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.

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The media has mixed feelings about the James Harden trade. Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

James Harden was 100-percent exactly right earlier this week when he said the Houston Rockets were "just not good enough."

How could they be? Not when their moody superstar scorer, who makes about half a million dollars per game, shows up chubby, looking like a kielbasa about to explode in the microwave. Hey, some people eat when they're unhappy, it's a defense mechanism. In Harden's case, the only defense he's exhibited this season. At least he had a good excuse for missing pre-season training camp and alienating his teammates - he was busy partying with Cinnamon and Cherish in Atlanta and Vegas without a mask. Worst of all, he went into the tank his last four games in a Rockets uniform, standing around, arms folded, scoring fewer than 20 points each time, all Rockets losses. Fans in the front row were asking him to move, he was blocking their view of players who cared about winning. James Harden sabotaged his own team, a team that offered him $50 million a year to stay. Something that crazy could only happen in professional sports these days.

There's a saying that drives the American labor movement: "a fair day's wage for a fair day's work." It's the motto of the American Federation of Labor. The National Basketball Players Association is not a member. Harden's sulking on the court, cheating the Rockets and their fans, was unforgivable.

Harden, sitting out games while somehow being on the court, forced the Rockets to trade him - and quick - to Brooklyn. The trade, when you ignore the fine print and unindicted co-conspirators Cleveland and Indiana, sent Harden to Brooklyn in exchange for Caris LeVert (immediately flipped for Victor Oladipo), Jarrett Allen, three first-round draft picks and four swapped first-rounders. It's true, when you trade a superstar, you never get back equal value. The other team wins.

If it makes Rockets fans feel any better, the media in New York already has problems with their new problem child. I should say newest problem child. Kyrie Irving plays for the Nets.

"They (the Nets) gave up everybody! There's nothing left now. I just want to cry, It's awful," weeped WFAN Radio talk host Evan Roberts. For those who don't subscribe to weekly Arbitron ratings reports, WFAN is the most powerful, top-rated sports talk station in the Apple.

"You're leading down the road of doom. Harden and Durant could be gone in a year and a half. I'm not convinced this gives them a better chance to win a title. I'm living a nightmare again. They better freaking win."

Circle March 3 on your Rockets schedule. That's when the Brooklyn Nets, with their Big 3 of Kevin Durant, James Harden and possibly Kyrie Irving visit Toyota Center. I hear talk radio salivating over the record jeers that will cascade over Harden's name, although I'm not buying it. Fans don't think like the media does. I'm thinking that Rockets fans will welcome Harden back - one night only - with cheers.

Toyota Center public address announcer Matt Thomas: "Usually when former Rockets come to town for the first time since leaving, I give them a positive introduction. It's up to the fans how to react."

James Harden spent eight seasons with the Rockets. He is a spectacular player who watched other NBA players engineer trades so they could compete for a title. Harden didn't think the Rockets were good enough, and he's right. So he wanted out. We've all been there, a job we didn't like for a company we didn't like, for a boss we didn't respect. Harden wanting to be traded is understandable. How he went about it was deplorable. He hurt his co-workers.

Houston will make Harden pay for his disrespectful departure. He has an upscale restaurant set to open here. The name of the steakhouse will be "13." Harden's business partners may want to change that number ... before the restaurant's telephone number is disconnected. There are plenty of other restaurants in Houston. Rich people who can afford steakhouse prices hold grudges.

Rockets fans searching for a silver lining say, "We got two decent players and a whole bunch of precious first-round picks" for a malcontent who would rather be anywhere (except maybe Sacramento) than Houston." Yes, a bunch of first-round picks does bode well for the future. Anywhere, except maybe Houston.

Houston's draft war room isn't the most successful operation in the NBA. Over the past decade prior to 2000, under the direction of general manager Daryl Morey, the Rockets made 16 draft picks. Not one of them is still in a Rockets uniform, many of them have sought employment outside of America, some outside of basketball. Among their first-round whiffs: Nikola Mirotic, Terrence Jones, Sam Dekker - all out of the league. Best of all, Royce White, who played three whole games in his NBA career and finished with a scoring average of 0.00 points per game.

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