Houston Rockets: It’s time to talk about Russell Westbrook

Houston Rockets guard Russell Westbrook (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Houston Rockets guard Russell Westbrook (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images) /

 Russell Westbrook’s mercurial, controversial career has been resuscitated this season in Mike D’Antoni’s wide-open, freewheeling system

While watching the Oklahoma City Thunder last season, I found myself asking the same questions over and over again.

Why is Alex Abrines starting? Has Patrick Patterson made a shot all year? Did Andre Roberson go into witness protection?

While important in their own right (seriously, where the hell is Roberson?), the answers to those questions seemed relatively inconsequential, at least compared to the question that has consumed members of the basketball media and casual fans alike over the last few seasons.

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What in God’s name is Russell Westbrook doing?

Ever since Kevin Durant departed for greener pastures, this has been on seemingly every basketball fan’s mind – for better or worse. Westbrook has essentially turned into a Rorschach test for the modern NBA fan.

We’ve all watched the same guy and have somehow arrived at wildly different conclusions. No one inspires more arguments and armchair debates. Westbrook devotees are always ready to go to war to protect their guy. They’ll constantly reference his relentlessness, his unmatched drive and, above all else, his us-against-the-world mentality, a rarity in a league where players are more friendly and congenial with the opposition than ever before.

They’ll tell you that Westbrook is a chip off the old block, a relic of a bygone era when showing public disdain for your opponent was less of a choice and more of a requirement.

On the other side of the metaphorical battlefield lies the analytics movement, and those who have, over the last decade, leaned into the 3’s and layups movement popularized by Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey. They’re able to look past Westbrook’s prodigious physical gifts and end-to-end speed and ferociousness. Why? Because his shot chart resembles Allen Iverson’s – too many mid-range jumpers and a steady diet of 3-pointers, where Westbrook has proven to be well, well below average.

His maddening tendencies broke the collective basketball world’s brain. This argument played out in real-time during the 2016-17 season when he went toe-to-toe with analytics darling James Harden for the regular-season MVP award. This two-horse race ignited some of the most heated debates that we’ve ever seen amongst NBA pundits, fans and players. The discourse only got worse after Westbrook brought home the trophy; his most staunch defenders dug in even further while his detractors saw it as an award gifted to him because of the fact that he averaged a triple-double over the course of a full season.

These critics were frustrated because the goalposts had moved, with the media choosing to reward a rare, arbitrary statistical oddity, not seen in five decades, rather than team success.

Through it all, Westbrook remained Westbrook, seemingly insulated from any of the outside criticism and the cries for him to modernize his game, to use his gifts for good not evil. Even worse for the aforementioned critics, the MVP victory emboldened him to lean even further into his controversial basketball persona.

Now I Do What I Want became his rallying cry, a movement even, and a way for him to signal to the rest of the basketball world that he didn’t need to change his game. Not for you, not for the analytics “nerds,” not for anybody.

But that was then, and this is now.

Paul George’s move to the LA Clippers this summer signaled to everyone that the Thunder were getting ready to embark on a lengthy rebuild, one that would hopefully bear as much fruit as the last time they chose to go this route when they drafted Westbrook, Durant, and Harden. Westbrook found himself in a precarious position, as a slightly-past-his-prime superstar with a burning desire to win employed by a team focusing on the latter half of this new decade, and not the present.

Westbrook’s timeline simply didn’t match up with Thunder GM Sam Presti’s. Soon after Presti acquired every first-round pick in existence, it became clear that Westbrook’s days in Oklahoma City were numbered. So, as one does in the offseason, everyone fired up the trade machine to find the ideal team for Westbrook.

If the rest of his career was any indication, Westbrook was going to need a team that he could mold in his image if he was going to enjoy even a modicum of the success he experienced in Oklahoma City. Could he co-exist with another star? The short answer is yes. We’ve all seen that movie before. But, everyone thought, whichever team won the Westbrook sweepstakes would need to construct a unique roster around his singular, domineering game and personality.

While it was roundly, hypothetically discussed before it happened, the news of Westbrook’s trade to Houston caught most of the basketball world by surprise, while simultaneously dumping kerosene on the Westbrook vs. Analytics argument. The pairing of Westbrook, the league’s seminal chucker – and one of the worst high-volume 3-point shooters in the history of the game – with the Houston Rockets, a franchise that prides itself on finding every conceivable analytical advantage, was curious, to say the least.

Not to mention his reunion with Harden, a high-usage superstar who often struggles to exist on offense without the ball in his hands. (Westbrook has the same problem).

Through the first quarter of the season, all the critics of Rockets GM Daryl Morey’s strange, all-in gamble were largely proven right. The Rockets were winning – they posted a 14-7 mark in their first 21 games – but Westbrook was shooting just 39.9 percent from the field, including 21.6 percent from long-range on 5.4 attempts per game. Everyone who predicted that his game wouldn’t flourish inside Morey and coach Mike D’Antoni’s experimental basketball laboratory was taking a victory lap, myself included.

I wrote off their early success in the name of beginning-of-the-season randomness, and latched on, somewhat stubbornly, to my belief that these two ball-dominant co-stars would prove to be less than the sum of their parts.

Then, starting with a game against the Denver Nuggets on Nov. 20, opposing teams began indirectly disrespecting Westbrook in brand new ways. Harden was on a torrid pace leading up to that game, averaging 39.2 points per game, somehow an improvement on the 36.1 per game he scored last year to lead the league. The Nuggets began doubling Harden the second he crossed half-court, daring the other Rockets to beat them, and hoping that the ball would end up in the hands of a non-shooter – Westbrook or Clint Capela – which would give them ample time to recover before conceding an easy layup.

The rest of the league took notice and began employing this unusual, never-before-seen gambit. While this strategy was borne out of respect for Harden’s otherworldly offensive ability, its success relied upon Westbrook’s ineffectiveness as a jump shooter. The belief that he’d be unable to harm an opposing defense if left alone on the perimeter was one of the primary reasons that opposing coaches continually instructed their teams to cling to this unique defensive plan.

This game plan’s success also relied upon Westbrook’s resistance to change, and his staunch belief that only he knows what’s best for his game. Opposing coaches were counting on him to fire up those open shots from deep, knowing that, more often than not, they’ll clang off the rim and into the hands of a waiting defender.

But something funny happened at the outset of this new decade. Westbrook’s misguided reliance on his outside shot seemingly disappeared. It legitimately felt like the guy who, over the course of his career, has developed a reputation for tuning out critics was beginning to listen to them and was adapting his game accordingly. He’d never admit it, but Westbrook, in a way, caved to the public outcry for him to play smarter, to emphasize the strongest aspects of his game while throwing the weak parts by the wayside.

Since Jan. 1 – a 15-game sample – Westbrook has registered just 2.3 3-point attempts per game. If that held over a full season, it would represent the lowest total since his third year in the league, way back in 2010-11, when teams attempted a measly 18 3-pointers per game, compared to 33.8 this season.

He’s still struggling from deep, but in that timeframe, he’s shooting 52.3 percent from the floor, which would be a career-high by nearly seven percentage points if he maintained it over the course of an entire season. Westbrook’s shot chart during this stretch closely resembles that of Giannis Antetokounmpo, the league’s premier shot-maker in the paint and the restricted area.

Westbrook has long been one of the league’s most ferocious attackers, often ambling into the lane with a specific type of reckless abandon that can both scare and befuddle awaiting big men. This season has been no different; he’s pacing the league by driving to the bucket 20.4 times per game. But since the new year began, he’s upped that number to 24.4, while attempting nearly four more shots on those drives and shooting a better percentage. (For reference, Derrick Rose is second during this timeframe, averaging 20.8 drives per game. For the full season, this gap between Westbrook and Rose would represent the difference between Westbrook and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who sits ninth in the league at 16.4 per game).

Westbrook is second only to Chris Paul in shooting percentage among players who are driving to the basket at least 10 times per game.

Westbrook has largely traded in 3’s for a much steadier diet of shots in the paint, where he’s thrived more often than he has beyond the arc. We’ll never know what led to this stark change. It could’ve been the outside world’s criticism of his long-range futility or it could’ve been D’Antoni’s insistence that he emphasizes the most efficient parts of his game, and lean into it even more.

I would guess the Rockets aren’t too fixated on why exactly Westbrook drastically changed his game, as they’re too busy enjoying the results on the court. Just last week, Morey made a conscious decision to embrace Westbrook’s new tendencies by barreling headfirst into small-ball in a way that we haven’t really seen before, even in today’s age of smaller, quicker, more skilled players.

By swapping out Capela for Robert Covington, the Rockets can now trot out three above-average deep threats alongside Westbrook and Harden. When Westbrook has the ball, there really are no good options. Send help on his drives and he’ll surely find one of his fellow starters open behind the line. Stay home on those shooters and he’ll pulverize you at the rim.

A few nights ago, the Jazz tried putting Rudy Gobert on Westbrook, primarily stationing him in the paint where he patiently awaited any potential drives into the restricted area. This is a strategy that many coaches, namely Utah’s Quin Snyder, have employed against Antetokounmpo since it allows help defenders to stay home on shooters while the attacking player and the big man hanging back at the rim essentially engage in a game of one-on-one.

It seems like a sound strategy, but Westbrook ensured that it wouldn’t be a successful one. During that game, he scored 16 points while shooting 53.3 percent from the field with Gobert as his primary defender. The Jazz did end up winning the game thanks to some late-game heroics from Bojan Bogdanovic, but it was hardly a harbinger of things to come. This momentary hiccup didn’t stop the Rockets from embracing this newer, more radical style of play.

Just a few nights later, the Rockets earned a win against the Celtics, with Westbrook posting a 36-10-5 line while shooting 56.5 percent from the field. He attempted only two 3’s and he missed both of them. It didn’t matter. He was menacing on his forays into the paint all game, often slipping into open driving lanes that emerged because of Morey’s willingness to swap out a traditional roll-to-the-rim big man in favor of a smaller, faster, more perimeter-oriented roster tailored to the strengths of his two superstars.

None of this will matter if the Rockets flame out in the playoffs yet again. Harden’s tenure in Houston has largely been defined by playoff disappointments. He’s obviously risen to new heights since departing Oklahoma City, posting a lot of sterling, record-setting regular-season marks, but people tend to gravitate to his performances in May and June, where he’s often failed to propel his team to where they want to go because his gas tank starts running on empty before so many other star players.

A few offseasons ago, Morey wagered that bringing in Chris Paul would lighten Harden’s load to the point that he’d be fresh when the games ultimately mattered. Bringing together two ball-dominant stars was just crazy enough to work, and it almost did. Morey’s now doubled down on this ethos by swapping out the older, injury-prone Paul for the seemingly indestructible Westbrook.

D’Antoni is doubling down too. He’s often spoken about how he wishes that he’d gone even further with the Seven Seconds or Less Suns, how he should’ve given Steve Nash and their army of long-range marksmen an even greener light from outside. Several years after he became one of the first coaches to realize how to weaponize the fact that three is more than two, he’s getting his opportunity to take this style to its logical endpoint.

In so many ways, the three central figures in this story – Westbrook, D’Antoni, and Harden – are perfect for each other. D’Antoni and Harden are long-range revolutionaries who are known more for their regular-season accomplishments than their playoff excellence. Westbrook, who’s advanced further in the playoffs than either of them, has been wandering in the basketball wilderness ever since Durant left him alone in 2016, unable to advance past the first round in every year since then.

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It’s hard to say Westbrook’s gotten better after three consecutive seasons in which he averaged a triple-double. But with each successive season, the criticism seemed to grow louder. Crucially, none of those Oklahoma City teams were specifically tailored to his talents. This current iteration of the Rockets is, and that might be the difference between more playoff heartbreak and another chance at that coveted first championship ring.