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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Jovan Abernathy is an international marathoner and blogger. Check out her new blog, HTown Run Tourist. Follow her on Twitter @jovanabernathy. Instagram @HTownRunTourist. Facebook @jovanabernathy. Join her facebook group: H-Town Run Tourist

Six years ago, I got this great idea to become a tourist of Houston on foot. I had no idea what I was doing or where it was going. All I knew was to put on my running shoes, walk out the door, and just go. Go learn, go talk, go ask without judgements. What I found is that Houston was full of diversity. We all knew that. However, let yourself be immersed in it. Look and listen to the sounds of different languages being spoken around you. Smell the scents of the different cuisines. You would think you were in a foreign country. This made me more curious.

As I explored the emotion of curiosity, it led me to change my behavior. Where I might have rushed to this place and to the next, I took it slower. Where, usually, I would have just assumed that I already knew, I found myself asking more questions. When I asked more questions, I had to acknowledge that I did not already know, so I practiced listening. As I listened more, I felt compelled to show more appreciation to the person who interrupted their busy day to educate me. This made me feel grateful.

I took that gratitude and wanted to share with others. It blew my mind when people would say that they hated Houston. It was boring. The people are mean and it was ugly. And even more shocking was Houston is not walkable. Instead of getting offended, I decided to do my part in brightening up the day of the Houstonians who were stuck in a rut. Who saw and did the same things day after day. I didn't judge because I knew they could get out of that rut by simply deciding that today they do something different. I braced myself for rejection, but put myself out there to share the wonderful things that I had learned about Houston. Given the chance, the vast majority, was ready to learn a different way. This made me proud.

It is true that 2020 has been full of disasters. These are opportunities if we choose to see them that way. If anything that COVID-19 taught me the answer was not MORE, but it is LESS. We have the tendency to take on too much, we had the unique opportunity to take on less. Thus, instead of going to exhaustion, we had the opportunity to rest.

Then, the tragedy of the death of Houston's own George Floyd happened. It could not have happened at a worse time. My heart goes out to his family. Some might use it as an opportunity to work out their own frustrations by causing more problems with violence and looting. My hope is that whatever happens will be an expression of appropriate sadness, but with Houston's best attributes; curiosity, gratitude, and pride. Instead of LESS it is time for MORE. MORE curiosity. To see if Houston's law enforcement cares about the well-being of Houston's black community and make changes in protocols. MORE gratitude. For the opportunity to express the frustration in a peaceful way. MORE pride. To not destroy this city and give it over to violence possibly doing more damage to the economics of business owners. We can see this as the opportunity to take time to heal.

Houston has changed. As I restart my exploration, I'm not looking for LESS. I'm looking for MORE this time. I'm looking with MORE curiosity. Because I know that we have even MORE to show each other. I'm looking with MORE gratitude because we have endured so much already and there are better times ahead. And, I'm looking with MORE pride because just as we did it before, we still have it in us to do it again. I have one request: if you see me in the streets, promise me that you will say hello.

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