The general consensus amongst fans is that Russell Westbrook’s recent offensive explosion over the past few seasons has simply been due to a higher usage since Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka both left OKC with a now anemic offense.
This is largely true, as his usage rate has steadily increased from 32.7% during the 2011-12 season, the season in which OKC finished runners-up, to a career-high 41.8% this season. If you have the ball more, you’re going to put up more points and assists. However, nobody would argue that Russell has also improved as an offensive player. Prior critiques which labeled him as being a one-dimensional scorer are now all but forgotten, glowing praises of Westbrook’s now complete offensive arsenal are now de rigueur.
Some of this is due to an improved ability to make decisions, but I believe that Russell’s offensive improvements are also largely due to a change in running biomechanics. This is something I haven’t seen anybody talk about.
From Kobe to Derrick: The Eternal Grinding of NBA Players
To understand Westbrook’s running biomechanics, it’s important to go back to a specific point in time: On the 26th of April, 2013, we learned that the 6″3 Point guard had suffered a tear in his MCL. This injury would not only sideline him for several weeks, but it would also change the point guard’s whole approach to the game as he would reaggravate this injury several times.
Any knee injury represents a huge hindrance, but tears like the one which Russell suffered are a different beast: they tell us that you’re putting too much strain on your body. That’s fine if you’re an aging relic who’s suddenly playing the most minutes of his career, which was the case for Kobe Bryant when he suffered his Achilles injury, also in 2013. The answer then is simple: rest, rehab with the right exercises, and just know that the load you suddenly put on your body needs to be worked up to. So if you’re Kobe Bryant, this can simply mean that you have to reduce your minutes to a previous level at which we know your body can excel. Kobe played many years without any major injuries, so we know that his body can probably cope under normal circumstances (Kobe was playing heavy minutes in 2013 whilst bearing a huge offensive and defensive load in order to try and help the Lakers capture a playoff spot).
What if you’re 24 years old and you’re playing normal minutes? That’s when we run into issues; something here isn’t sustainable. Sure you can recover from the injury and rehab the associated area, but ultimately, there is a certain part of your body which is being stressed far too much. Simply going back to playing the way you were, at the same intensity, will inevitably lead to further issues down the line. Rehabilitation exercises, if successful and well implemented, will delay this, but they won’t fully protect you. So either you reduce your minutes/intensity, which is essentially what Kobe did, or you change the way you play so that less stress is placed on the afflicted parts of your body. This is what Derrick Rose famously did; the Chicago-born high-flyer changed from a young and explosive MVP to a much more temperate New-York Knicks point guard. Gone were the awe-inspiring dunks and the Cirque de Soleil layups, the landing of which put a huge eccentric strain on his knees which no amount of protein shakes could help with, as they were now replaced with timid layups and less drives to the lane. Say what you will about Rose, but two facts remain:
- His timid style means that he isn’t half the player he once was.
- He’s probably going to have a much longer, and less injury-plagued, career than he otherwise would have, had he not made changes to his playing style.
Russell Westbrook, however, is not like Derrick Rose. Rose has always exuded a look of self-assured calmness. Sure, you may have seen Rose driving to the rim with reckless abandon, but the young MVP’s smart decision-making was something which always stood out. Where Rose is shrewd, however, Westbrook is arrogant and stubborn. He only knows how to play one way, a way which has brought him much success in life.
So when he reaggravated his knee injury, it was clear that Russell Westbrook was not going to change his playing style to accommodate for the injury risks. However, every player needs a strategy when dealing with long-term, could I even say gasp “chronic”, injuries. Russell’s approach was to change his running biomechanics.
When you run on any surface, especially one as uncompromising as the hardwood, you will inevitably place a considerable amount of stress on your joints. Although this is not always the case, more stress can often lead to more injuries. Having good running mechanics is largely related to running in a way which is not only efficient and effective but also safe and durable.
The way in which players will land on their feet whilst running tells us a lot about their running form. If you land on your heels, due to overpronation of the feet, you are placing a much larger strain on your lower joints than if you were a midfoot or forefoot striker. Your heavy heels cause you to make a larger impact with the ground, a force which reverberates through your body. This force also lasts longer when you strike with your heel as your foot needs to take the time to roll through into a push-off position. These sorts of shear forces have been shown to lead to bone fatigue, something which can really damage your knees.
Here we see a few images of Derrick Rose. Notice how he is really overstriding with his legs (when your muscles and tendons are overstretching or overextending, they are particularly weak and prone to injuries) and also how he is landing on his heels.
Okay, so Derrick Rose doesn’t have greeeeat running biomechanics, and this mixed with his previously-explosive style could largely explain why he was prone to injuries.
What about Russ?
The fact that Westbrook’s college coaches wanted him to run track instead of playing basketball confirms one thing: Westbrook has always had pretty good running mechanics.
Notice how in this highlights video, he nearly always lands on his forefoot. Russell’s problem was slightly more subtle: he was always leaning forward far too much from the hip when running. What’s the issue with this? Instead of activating his core muscles and his glutes, Westbrook was making the lower part of his body do nearly all the work when running. Notice here in his 2012 playoff game against the Lakers how his inability to active these stabilizing muscles means that a lot of unnecessary impacts is placed on his right knee when turning (this sort of lateral knee impact is especially conducive to MCL injuries). It’s like Westbrook was a sprinter who refused to move past the driving phase.
If we look at him now, the difference is clear:
Russell is now much more upright and stable, and as a result of this, he better engages a lot of stabilizing muscles and places less stress on his knees.
Okay, so this is great for reducing injuries, but I also believe that it’s made him a more effective player, especially in the pick and roll.
Sagging Back: A Quick Primer On Modern NBA Defenses Against The Pick And Roll
NBA fans have largely placed themselves in one of two groups:
- Those that support the use of advanced statistics and advanced analytics
- Those that don’t.
Wherever you stand on the subject, one thing is clear: people in the NBA are paying more and more attention to that analytics. Whilst many implications and ideas could be drawn from the NBA statistics literature, there seems to be one golden rule which lies above all else in the world of NBA analytics:
Contested Long Twos are the most inefficient shot in NBA basketball
It thus makes sense that any NBA defense would now try to force an opposing NBA offense to take these inefficient long twos.
So how do they go about this during the most common NBA play of all: The pick-and-roll?
When watching a team defend the pick and roll, you will very quickly see one pattern occur: The defender of the ballhandler will fight over the screen and the defender of the screener (usually the team’s C or PF) will sag back to around the free-throw line.
Okay, so quickly, what’s the basic point of all of this? Well, by fighting over the pick, you restrict any open threes. You are also able to play the passing lanes as the play develops, and you have a better chance of chasing the ball handler into your big. Why does the big sag back, though? Well, for lack of a better term, you can essentially think of him as a goalie. Once he sees Westbrook/whoever sprinting his direction, he can cut him off and stop the penetration. But what does this give up? Well, the space given up is along the imaginary long-two line.
If someone shoots here and you can stick a hand in their face, you can sleep soundly knowing that you made your opponents take a horrible shot. However, ballhandlers can exploit this space by also dribbling and passing across the free-throw-line extended. As a ballhandler, this does, however, require the ability to sprint past your defender whilst maintaining the body control required to execute one of these tasks (pass, dribble, or shoot) at any given moment. You need to be able to accelerate and decelerate quickly.
The New Runner
It makes sense that the more muscles you activate when running, the more force you can produce. It’s often noted how effortlessly Westbrook can accelerate past his defenders these days. In older clips, we see how Westbrook would have to really drive through with his hip flexors to get into a sprint. This is both tiring and reckless: as it takes great efforts to accelerate like this, decelerating (something required if you want to do anything other than drive straight to the rim) becomes an almost impossible task too.
In this clip taken from his recent game against the Spurs, Westbrook quickly beats Danny Green whilst staying in his relaxed and upright pose. When he reaches LaMarcus Aldridge, because of his mobile posture, he can slow down and wait for LMA to make a decision: if LMA backs off, then Westbrook gets a wide open shot. The Spurs didn’t want to make anything easy for Westbrook, so LMA switches onto Russ who is then able to successfully isolate against his mismatch. This angle shows us how his upright posture means he doesn’t have to take the time to raise up into a shooting motion; he can now quickly release his shot.
Dribble or pass
The space found between the defender of the ball handler and the defender of the screener can also be exploited by dribbling across it. This forces the slower big to start moving laterally before the ballhandler can drive into the basket. You essentially force the big to put himself out of position.
These 2 clips are taken from a game against the Pacers 2 seasons ago. In the first clip, even as George Hill tries all he can to shove Westbrook out of balance, Russ’ upright posture means he can quickly change lateral directions to suck in he slower Roy Hibbert, before quickly exploding past him to get the layup. In the second clip, we again see him quickly get out of his driving phase and into an upright position so that he can swerve laterally once beating his man. This leaves Westbrook in a lot of space which he can now use to easily drive to the basket. The defense has to collapse, and Westbrook gets an assist.
Keep the defense on its toes
We saw time and time again during his game against the Spurs how the rim-protectors never knew what Westbrook was going to do.
In this play, Westbrook’s upright posture makes David Lee backtrack whilst having no idea about what Russ will do next. Russ could easily make the bounce pass to the cutting Adams, so Lee can’t fully attach himself to Westbrook, but he can’t back off too much in case Westbrook quickly pulls up, but WAIT, what if Russ just keeps on dribbling against the slower Lee? In the end, Westbrook bails Lee out with a weak shot, but nobody would argue that David Lee was at the mercy of Westbrook here.
In this final isolation pay, Westbrook is able to quickly make the accurate bounce pass to the cutting Sabonis before Bertans has time to move back across to his original assignment. The defense has to collapse, leading to an open corner three.
If we contrast this with the play that followed, a Kawhi isolation play, we can quickly see the advantage that Westbrook has over someone like Kawhi, who remains low and often strikes with his heel when making dribble moves. When Westbrook moves laterally to make dribble moves such as crossovers, he can simultaneously move forward, which puts defenders in a horrible position. Heel strikers place a lot of unnecessary braking forces when running, it’s often noted how none of the fastest distance runners are heel strikers, and we see that Kawhi can only move laterally when he makes his crossover move against Morrow. Even if he beats Morrow, Morrow will then have time to recover as Kawhi has to drive to the basket in a subsequent motion. We see how Kawhi seems to really plant his foot hard to the ground when he makes his dribble moves, and this makes him much less explosive off the dribble.
The Psychology of Hurt
Russell Westbrook’s transformation has been subtle, but the results have been eye-catching as he could finish the season averaging a triple-double.
The most interesting aspect of Westbrook’s evolution in the face of injury is not a biomechanical one, but rather a psychological one.
It’s just that driving like that is totally different because the injury happened when I was driving
Fears of re-aggravating old injuries are common in all sports. Perhaps the most famous case of this is Monica Seles. a female tennis player that was just beginning to dominate the tour, until she was stabbed. She eventually returned to the court and played at an elite level, but she has always stated that the ensuing fear and anxiety hindered her tremendously. Admittedly a stabbing is a very specific type of contact injury in, but the principal is the same: when a previously-successful athlete suffers a serious injury/accident, it can change how they mentally approach their respective game.
“An athlete like Derrick Rose has driven to the lane for a lay up countless times, but what happens when an athlete begins to visualize an injury instead of a successful play? It happens and it can increase the pressure and anxiety.
Athletes practice and repeat their processes over and over again to the point where they are almost second nature; they know what they are supposed to do. They can close their eyes and visualize. But when they have injury on their minds, then that may cause a subliminal impediment. They actually begin visualizing an injury instead of a successful play. ”
Laura M Miele Ph.D.
When Kobe announced his retirement to the world via an open letter addressed to basketball, it wasn’t just an announcement of intent, rather it represented something that Kobe Bryant had previously never done before: admitting defeat. Kobe Bryant’s inexorable drive has been well documented. In many ways, his career could be viewed as a man’s quest to find someone who was even more resistant than he was. He famously fell out with teammate Shaquille O’Neal because of Shaq’s lazy demeanor. He once likened his teammates’ mental softness to a famous brand of toilet paper. His deepest frustrations seemed not to be due to lose, he stuck with his struggling Lakers through the thick and thin during an era where superstars were colluding to form superteams in order to capture NBA titles. What seemed to annoy Kobe the most was how mentally weak his colleagues were. Would he ever find someone as relentless as himself?
Kobe would find indomitability not in the form of a basketball player, but rather in basketball itself. That’s why he retired. He realized that he could get up at 4 am every day, do all the training in the world, heck he could even squat the Empire State building, but he would never be as strong or as unrelenting as the hardwood on which he made his name. His Achilles rupture ended up telling him one thing: his body has limits, it just can’t beat the hardwood.
That was Kobe, Rose, Oden, Bird, that was anyone and everyone – except for Russell Westbrook.
Russell Westbrook hasn’t given up on his battle against the hardwood. His injuries didn’t terrify him and they didn’t make him play more conservatively. Instead, they simply gave him the resolve to find a way of torturing every single player that has come up against him.
My body knows it’s time to say goodbye.
If you take away one thing from this whole post. let it be this:
Russell Westbrook doesn’t do scared, he just does better.