Houston Rockets: Can Russell Westbrook evolve?

NBA James Harden Russell Westbrook (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
NBA James Harden Russell Westbrook (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images) /

Can Russell Westbrook change? His willingness to do so to fit his new co-star will dictate the Houston Rockets’ future success and his legacy

Russell Westbrook is an enigma.

He can sky for a rebound, ripping the ball off the rim in the process, and lead a one-man fastbreak like no other point guard in the history of this game. In these situations, he is, all at once, ferocious, relentless, out-of-control, and, somehow, in command of his body, and of the outcome of the play.

It’s in these moments that we, as a basketball-viewing public, are reminded of his prodigious gifts, of his ability to move like a pint-sized punt returner but with the power of a hulking fullback.

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But after the ball falls through the hoop, the fun stops. When it’s time for Westbrook to put in work at the less glamorous end of the floor – the defensive end – there are infinitely more head-scratching moments.

Last season, Westbrook showed signs of considerable decline on the offensive end which, coupled with his apathy towards defense, made him one of the most polarizing players in the entire league. Now, you might be wondering how a declining offensive player who showed little interest in putting forth effort at the other end could even qualify as polarizing.

Because he still made 3rd team All-NBA. He still averaged a triple-double, which is akin to waking up in the morning for him these days. And he still led his team to the playoffs, albeit with the help of an MVP candidate in Paul George. And a lot of times – when you watched him play – he looked like the version of Westbrook that we’ve grown accustomed to over the past 11 years. The stats, however, tell a different story. They tell the story of a player who is having trouble grappling with the inevitable battle he will have to wage with Father Time.

This past season, Westbrook joined the NBA’s 3-point revolution by upping his attempts, to the second-highest level of his career. But he didn’t convert them at a high clip, making only 29 percent of those attempts. I’m not sure if this increase in volume was a directive from the front office, or from coach Billy Donovan. It’s not unlikely considering front offices and coaches all around the league are pushing players who have previously never been 3-point threats to try those shots, in hopes of coaxing more value out of them.

But then again, it’s not exactly likely considering Westbrook’s nature. This is the same guy who used the song “Do What I Want” as the soundtrack to one of his promotional ads for Jordan.

Westbrook was also part of a select group of high-usage, inefficient players with a usage rate over 25 and an effective field goal percentage below 50 percent. Of this group, Westbrook boasted the third-highest usage rate and the second-lowest effective field goal percentage.

Over the course of the last decade, the NBA has slowly been transforming, nudging further and further towards highly efficient players and away from unabashed gunners. The entire league is bringing Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s vision to life – as many 3s and shots at the rim as possible, at the expense of the mid-range.

The entire league has watched as the Rockets has eschewed the mid-range this entire decade, in favor of more efficient shots, which is what makes Morey’s potentially career-defining move to acquire Westbrook last week that much more curious and confusing.

Forget the price that Morey paid to rekindle the Westbrook-Harden friendship, and to potentially crack open his championship window a little longer. I’m more interested in the actual basketball fit on the court between these two ball-dominant stars.

On the surface, this is a pairing of two of the most dynamic offensive forces in the league, not to mention a pairing that have played together before and seemingly has a level of familiarity with one another. But when these two were establishing a rapport with each other way back when, the league was an entirely different place and these two were fundamentally different players, especially Harden.

Since then, Harden has become one of the most prolific players with the ball in his hand in the history of the game. Last season, he attempted 943 pull-up 3s, almost double the amount of Kemba Walker, who finished second in the league in that area. Harden has thrived in coach Mike D’Antoni‘s spread pick-and-roll offensive system and has even revolutionized it to the point that he often doesn’t even need a pick to initiate the offense on any given possession.

With an offensive player as gifted as Harden, the pieces around him on the chessboard take on added importance. Any defense will inevitably tilt their coverage to take away Harden’s drives, thus creating opportunities for open 3-point looks for the other players on the floor.

Early on in his Rockets tenure, Harden’s backcourt mate was Patrick Beverley, a dogged defender who could cover up his flaws on that end and a more-than-capable 3-point shooter, one who would capitalize on the open looks that Harden created for him. Then came Chris Paul, a far different player stylistically in terms of his propensity to take the air out of the ball but one who is also a top-notch defender and credible long-range shooter. In fact, Paul shot 43.1 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s last season, which is an area of his game where he’s not traditionally known for excelling. Beverley converted these types of shots at a 41 percent clip while taking more than Paul on a per-game basis.

Since Harden is perhaps the most ball-dominant star we have in the game today, the ability to knock down open, catch-and-shoot perimeter shots is seemingly a prerequisite to sharing the floor with him. But Westbrook, as we know, just isn’t that type of player. He converted only 31.9 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s last year, right in line with his averages but well below the league average.

With Westbrook by his side, Harden will spend a lot of next season surveying a court that is more cramped, and a defense that is more comfortable sagging off a historically inept 3-point shooter to stop him. And unlike Paul or Beverley, Westbrook won’t be able to pick up the slack for Harden on the other end. Last year, the Thunder posted a defensive rating roughly six points better with Westbrook on the bench than on the court.

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This is undoubtedly the biggest gamble of Morey’s career. If it works out, he’ll be called a genius and his belief in chasing stars over building team chemistry will be validated. If this marriage fails spectacularly, he’ll likely be fired in short order, which he may not care too much about, seeing as he just gutted his team’s future draft capital. No matter what happens, it’ll be fun to watch it play out.