Now that everything is official, it’s high-time to analyze how exactly the antithesis of analytical basketball, Russell Westbrook, fits into arguably the most statistically driven organization in sports.
Despite many analysts arguing that this acquisition portends the end of an era of Rockets’ basketball, theoretically, there’s a myriad of timelines where this can work— and work well, at that.
Unfortunately, it’s possible that all these are is exactly that: timelines. Alternative versions of reality where different choices cause two of the most polarizing players in the history of the league to cast aside some, or all, of the rigidity in their playing style to maximize fit and ultimately win.
Still, while it’s unlikely every desired change happens, it’s within the realm of possibility that this new, awkward pairing can reach some middle ground of relatively balanced ball distribution, playing style, and ego that allows them to mesh in ways no one expects. Let’s explore some of the rational behind that possibility.
Stylistically, jumping from the Westbrook-era Thunder to the Harden-era Rockets isn’t as big of an ordeal as one may think. Despite the Thunder playing at a faster pace, for the second year in a row, both teams played an extremely stagnant brand of basketball, finishing in bottom two in the league in total passes per game.
So while one may intuitively wonder how Westbrook would take to stretches where he is watching James Harden isolate repeatedly, it bears repeating that he has done the same thing for years now during the times he was a secondary option to Paul George, and Kevin Durant before that.
Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, Westbrook isn’t entering an entirely new organization. Along with joining one of his childhood friends in Harden, who reassured general manager Daryl Morey “I know how to play with Russ and he knows how to play with me” while pushing for the trade, Westbrook also has a history with head coach Mike D’Antoni, having played for him on numerous occasions whilst D’Antoni was one of Mike Krzyzewski’s assistants for Team USA.
Lastly, the simplicity of Houston’s switch-heavy scheme eases Westbrook’s responsibility defensively. Emerging as a pest off-ball in his earlier years, Westbrook’s activity on the less-sexy end of the floor has waned dramatically in recent years. However, considering his proficiency at defending post-ups— 62nd percentile in the league at 0.875 points per possession (PPP), per Synergy Sports— Westbrook is a natural fit in Houston.
Rather than being responsible for chasing around whichever tertiary threat he’s hidden on, Westbrook can simply switch every action and use his strength to deter forwards who try to abuse him down low. Considering that strategy has worked wonders in preserving Harden for offense in recent years, in addition to simplifying things, it should also help ease Westbrook’s inevitable decline offensively.
Using Westbrook in this manner also allows him to contribute to solving the Rockets’ biggest problem last season: rebounding. Despite some organizational help, Westbrook still finished top ten in defensive rebounds per game each of the last three seasons. For a team that consistently goes small, having a frantic rebounder from the guard position should do wonders for climbing out of the league’s basement for defensive rebounding percentage.
While the goal certainly is to maximize Harden and Westbrook’s on-court chemistry with one another by the playoffs, the means by which D’Antoni has previously deployed his star guards bodes well for eschewing regular season friction. Upon acquiring Chris Paul two years ago, D’Antoni pushed the message that the Rockets would have “a Hall of Fame point guard on the floor for 48 minutes,” telling Bleacher Report:
“Twenty-eight minutes they’re on the floor by themselves. Then the other 20 minutes they just have to figure out who turns back and gets the ball when the ball goes out of bounds and stuff like that. Or after made baskets, who turns around for the ball?”
Based on the success that strategy saw in recent years, it seems only logical the status quo remains. Playing Westbrook heavy minutes on his own, with the Rockets’ spacing, should do wonders for satisfying his appetite for shots and ball-control.
However, due to Westbrook’s relative age compared to the since-exiled Paul, it’s possible the move finally allows the Rockets to make a necessary change: reducing Harden’s minutes. At this point, it’s foolhardy to deny the Beard’s annual 5-10% playoff decline. Despite the brilliance his desire to play every minute creates to fans, as he surpasses the age of 30, it’s time to manage that load.
So perhaps the Rockets opt to flip Harden into Paul’s former role, playing him 32ish minutes per night, while Westbrook shoulders the heavier 36+ minute load. Or, perhaps they settle into some middle ground where both play around 34. Regardless, acquiring the younger star in this move affords some lee-way that the 34 year-old, oft-injured Paul did not.
Over the past three seasons, while 79.5 percent of Harden’s attempts came either from the high-efficiency zones at the rim or beyond the arc, Westbrook only mustered 61.5 percent. While much of that is self inflicted—27 percent of his attempts last season came from mid-range despite shooting below 40 percent from on that shot for his career— the ecosystem Westbrook’s offensive decisions took place in didn’t help.
In particular, Westbrook has continually felt the effects of Sam Presti’s greatest flaw: his affinity for long, athletic wings who can’t shoot. While Harden has spent the last seven years surrounded by shooters to create open driving lanes, Westbrook’s cramped attacks have continually resembled the Jon Snow meme.
In the last 10 seasons, Oklahoma City has finished in the top 10 for three-point accuracy only twice and the top 10 for three-point rate just once— Harden’s final season there. If Westbrook still managed to finish third in the league in drives per game last season and finish a career-high 63 percent of those shots at the rim in the league’s most constricted system, imagine what he’s capable of in the polar opposite.
Furthermore, the benefit Houston’s shooters give Westbrook as a scorer are only matched by the benefit they give as a playmaker. Last season, while leading the league in assists by 2 per game, Westbrook led the league in threes created and in assists at the rim. Considering how much more trigger-happy Houston’s wings are from deep and how much more vertical spacing Clint Capela provides over Steven Adams, expect the margin with which he leads the league in each of those statistical categories to grow exponentially in Houston.
One of the Rockets’ greatest flaws in the Harden era is their lack of transition offense. While other teams get multiple easy baskets a game off of running, the Rockets play at a much more deliberate pace. Last season, the Rockets finished in the bottom third of the league for overall time of possession, time of possession following a miss, and time of possession following a turnover. In contrast, Westbrook’s Thunder finished at or near the top of the league in all of those categories, ultimately finishing fifth in the league in fast break points— a far cry from the Rockets 19th.
While there’ll certainly be some stylistic friction, its undeniable Westbrook will speed up the Rockets’ attack. Now, it won’t be to the extent to which it was in Oklahoma City— at least with Harden on the floor— but selectively running to diversify the Rockets’ offense should make their offense more unpredictable. In the regular season at least, the less possessions Harden needs to create something from nothing, the better.
Simplifying the game
Considering Westbrook and Harden hold the two highest usage single-seasons in NBA history (Westbrook in 2017, Harden in 2019) and own the two highest usage rates of the last three years— and by a considerable margin, at that—many have pegged this as the highest usage pairing in NBA history.
However, in deferring to George last season, Westbrook took a noticeable step back. In fact, Westbrook’s usage rating last season was almost 2 percent lower than it was in 2011-12, when he last played with Harden. So the task of meshing the two high-volume stars isn’t as intimidating one may think.
Certainly, there are countless better stylistic fits in the league than Westbrook and Harden, however, all it’ll take for these two to work alongside one another is some concessions.
First, Harden needs to work spotting up back into his offensive repertoire and allow Westbrook to dominate the ball for stretches. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Why would you take the ball out of the hands of most efficient isolation player in the league??”
Well, consider that in his final season in Oklahoma City, Harden almost led the league in catch-and shoot-efficiency at 1.338 PPP, with catch-and-shoot scenarios comprising 34 percent of his possessions. That’s ungodly efficient. That 1.338 PPP is over .22 PPP better than his historically prolific isolation possessions this past season. That’s borderline pornography for Sloan Conference regulars.
Now consider that this past season, only a mere 3 percent of Harden’s possessions were catch-and-shoot. Should one of the most efficient off-ball shooters in the league— he registered a still-ludicrous 1.288 PPP this year on catch and shoot’s— only be taking 70 of his 1,028 threes as catch-and-shoot in an entire season? That’s an egregious misuse of talent.
To be fair, most of that misuse is self-imposed. Harden and Paul— the team’s only creators— basically never passed to one another. There were countless times last season where Harden would pass up a semi-open catch-and-shoot to instead rock his defender to sleep before going into his signature stepback. And Harden often stood around when he should have filled a shooting position on someone else’s drive.
If Westbrook can make Harden his primary kick-out target, offense should get a lot easier for the Beard and subsequently for Westbrook.
On the flip-side, Westbrook won’t have the ball more than half of the time when he shares the floor with Harden, so he also needs to find a way to become effective off-ball. The easiest way to do this is to get back to what he’s best at: using his athleticism.
Per Synergy Sports, Westbrook attacks the basket in spot-up scenarios half as often as he did when he last played with Harden, despite regressing as a shooter since then. If Westbrook can return to attacking closeouts with the same frequency and ferocity as he once did, this pairing becomes much more viable.
However, if attacking closeouts is becoming infrequent out of necessity due to Westbrook’s declining athleticism, another way he can be effective playing off of Harden is by cutting. The best analogy for this is that of Dwyane Wade playing off of LeBron James. Over the course of their four years together in Miami, Wade doubled the frequency of his cuts, peaking at 10 percent of his possessions in 2012-2013.
Considering that even when they played together in 2011-12, Westbrook only cut on 3.4 percent of his possessions, it’s unlikely he ever reaches Wade territory. However, if Westbrook can even reach five percent, it makes his fit next to Harden exponentially more feasible.
Lastly, Westbrook needs to become more selective with his threes. While that bucks against the Rockets’ organizational philosophy of hoisting up just about anything you can look, that line of thinking only applies for average or better outside shooters— which Westbrook is not.
Over the past three seasons, Westbrook has shot an abysmal 32 percent on above-the-break threes, while registering a solid 38 percent from the easier corner three. If the Rockets can steer him towards taking a more analytical approach to his long-ball attempts, it bodes well for both parties.
While it’s almost impossible all of these potential changes happen, it’s not too hard to see the outline of a successful pairing in there somewhere.
Certainly there’ll be a difficult adjustment period, but there undoubtedly are timelines where this team can become really, really good.
For now, all Rockets’ fans can do is hope they are in one of them.