more of a point guard, but winning the title is still a problem with the number of shots he has to take…

  • I can’t help but think the Bulls made a mistake getting Rip Hamilton. The guy’s been injured for practically the whole season, they haven’t had a chance to build chemistry and the season is about over. However, if things were working well for them, Rose’s FGA% would decrease to something closer to acceptable for winning…

  • The problem with using the past to predict the future is that there is not an acknowledgment of changes in the game. Basketball now is not the same as it was 20 years ago, not even 10 years ago. Rules have allowed scoring to be more open, and therefore eliminate a lot of defensive attention that point guards were privy to in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Therefore, I don’t think it’s fair to pretend that Westbrook and Rose will never win a championship, because they play in a different era (which decreases the sample size significantly).

    This is not to say that Russell Westbrook doesn’t have problems. But if he became a level-headed guy, shooting 19 attempts per game at a 45% clip (he’s averaging 46% this year) and throwing out 7 apg (he WAS averaging 8.2 last year), then I’d be ok with the high amount of FGA. It’s not amount the number of attempts, but the quality of them. I’m more concerned with his 2.9 3PTA when he’s only shooting 32.9% of them in, not so much concerned about the 19FGA. Anyway, even if you think he’s a SG, I think that the definiton of a position has changed in the past 20 years. After all, I’m pretty sure Lebron James and Dirk Nowitzki are not traditional forwards, either, and Dirk in particular has gotten a lot of criticism for what he couldn’t do instead of praise for what he could.

  • Russ is actually only averaging 5.5 assists/game, which is way too low for a starting PG in the NBA. Other positions have changed, but when you have a player who brings it up and shoots it w/o passing, it’s the same problems you have today as you had 20 years ago

  • For a coach you don’t seem to understand the type of offense that the Thunder run this year. An offense that is predicated on isolating their best scorers is not going to be one that garners many assists (27th in the league I believe). In the past two seasons, Westbrook has averaged over 8 assists a game. A better critique of the Thunder offense would be that it is unbalanced as a whole, considering the majority of their scoring is done by Harden, Durant, and Westbrook.

    Finally, saying Russell Westbrook will never win a championship at PG is an absolutely ridiculous statement considering, a) he has only played the position for a little over 3 years, b) he, along with the rest of the Thunder’s star players, are only 23 and 24 years old, and c) they were in the Western Conference Finals last season and currently have the best record in the West. You want to really make a bet that this team, locked up for the next 4-5 years, will not win a championship during that time?

  • As a fan of the Thunder, would I like to see them move the ball a lot better? Of course. But lets give them some time to develop.

    Another thing which I feel you neglect to mention in your post, in many cases down the stretches of tight games, Durant’s lack of strength becomes extremely noticeable. Many defenders (Jason Kidd! comes to mind) simply body Durant up at the end of games and he is unable to get open. It is in these situations where Russell Westbrook and his incredible ability to create his own shot is most important.

  •  @bballbreakdown:disqus .  How hard is it to sit with Russ after each game watch the video tape and consistently talk about some bad habits:
    1. Don’t take early shot clock jumpers
    2. play more positional defense  rather than gamble
    3. Let’s Drive and Kick.

    If a coach told me to do that after every game. I think it would sink in. Russ doesn’t come across as  selfish player. and I don’t think think there is any feuding between coach and russ.

  • I think Russ just doesn’t have a point guard mentality – perhaps it’s something you can learn, but he’s just such an aggressive personality. I’d like to know what his parents are like, actually.

  • That’s a good point – I just feel that attacking into the teeth of the defense without passing it is not the way to go about it…

  • I think there are too many other teams that play better as a team. If Westbrook doesn’t change some of these issues, then I feel comfortable saying they won’t win it all. Look at the numbers of the past 32 winners – that’s pretty compelling to me as well.

  •  Couldn’t agree more. They could of gotten OJ mayo but oh well. I just hope we get a ring soon. Love your videos btw. Subscribed!

  • What were your thoughts on allen iverson back in the day? whenever AI looks like he’s out of control he still manages to finish most of the time. He also averages 7-8 assists per game too back in the day. You think AI’s style of play influences the current generation PG such as westbrook and rose to take a lot of shots?

  • Bulls is a different case, they still win without Rose. 
    Bulls is a better team everyone knows their responsibility and share ball, However, Thunder has a great scorer and 3 terrible free-throw buyer, FT is always a important wining factor. 

  • It’s funny that you consider 5.5 AST/Gm is too low for a starting point guard. Especially when you mull over the fact that Derek Fisher only averaged 3.2/gm and 2.5/gm in 2009 and 2010… the years the Lakers won the championship. In fact, Fishers BEST season was 4.5/gm. But this isn’t about Fish, it’s about Russ.

    I do agree with a LOT of your video breakdown. Almost all of it. But Russ is only in, what, his 3rd year playing PG? And also, as he matures, I think we’ll see a lot better play out of him. That Spurs game was one of the worst games I’ve seen him play, from a fundamental point of view.

  • That’s too bad – you’ll be missing out on all the great breakdowns we’ll be doing throughout the rest of the season and playoffs. Would love to find out what you think is so moronic!

  • Nice breakdown Nick…. But let me ask you this….. Would you consider Lebron or Dwade as point guards? Sure Chalmers starts at PG but the offense doesnt go through him at all. He’s basically their spot up shooter. If Lebron and wade run their offense, shouldnt they have the PG tag as well?

    Would you think differently of Rose and his game if he were 6’9 like Lebron?

  • Yeah, but look at the number of shots Fisher took. It wasn’t 19 a game, that’s for sure.

  • Westbrook averaged 8 assists a game last year which was more than rose, did you consider that maybe he needs to score seeing how OKC has 3 scorers on their entire team. 

  • Coach, I see these are the regular season stats above, but I’m curious to see what the FGA% were during the playoffs. A friend of mine pointed out that the roles and the style of play are likely different when seriously competing for a title. Love this analysis.

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