Russell Westbrook scored 26 points in Oklahoma City’s loss to the Lakers on Thursday night, including the three clutch free throws that sent the game to overtime. Start there and work backwards across the box score, and you will go from feeling pretty good about Russ’s contributions—hey, 26 points, 13 assists, only 3 turnovers ... a hell of a game!—to recoiling in horror when you notice that he missed—missed!—23 shots along the way. Taken altogether it’s just an extremely 2019 Russell Westbrook line. Depressingly so.
It also wasn’t even close to Russ’s worst shooting performance of the season. A few times already this year he has ended a game with more misses than total points: he scored 14 points on 17 missed shots on January 2; he scored 13 points on 15 missed shots back on October 25; he scored eight points on 14 missed shots on December 22. The worst of these came on December 30, when Russ scored just nine points on [gulp] 18 missed shots. Nine points on 18 total shots would be plenty bad—nine points on 18 missed shots is something out of a horror movie. On the one hand, brutally upside-down shooting performances are bound to happen to any high-usage guard. On the other hand, it’s happened to Russ an awful lot already this season, possibly because his legs are finally going and taking his shooting and finishing with them or possibly just because no one can vibrate at Russ’s intense frequency without occasionally making a mess. And, on a strange and frightening third hand, Russ is also the only person to miss as many as 23 shots in one game this season. By way of comparison, Steph Curry averaged 36 points per game across a three game stretch in October in which he missed just 24 shots total.
If you go to Basketball Reference and plug in criteria for games in NBA history where a player attempted more than 30 shots and made fewer than 10 of them, you will get a very good chuckle from the line of one Mike Mitchell. On November 3, 1980, as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Mitchell got up 32 shots against the Seattle SuperSonics; he made just five of those. That already deserves a place in NBA lore, but Mitchell’s performance manages to be somehow even worse than those numbers alone suggest. Because Mitchell made zero three-pointers and attempted zero free throws in the game, his final line shows an impossible-seeming 10 total points. It’s the only instance in the Basketball Reference database of a player scoring 10 or fewer points on 30 or more shots. Mitchell’s Cavs lost that game by 35 points.
Just on its own merits, 27 missed shots is obviously an incredible number. The search for more information about this dare-I-say heroic exemplar of ruthless chuckery led to an article from last January, in the San Antonio Express-News, a nice little profile of Mitchell written on the occasion of his posthumous induction into the San Antonio Sports Hall of Fame. Lo and behold, right there at the top of the story, is this spectacular anecdote, which illustrates the brutal singularity of a true gunner firing away through the least efficient scoring performance in NBA history:
When Mike Mitchell’s name comes up, Bill Hanzlik’s mind immediately turns back to the 1980-81 season.
“I was with Seattle and Mike was with Cleveland,” Hanzlik said. “Mitch was having a really tough night. He was something like 5 for 30, but he kept shooting. And one of his teammates, Bill Laimbeer, who I had played with at Notre Dame, said, ‘Mitch, what are you doing? Why do you keep shooting?’ And Mitch looked at him and said, ‘Bill, don’t you ever speak to me again.’”
Oh man. I would dearly love to see video of this otherwise unremarkable regular season game from 1980, just to find the moment when a drowning Mitchell snapped and made Bill Laimbeer his sworn enemy, for daring to ask aloud why shooters shoot.