By Ollie Nash
Photo: Tim Warner/Getty Images
LeBron James and Tom Brady have been at the top of the NBA and NFL for over 15 years. Think about that for a second. In American terms, that’s almost four stints of high school, being the best in the world at what they do. They are extraordinarily talented with extreme work ethic, but more importantly they have moved with the changes in their respective leagues. James is attempting and hitting more threes a game this season than in his entire career, because that’s where the NBA has evolved to. He’s 35 years old.
A big part of what makes superstars as good as they are is their ability to adjust, change and add to their game and move with the times. They have the talent, majority of them have the drive to succeed, but what keeps them at such a high level for so long is their capacity to accept where the sport is going, and adjust their game accordingly.
We can’t underestimate how hard that is to do. They grow up playing a certain way, through high school and into the pros. For the most part they play the same way with some minor tweaks along the way. It’s hard to shake those habits and styles of play once you hit your late 20s and early 30s, but that’s what separates the superstars from the rest.
In other workplaces and careers, tell someone to change how they go about their job after 20 years in the industry and they’ll tell you where you can go. Hell, my housemate told me to use ‘Beem It’, as it was a quicker way to transfer money compared to my normal banking app and it took me weeks to accept it, and I’m only 21. Look at Russell Westbrook, he’s 31 and he has tweaked his game mid-season, in his first year with a new team.
Russell Westbrook with teammate James Harden. Photo: Steve Gonzales/Houston Chronicle
Lots has been made about his improved form in the second half of the season before the lockdown, but let’s look at how he went about it. To put it simply, he’s stopped shooting threes, started attacking the basket more and grabbing offensive rebounds.
In the first 24 games this season with Houston, Westbrook was putting up 22.5 points, just over six rebounds and eight assists a game. He was shooting poorly, 43 percent from the field, 25 percent from the three-point line, and 76 percent from the line. In the 32 games that have followed (up until and including the Portland match-up in the bubble) the only change in his stat line is his points, up to 31 a game and his field goal percentage, up to 50 percent. But the most promising stat is that he is attempting just under three triples a game, compared to five in the first half of the season. He’s changed his game at the age of 31, and guess what? It’s worked. He’s playing better and the Rockets are 21-12 in those 32 games.
Watch any Houston game, in the bubble especially and it’s obvious he’s being more patient and considered with ball in hand, particularly when he’s left open from behind the arc. He knows he needs to drive it more, so he does. He draws so much attention inside it means Harden, P.J. Tucker, Ben McLemore, Austin Rivers etc. are wide open on the perimeter. If there was a stat for “almost assists” or “hockey assists”, where a guy passes it to a wide open teammate who then misses the shot or passes it off, Westbrook would be top of the list.
He’s stopped shooting at such high volume from the three-point line, but still enough to keep defences honest, instead focusing on driving the ball like the freight train he is and either scoring or finding his open shooters. Off the ball, if James Harden is doing his thing, then Russ is getting offensive rebounds. He’s grabbing two a game in the second half of the season compared to just over one in the first half.
Russell Westbrook drives past Paul George of the Los Angeles Clippers' on his way to the ring. Photo: Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images
The Rockets new system without their former centre Clint Capela is certainly helping him. Early in the season, Westbrook was forced to shoot threes to make up for the lack of attempts from Capela. Now, with four guys around him at all times who can shoot, Russ can do what he does best; attack the rim and put defences under pressure.
We all know who he is. He’s ultra-competitive, in your face, intense and doesn’t give a f*** what anyone says or thinks about him. For everything he did well though, it was impacting his winning ability in Oklahoma City as his efficiency, especially from three, diminished year on year. If he went 1-10 from three, he didn’t care, because he still saw them as good shots from the go to guy on the team. That’s why it’s so impressive that on the wrong side of 30, with such a strong personality, he’s adapted and accepted a new role in this weird Houston line-up.
Cover Photo: Tim Warner/Getty Images