Russell Westbrook is all about winning.
He'll tell you over and over again that when it comes to his performance on a basketball court the victory is all that matters.
Nothing whatsoever wrong with that.
But what's made Westbrook a lightning rod for criticism in the past is his propensity to play out of control, which often raises the question of whether he has any concept of how best to lead his team to wins.
Westbrook's way of winning hinges on playing with nonstop energy while relentlessly attacking defenses every moment he's on the court. It's an erratic style that the Thunder has embraced, choosing to focus on how the positives outweigh the negatives.
More and more, however, Westbrook is showing improved awareness and an ability to play with better pace. In his fifth season, Westbrook's assists are at a career high while his turnovers are down to a career low. He's getting teammates involved with regularity and has led the Thunder's turnaround from the league's worst passing team to one that now ranks sixth.
“I'm doing a good job,” Westbrook said. “I always can do better. But we're winning. That's the most important part.”
Through 16 games, Westbrook is averaging 17.9 shots, down from 19.2 per game last season. After averaging just 5.5 assists a year ago, Westbrook is now dishing 8.6 per game. With five games of at least 10 assists, Westbrook already has surpassed his mark for double-digit assist games from last season, which stood at only four.
Additionally, his assist rate — the percentage of possessions that end in an assist — has shot up from 17.7 last season to 26.8 this year. That's 2 percentage points off his career high, set during his second season.
Equally as impressive as the passing has been Westbrook's ball security. He's averaging just 3.1 turnovers. But even that number fails to illustrate how much better he's been. Half of Westbrook's games have ended with him turning it over no more than two times.
“He's just slowing down. Taking his time,” said Kevin Durant. “As you start to grow in this league, the game starts to slow down for you a little bit. You start to see things earlier than you would the first or second year. So he's just getting everybody involved … He's sacrificing shots for himself to mix it around for the whole team. That's what great point guards do and he's having a helluva season.”
Westbrook defiantly insists he isn't doing anything different.
“Guys are just making shots,” he said. “The only way you get assists is if guys make shots.”
No one seems to know which Westbrook will show up from night to night. One night he might come out in attack mode as a scorer, as he did Wednesday against Houston. Another night he might be a facilitator, like he was at Boston.
Regardless of which route Westbrook chooses, he's proving he still can supply the alternate option. Against the Celtics, for instance, he chipped in 26 points to complement his eight assists, five of which came in the first quarter as he sought to get teammates involved.
“Like a lot of the great players, he has the ability to score and the ability to help his teammates,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “And he's doing that at a high level this year.”
Led by Westbrook, the Thunder is averaging 22.9 assists after finishing at only 18.5 last year. As a result, four players, Westbrook, Durant, Kevin Martin and Serge Ibaka, are averaging at least 15 points. It's a more balanced attack that has made the Thunder tougher to defend.
“Our team is seeing defenses much better now,” Brooks said. “Our offense is clicking at a good level.”
Though much of the improvement can be attributed to Westbrook, few would be surprised at his reaction when asked if he feels he gets the credit he deserves as a passer.
“Nah, I honestly don't even care to tell you the truth,” he said.