OKLAHOMA CITY — Russell Westbrook may be scoring and facilitating at an historic rate, but Oklahoma City's star point guard is part of a greater NBA trend. Teams around the league are handing greater responsibilities to their lead ball-handlers.
It’s an evolution from basketball's existence 15 years ago. Score-first perimeter players overrode the NBA during the early 2000s. That was the “Who’s the next Jordan?” era, the one of Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady and Allen Iverson and even Jerry Stackhouse. The difference — or more so, the transformation — is that those players were ball-dominant scorers. And while Westbrook certainly fits that description, he — along with many others around the league today — is taking over more duties than just putting the ball in the hoop.
“My belief is that we’ve entered a new era of high skill level,” said Dallas coach Rick Carlisle, one of the NBA’s brightest minds.
Westbrook is, of course, among the greatest examples of the modern-day multifaceted player.
The Thunder star is about to shatter the record for usage rate, the percentage of his team’s possessions while he's on the floor that end in one of his shots, his turnovers or him getting fouled. It’s a stat that can be tracked back to the late 1970s, darn near 40 years. But he’s also leading the league in assist rate, the percentage of his team’s makes he assists on while he’s playing.
“Whether or not he should shoot it or pass it or make a decision with the ball in his hands, I had no doubt he would be more than capable of handling it because of his mentality and mindset,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “He is always going to do what is best for the team.”
The amount Westbrook has the ball is unprecedented — and he has the counting numbers to show for it. He's on the way to clinching the second triple-double average in NBA history. That part is rare. But a team using the same player as its top scorer and facilitator isn’t too tough to find these days.
“Sixteen years ago, when I first came into the league, they had just changed the rules,” Carlisle remembered. “You could have two guys guarding a guy that didn’t have the ball. You could play zone defense as long as you stayed within the rules, stuff like that. And everybody was worried about what was gonna happen to scoring.
“…Initially, there were a lot of skeptics that believed, ‘Hey, this is gonna bring the game to a screeching halt. There just aren’t enough skill guys.’ But the reason it was done was to change the culture of player development at the grassroots level. And so the people coaching grade school, middle school, AAU would have to recognize the importance of being able to shoot, being able to get the ball in the basket.”
The change: Lead scorers often moonlight as lead passers now. Position-less basketball isn’t in full effect, yet. Just take a look at the Thunder’s Tuesday night opponent for evidence of that.
The 6-foot-11 Milwaukee star Giannis Antetokounmpo is a point guard in the most generic sense of the term. He’s the Bucks’ most capable facilitator. He handles the ball at the top of the key and from the wings. He works around ball-screens and finds both shooters outside and bigs down low. But he’s also not defending 1s, a key element of becoming an actual point guard. Instead, the Bucks place him on the back end of their defense.
He’s the definition of a point forward. And it’s worked well for Milwaukee, an up-and-coming team that could do damage this postseason.
Antetokounmpo has paired a usage rate of 28.3 percent with an assist rate of 26.4 percent. (For reference, Westbrook’s usage is an all-time high of 41 percent to go with his league-leading 54.3 percent assist rate.) But Antetokounmpo's numbers are hardly low.
He’s one of 18 qualifying players who has coupled a 25 percent usage with a 25 percent assist rate. And that 18 figure is tied for the most over the past 21 years. (18 did it last year, as well.) To see just how much the game has changed, go back to 1999-00, when a mere four players pulled off a 25 percent usage and 25 percent assist rate only a couple of years before the rule changes Carlisle mentioned took effect.
Today's emphasis on building an offense around one individual has led to a record 108 triple-doubles around the NBA this year. It’s part of the reason why, in an era that offense is already up, teams’ first options — like Cleveland's LeBron James, Houston's James Harden, Boston's Isaiah Thomas and more — are putting up numbers the NBA hasn’t seen in years.
“If you have more skilled guys and there’s a big emphasis on the analytics of pace,” Carlisle prefaced, “Scoring’s gonna go up.”
• Rookie of the Month: Former Oklahoma star Buddy Hield has been named the NBA’s Rookie of the Month for March. Now in Sacramento, he averaged 14.1 points and 4.1 rebounds while shooting 48 percent from the field and 43 percent from 3.