A bright silver lining

Russell Westbrook finds rhythm in Rockets' offense amid James Harden's struggles

Composite photo by Jack Brame

Last year, Russell Westbrook inexplicably had one of the worst seasons of his career. Westbrook has never been the most efficient scorer, but he's historically hovered around league-average marks while contributing in several other key areas. As Paul George had the season of his career, Westbrook's efficiency fell down the tubes and left many wondering if this was the start of a precipitous career decline. Logically, it's hard to attribute that kind of drop in efficiency to many other things other than aging as Westbrook (just turned 30 at the time) had relied on eye-popping athletic ability for the majority of his career.

Russell Westbrook career:

52.9% True Shooting

Russell Westbrook in 2018-19:

50.1% True Shooting

So it was a little puzzling when the Rockets acquired Westbrook in early July in exchange for Chris Paul. Paul had fit in nicely next to James Harden and was always an efficient scorer, even in his down season. The Rockets had essentially made the bet that Westbrook's prior season was a career anomaly and he was due for a bounce back. And for Westbrook's first 30 games, their best was looking as shaky as ever.

Russell Westbrook (first 30 games of 2019-20):

24.2 PPG

8.0 RPG

7.1 APG

1.5 SPG

50.6% True Shooting

Westbrook's shooting percentages mirrored his prior season in Oklahoma City and it looked like the Rockets had acquired a player clearly on the downward slope of his career. Theories about Houston's floor spacing aiding in Westbrook's attacking and finishing ability at the rim were unfounded and the Rockets had given up multiple first round draft picks for a player obviously inferior to the one they traded away. While the second part of that sentence may be still be half-true, Westbrook's recent run has provided Houston with the same level of optimism they had when they made the trade in July.

Russell Westbrook (last 10 games):

32.6 PPG

8.5 RPG

8.1 APG

2.0 SPG

57.7% True Shooting

"We've been saying it for about two months now that he's been playing well," said Mike D'Antoni after Westbrook had 45 points, 10 assists, and 6 rebounds on 16 of 27 shooting from the field against the Timberwolves last Friday. "That's MVP Russ."

But what's sparked this run from Westbrook? James Harden's been playing poorly in this stretch (28.0 PPG on 52.9% true shooting), but surely this can't just be a case of opportunity as Westbrook's had a neon green light for several years now.

It's strange, but Westbrook's run has coincided with an abrupt change in shot selection. Before the new year, Westbrook was attempting 4.9 three-pointers per game despite shooting a putrid 23.1% on them. Three-pointers have never felt like Westbrook's natural game even though mathematically, they're the best kind of jumpshot for most players to take. Westbrook has since cut his three-pointers attempted in half (2.3 per game now) and has replaced most of those shots with mid-range jumpers.

The Rockets later admitted they were asking Westbrook to take those shots as opposed to mid-range jumpers (as they do with most players).

While Westbrook certainly isn't an efficient mid-range shooter (42% - equivalent to a 28% three-point shooter), it does seem like attacks the basket and draws fouls more when he's playing in his comfort zone.

In this clip, Westbrook drives with the intent of getting to the rim before he realizes the defender has backed up enough for him for him to pull up for a mid-range jumper. This may not technically be more efficient than Westbrook shooting a three, but three-pointers don't incentivize drives to the basket in the same way. Therefore, it begrudgingly is the best option.

Westbrook's also effectively used fall-away mid-range jumpers when he has a smaller guard defending him.

These are actually more slightly more efficient than regular mid-range jumpers for Westbrook (44.4%).

The Rockets don't win when Westbrook takes these shots, but they also don't lose. When Westbrook is settling for three-pointers, it's usually a sign he's not aggressively attacking the basket with the same fervor. This is backed up by the numbers as when Westbrook was attempting 4.9 three-pointers at the beginning of the season, he was also taking 8.67 shots per game in the restricted area. When Westbrook cut his three-pointers down to 2.3 per game, he started taking 13.4 shots per game in the restricted area.

For Westbrook, mid-range jumpers are the symptom of a good mindset.

But if the Rockets win when Westbrook is playing like this, why have they been losing (6-7 in last 13 games) during his best stretch of the season? This has been a question posed by many, but as far as the data shows, Westbrook is not the problem. The Rockets are a +1.9 per 100 possessions when he's on the floor and a -1.0 when he sits during this stretch. The Rockets' losses have more to do with Harden's struggles, Houston's porous defense, and a general malaise the team hasn't been able to shake for the past month and a half than anything having to do with Westbrook.

In fact, the Rockets surprisingly defending 2.5 points per 100 possessions better in their last 13 games when Westbrook is on the floor versus on the bench.

This stretch of games have not been pretty for Houston, but if there's one positive to take away from this, it's certainly Westbrook's play. When Harden inevitably starts to get rolling again, it'll be interesting to see how the dynamic looks when both are playing well at the same time.

Friday on First Take, Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman discuss James Harden responding to Giannis Antetokounmpo's joke about Harden's reluctance to pass the basketball. Stephen A. supports Harden's retort, but Max doesn't think it's a good look.

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