Top 5 Reasons Russell Westbrook Will Work in Houston

 

1. He can get to the rim

Westbrook shot a career-high 63% around the rim last season. On shots classified on Synergy as “around the basket” (not post-ups), Russ shot 61% on 330 attempts last season. Chris Paul shot 47% on 83 attempts.

Although 3’s are certainly important to the analytics crowd, it seems of late that people have also forgotten about the hugely important impact of getting to the rim. Russ took 6.2 FTA’s/gm, nearly the lowest rate of his career, but it still dwarfed Paul’s 3.5/gm (In 16/17 he got to the line over 10 times per game). 330 to 83 attempts and the massive difference in free throws is a staggering gap in terms of ability to put pressure on a defense. The NBA today more than ever is built around guys who can get “downhill” and be a threat to score at the rim, and make the right play to kick to shooters when help comes: LeBron. Kawhi. Giannis. Siakam. Jokic. Russ may shoot a poor percentage from 3 himself, but he’s still a very solid finisher and frequent attacker of the rim – which creates a lot of open 3’s for his teammates and will lead to a barrage of open 3s that Houston thrives off.

Westbrook ranked 19th in the league in PITP (10.9), right behind James Harden (18th, 11.1). Westbrook also ranked 3rd in the NBA in drives per game, behind only Harden and DeMar DeRozan.

2. He pushes the pace

Westbrook’s frenetic pace, coupled with his constant attacking of the rim, helped power him to lead the league with 10.6 AST/gm. He also had an NBA-high 802 passes that led directly to a 3PA.

The drives mentioned above of course played a huge role in this as well. Only Trae Young ranked higher in corner 3 assists – HOU of course has many corner 3 specialists like PJ Tucker. Nobody creates more assists at the rim than Russ either – when HOU does play a traditional 5 like Capela, you’ll frequently find him in the “dunker” spot along the baseline, ready to catch a lob the second his man goes to help on a Harden drive.

Last year, Houston ranked as the 4th slowest team in the league by pace. I don’t really buy the “Harden doesn’t want to play fast” narrative. The PEAK of Harden excitement was when he first got to Houston and was euro-stepping everyone and their mother in transition, a one-man wrecking crew. Westbrook has always been a one-man fastbreak; he ranked 2nd in the league in fastbreak points (5.2) behind only LeBron. How about this, too? Russ ranked 4th in points off turnovers (4.5). 1st? James Harden, with 5.4.

Russ still has blinding speed, and even though he’s slowed down a bit, he’s one of the fastest 3 or so guys end to end with the balk. The running potential for him and Harden together is tremendous, and Capela should also prepare to be in the best shape of his life to run with them.

3. He rebounds

Westbrook tied LeBron in 2nd chance points, with 2.7. He has long been one of the most prolific threats on the offensive glass–an amazing ‘second jumper’ who can tip in his own misses and finds a way to the glass for huge putbacks late in games–but he’s also one of the best on the defensive end. Westbrook had a DREB% of 25.5% last season, just behind Karl-Anthony Towns and ahead of Anthony Davis, Clint Capela, and Nikola Jokic. The Rockets ranked 2ND-WORST in DREB% last season – they can use someone to help Capela and Tucker out on the glass. Westbrook helped carry the Thunder to 9th in DREB%, and as a team they ranked 5th in fastbreak points in large part due to Russ taking it end to end after his rebounds.

The ‘novelty’ of Westbrook’s triple doubles has seemingly worn off, turning instead to criticism of his ‘stat-padding,’ alongside accusations of telling Steven Adams to just block out so he can get every rebound. While I’ve even criticized Russ to some extent and think he does occasionally chase triple doubles, it doesn’t make it any less absurd that a PG has averaged 10.7/10.1/11.1 rebounds the past 3 seasons, respectively. Kidd, Magic, LeBron, Oscar; whoever you want to group him with, it’s rarefied air. Even if he grabbed a few extra rebounds in pursuit of a triple double, there’s no question that his motor is top 3 – if not the best – in the whole NBA. Did he steal a few from Steven Adams being great at boxing out? Sure. But a lot of rebounding is still instinctual – knowing who misses long and short, where the ball bounces, pursuit of the ball in and out of your area, timing your jump, and actually going to get the dang thing. And Houston undoubtedly needs someone who can do that more often with their abysmal defensive rebounding last season.

4. Did they really give all that much?

This part is the most debatable, obviously.

Houston gave 1sts in 2024 and 2026. I would think in Daryl Morey’s mind, at least the 1st of these picks is not a big deal. Russ is 30, Harden is almost 30 – if the core works and Houston is able to win and win big the next couple years, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to retain these guys until 2024 and even 2026. Of course, if things blow up and backfire you do run the risk of it being a BKN/BOS pick disaster, but I don’t think HOU has nearly the same amount of risk that BKN had in getting KG and Pierce at the very end of their careers. Pick swaps in 2021 and 2025 – in Morey’s mind again I’m sure it’s a near certainty that OKC will be worse than HOU in 2021, rendering this a non-factor. 2025? Maybe not – but you still at least retain a 1st round pick and it’s fair to question if OKC will even be super competitive themselves by 2025.

Chris Paul is 34. I love and respect the hell out of Chris Paul. But he was nearly on his last legs as a basketball player, showing signs of rapid decline from year to year and an ability to play more than around 60 games. On essentially the same contract as Russ, there is zero doubt in my mind that Russ is a HUGE upgrade over Paul for the duration of their contracts. Why did HOU have to deal 2 1sts and 2 pick swaps? Because CP was the far more ‘untradeable’ contract of the two, a much older, more rapidly-declining version of Russ. OKC will now themselves see how nearly impossible it is to re-route Paul to another team, and they’ll likely even have to attach picks to him to get rid of his contract. Miami even is asking for their own 1st-round picks back in exchange for taking Paul off Oklahoma City’s hands.

The deal was fair.

5. He’s a WINNER

Yes, there’s a few things that the Rockets will have to figure out fit-wise.

You’ve heard he’s an awful shooter. While he’ll never be confused for a good shooter or maybe even an average one, think of the Ben Simmons dilemma. Or Giannis. Ben can’t shoot AT ALL, but still is an extremely impactful young superstar. Giannis can shoot a LITTLE, but won MVP this past season while being far less of an actual threat from the outside than Russ.

 

Here’s where things get funny to me: all the analytics guys rant and rave about how midrange shots are awful, and how everyone should be substituting 3’s for any 2 that’s not a layup, etc etc. What’s the break-even point that they usually cite for when a guy should shoot 3’s? Generally, around 30%. Maybe 31. Maybe 33 if you’re really stingy – a 33% 3 is the same as a 50% 2, per eFG%.

In the last 3 seasons combined, Westbrook shot 38% on corner 3’s, and 31% above the break. Russ shot 29% from 3 last season, and nearly 31% for his career. In other words, he’s somewhere around a 45-50% shot whenever he takes a 3. Go look up how many guys in the league shot better than 45-50% on long 2’s. It’s not a big list. In other words: do we maybe call Russ inefficient because he occasionally TAKES the shots that Ben Simmons gets crushed for never taking?

Russ shot 29% from 3 last season, and nearly 31% for his career. In other words, he’s somewhere around a 45-50% shot whenever he takes a 3. Go look up how many guys in the league shot better than 45-50% on long 2’s. It’s not a big list. In other words: do we maybe call Russ inefficient because he occasionally TAKES the shots that Ben Simmons gets crushed for never taking?

Does he take a few too many? Maybe. Will HOU work with him on the analytics and try to convince him to focus on the rim and making plays for his teammates? Sure. But getting Russ to stop shooting altogether has always been a ridiculous analytic pipe dream–and it has a bunch of potential negative effects, as well. Stop shooting altogether? Your defender goes under EVERY single PNR, making it impossible for you to use the screen properly and make plays for your teammates out of the pick-and-roll. The defense starts playing 10 feet off you and you’re literally ONLY guarded when you’re 5 feet from the basket. Watch Russ, and that doesn’t happen. Guys still 100% respect his ability to shoot. His numbers aren’t great, but they’re nearly at the breakeven point of a 3 being a perfectly acceptable and efficient shot for a team. I’m not sure if this is available anywhere thru tracking numbers, but the eye test has me believe that Russ took a high % of his 3’s off the dribble – understandably so, as him and Paul George were basically the only guys who could create shots for anybody and dominated the ball. Almost everyone in the league shoots a higher % on spot-up than they do off the dribble, and I would imagine a lot more of Westbrook’s 3’s will be spot-up opportunities created by Harden, by Gordon, by Rivers, etc.

Here’s where it gets interesting, too: Russ shot 2.9 3’s/gm off the dribble, and shot 26.4%. On catch-and-shoot? 31.9% on 2.3/gm. In other words, Russ may have had to take a lot off the dribble – understandably so, as him and Paul George were basically the only guys who could create shots for anybody and dominated the ball. Almost everyone in the league shoots a higher % on spot-up than they do off the dribble, and I would imagine a lot more of Westbrook’s 3’s now will be spot-up opportunities created by Harden, by Gordon, by Rivers, etc. Similarly, Harden got almost NO spot-up opportunities last season – he was such an unbelievable threat and dominant offensive player that teams were frequently willing to play 4-on-4 and deny him completely when he didn’t have the ball, eschewing all help responsibilities. Chris Paul at this age allows you to do that; Russell Westbrook’s incredible speed and athleticism to get to the rim if the 4 help defenders aren’t all in the right spots does not. Expect Harden to see less face-guarding and outright denials due to Westbrook’s ability to penetrate and get more spot-up 3’s as a result this season.

Additionally, Russ took a ton of shots in OKC because he HAD to. He almost NEVER played with a stretch 5 – look at how much more open the floor has been for Giannis this season playing with Brook, Ilyasova, etc. instead of a Tyler Zeller/John Henson pu-pu platter. HOU will almost certainly try to get Russ a lot of minutes with PJ Tucker at the 5 when Harden is out and play with a spread floor. Even a cursory look at 3PA tells you how much more reluctant the shooters Russ played with were than the shooters he’s about to play with.

3PA/GM Last Season
Eric Gordon 8.8/ Terrance Ferguson 3.9
Gerald Green 6/ Jerami Grant 3.7
PJ Tucker 4.7/ Markieff Morris 2.5
Austin Rivers 4.7/ Ray Felton 1.8

Russ took a ton of shots in OKC because he had to. Playing with a much better supporting cast with the green light to shoot from anywhere, he will gladly rebound, defend, pass, and do whatever it takes to win. The idea that Harden is looked at as ball-dominant is also silly; he’s probably the best PNR passer in the game. “One ball” can become a problem if you have Joe Johnson and Deron Williams and Paul Pierce and young dudes looking to prove themselves. It’s not a problem when you have two guys who logically dribble a lot and score a lot but also are 1/2 in the league in assists. They both gladly make the right basketball play.

Is Russ the most efficient player in the world? No, but remember efficiency and winning are not the same exact thing. There may be a strong CORRELATION between efficiency and winning, but it isn’t the ONLY way to win games. Houston should know this better than anyone. Despite being a hyper-efficient team on both ends, there’s always been SOMETHING that prevents them from getting over the hump in the playoffs. Despite being so inefficient, Russ has managed to hover around 50 wins every season. With KD. Without KD. With Paul George. Pre-injury. Post-injury. Pre-injury and post-injury again and again. The dude keeps coming.

Him and Houston both just haven’t quite gotten over the hump yet. Is this the year we kill two birds with one stone?

  
Bryan Oringher spent the past 7 years working in the NBA. From 13-17 he was the Washington Wizards Head Video Coordinator, and in 17-18 he did Regional Advance Scouting for the Hawks and Raptors. He now puts out in-depth analysis on Twitter @ScoutWithBryan and you can find all his old content at scoutwithbryan.com

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