So far, Russell Westbrook has struggled to fit into the Rockets’ offense. Is it fixable, or is this a sign of a larger problem?
There’s no need to mince words when discussing Russell Westbrook’s first 23 games in a Houston Rockets uniform: he hasn’t been great, or even very good. Don’t get me wrong, he hasn’t been bad. Most teams would love to have a point guard who’s averaging 22.5 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 7.3 assists, but Westbrook’s attractive stats conceal some troubling pimples that make the Rockets’ scoring attack look even more unglamorous than it already is.
Here’s what the per-game numbers hide: the Rockets score 10.2 fewer points per 100 possessions when Westbrook is on the floor, according to Basketball-Reference. His Player Efficiency Rating (PER) and win shares per 48 minutes (WS/48) evaluate him as somewhere between below or above average.
Some have chalked this up to vague “trust issues” between Westbrook and fellow All-Star James Harden, but there’s no need for television talking head conjecture to explain the disconnect, especially when there’s plenty of data that pinpoints what the obvious problem is: Westbrook’s subpar jump shooting. After all, would Jay Williams be forthcoming passing to someone who’s only making a quarter of his threes?
If you go to NBA.com right now and look up Westbrook’s shot chart, you’ll see enough red spots to make you think you’re looking at the Rockets home court. That’s not a good thing; aside from the restricted area, Westbrook owns an above-average field goal percentage on four spots on the floor: long 2-pointers from the top of the key, long left-wing twos, long right corner twos, and right-wing threes.
Away from those locations, Westbrook has resembled a construction worker more than he has a basketball player with all the bricks he’s laid.
Here’s the thing, though: this isn’t anything new for Westbrook. Aside from his MVP season in 2016-17, he has never shot particularly well outside the paint and it never torpedoed the Thunder in the regular season. On the contrary, those Oklahoma City Thunder teams often performed substantially better when Russ was on the floor, so what’s the difference now?
That answer is pretty simple: his role in Houston is much different, and it requires a skill set that Westbrook may not have. In OKC, Westbrook was the primary option in the wake of Kevin Durant’s departure.
Even when Paul George arrived, the scantness of offensively adroit guards and wings on those teams meant that he still needed to remain one of the main breadwinners on that end.
With the Rockets, Westbrook is more of a cog in the isolation-heavy machine. Much like last year, everyone knows that the offense mainly functions around Harden with the rest of the players serving as bystanders to the former MVP’s 15-or-more-second dance on most possessions.
The job description for most non-Harden Rockets is to stand there and be ready to take a 3-pointer if their superstar doesn’t chuck a triple of his own, drive to the rim or stretch the limits of what a foul is.
It seems simple…unless you only shoot 23 percent from behind the arc, convert 22 percent of your catch and shoot threes, 21.2 percent of your standstill threes, 12.8 percent of your open threes, and 31.7 percent of your wide-open threes like Westbrook has. That’s when you become a liability.
This doesn’t mean that Westbrook will cost the Rockets a playoff spot or anything that farfetched. He can still get to the rim almost anytime he wants and the pressure he can put on opposing defenses still causes more than a few opponents to send help to slow him down, which activates his deft playmaking abilities.
The on/off splits suggest that he’s a boon on defense — Houston allows 2.2 fewer points per 100 with Westbrook on the floor — and his point per possession (PPP) numbers when defending the pick-and-roll and isolation ball handlers back this up. Most importantly, the Rockets have a +8.2 net rating when Harden and Westbrook share the floor, so this is far from an untenable partnership. But there’s still reason for concern.
Westbrook can coast off of those positives against the likes of the Cleveland Cavaliers or the Golden State Warriors — weird — but against the class of the Western Conference, he won’t have that luxury.
No one cares how good your defense is if you can’t knock down jump shots. Those drives and passing lanes won’t be there if teams choose to have his defender sag off and help congest the paint while Harden salts the shot clock away.
And that’s the domino effect of all this: Westbrook’s anemic shooting not only affects him; it metastasizes to Harden and the rest of the team, which will matter when the calendar flips to April.
When the Rockets traded for Westbrook this past summer, they knew they weren’t getting the 2017 league MVP. They knew they were trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, and in some ways, the results have been worse than expected.
Houston may be able to push through this now, but as we saw in his last two seasons with the Thunder, Westbrook’s shortcomings could be this team’s downfall come playoff time.