Using Game Score to historically contextualize both how poorly Russell Westbrook is playing for the Lakers right now, and how things may not be as bad as they seem.
Over the course of his Hall of Fame career, Russell Westbrook has proven to be a player capable of both transcendent highs and miserable lows. Unfortunately for the Lakers, Russ just might be at one of the lowest lows of his entire career.
But before diving into what’s made his most recent trio of performances so statistically putrid, I’d like to lay out exactly what Game Score is, and how it can be useful.
Game Score (GmSc) is one of John Hollinger’s numerous attempts to reduce on-court performance into a single evaluative number, like little statistical Frankenstein’s monsters. Unlike his more famous Player Efficiency Rating, however, GmSc is derived exclusively from the kinds of counting stats typically found in your standard box score, effectively boiling down a player’s standard stat-line into a single score.
While any attempt to reduce a player’s on-court performance, will be, well, reductive, as a kind of thumbs up, thumbs down read on an individual game, GmSc is very effective. A score around 10 indicates an average performance, while a score above 40 represents the upper-tier of ball-in-hoop excellence.
Russ’ past three games represent a new low for him in terms of Game Score:
- In the Lakers’ home win against the Hawks, he posted a GmSc of 7.4.
- Against the Grizzlies, it was 5.0.
- And at the Kings, he finished with a GmSc of 6.4.
Russ has only recorded three-straight games of a GmSc below eight three other times in his career, with two of those instances coming in the first months of his rookie season, and the other one in the latter stretch of his own sophomore campaign. He’s averaged more minutes per game in this stretch than all but one of the other three streaks, and taken more shots in this three-game stretch than any of the four.
As referenced by the Kings’ in-arena DJ, Russell Westbrook has never been as “cold as ice” from the field as he is right now. Over the past three games, he’s made just eight of his 40 field-goal attempts. His inability to make a shot is what has dragged down his GmSc’s to a career-low streak, despite dragging down 30 boards and tossing out 25 assists to only four turnovers during this stretch.
His shot selection has been suboptimal, but that’s not the only reason Russ hasn’t been able to get anything to fall recently. He has made only three of his 24 jump shots, for a preposterously low success rate of 12.5%.
As a point of comparison to the rest of an increasingly proficient jump-shooting league — especially amongst ball-dominant guards — 14 players this season have made more than 100 threes from at least 24 feet away at a better than 35% clip. Right now, Westbrook is shooting twice as poorly from anywhere outside the paint as both Stephen Curry (26.2%) and Fred VanVleet (31.8%) are from at least 30 feet away from the rim — and that doesn’t even account for the radical disparity in defensive attention on those shots.
Somehow, he’s been almost as bad around the basket, finishing five of 22 times in the paint (22.7%), including 4-16 at the rim (25.0%). Sagging defenses primed to ignore his jumper and the lack of a vertical-spacing rim runner haven’t helped — as elucidated in Darius Soriano’s outstanding recent piece on Russ — but Westbrook is smoking the easy ones as often as he has hyper-contested looks inside a clogged paint.
And as discussed on the most recent episode of the Laker Film Room Podcast, these are costly misses. When Westbrook flies through the lane and bricks a layup, ending up in a game of Twister among the cameramen along the baseline, it gives the possession away to the other team with a live ball and a four-on-five advantage that’s only really functionally different from a turnover in how it’s recorded in the box score.
Although the Hawks blew four easy chances for a score on the ensuing possession, they were opportunities afforded by Westbrook’s failed all-or-nothing rack attack.
However, a rare saving grace of Westbrook’s ineptitude around the rim has been the opportunity it creates to embolden Dwight Howard and others’ efforts on the offensive glass. The Lakers’ bigs’ work has helped combat this forfeited advantage, turning some of these attention-drawing misses into proverbial “Kobe assists,” a term coined by Kirk Goldsberry in this 2012 Grantland story, and something I surmised was happening on Westbrook’s drives in last week’s piece.
By my count, at least five of Westbrook’s misses in the last three games have turned into layups for his teammates. While you can’t simply add those 10 points to Westbrook’s total and count them as his own makes — a secondary effort is obviously required for these plays to work — some of Westbrook’s misses have been worth a bit more to the Lakers than they’ll go down as in his box or Game Score.
Westbrook’s shot horrendously, but it’s worth reemphasizing that his game is broader than these shooting performances alone. As reflected by his mediocre — but not negative — Game Scores, he’s been a plus contributor on the glass and as a playmaker. While he’s a ways away from the superstardom that would prove him worthy of swapping out the Lakers’ rotational backbone for him last summer, if he can just start making shots again at anywhere above career-low rates, he’ll be a positive contributor again.
Until then, we are all waiting to see if the still imaginary full-strength Lakers can ever optimize him in a way that would make their draft night trade worth it. In the meantime, anyone rooting for their success will just have to hope Westbrook’s current play will be yet another early struggle that ultimately precedes a third-consecutive late-season surge.