LAS VEGAS – At first glance, and perhaps at a second and third long look, the Rockets’ acquisition of Russell Westbrook would appear to be the antithesis of their typical analytics-driven thinking.
Westbrook can be explosive, but inefficient; a prolific scorer, but poor perimeter shooter; devastating in the open floor, but often reckless.
The Rockets take and make more 3-pointers than any team in NBA history and were a sensational halfcourt offensive team by coolly evaluating and exploiting the most efficient methods to score. Westbrook relies on fiery attacks built on spectacular gifts.
Yet, the move to replace the savvy but slowing Chris Paul probes of defenses with the swift and sudden Westbrook attacks is also typical Rockets, built at least in part on the analysis of how he will fit. In many ways, he is the latest example of general manager Daryl Morey’s determination — when the analytics and eye tests don’t match — to look deeper.
Westbrook is the latest in a long line of Hall of Fame-caliber players – Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley, Tracy McGrady, James Harden and Paul – the Rockets have added through trades since the first championship season.
Harden and Westbrook have been first and second in points, assists, steals, field goals attempted and usage rate over the past five seasons. They have been in the top three in points created through their own scoring or assists as well as either the scoring or assists leaders in the past three seasons. The only player with a larger usage rate than Westbrook in his 2016-17 MVP season was Harden last season.
Usage rate can be a bit misleading. No one who scored as much as Harden last season (36.1 points per game) was also the point guard. But it does point to the adjustments that will have to be made.
Some of that will work itself out with how coach Mike D’Antoni staggers his stars, as he had with Harden and Paul. They likely will share the court for less than half of each game, with one running the offense while the other sits.
The Rockets also believe some of Westbrook’s strengths will address shortcomings.
A poor defensive rebounding team last season, Westbrook’s defensive rebounding percentage was far better than any guard in the league. A team that struggled all season to play with pace, despite their reputation, adds an instant fast-break guard.
But beyond acquiring the star power that matches with their history and the current NBA arms race, the Rockets believe Westbrook’s talents will mesh in ways less conspicuous than whether he knocks down open 3s that come from sharing a backcourt with Harden.
Much of that confidence — or at least the eagerness to take “a calculated gamble” as one individual familiar with the Rockets’ thinking said — points to the issues that could have created doubt.
Westbrook made less than 30 percent of his 3-pointers in four of the past five seasons. He made roughly 32 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s. Paul, in a down year overall shooting, made nearly 43 percent.
The Rockets believe Westbrook will bump his 3-point shooting to the 33 to 35 percent range based on playing next to Harden and with other shooters. They believe he will be more efficient overall by taking more uncontested 3s and fewer one- and two-dribble long 2s.
More than that, however, the Rockets’ confidence comes from a belief that Westbrook will be playing with at least three range shooters spacing the floor, creating more room to attack the rim. They believe that will help his own scoring but also will force the defense to the lane and off shooters, including Harden.
That requires Harden to be agreeable to the idea of being off the ball more often. Though he will remain the point guard in many of the Rockets’ halfcourt possessions, there will be many times Westbrook will initiate the offense, as he did when they were together in Oklahoma City.
Harden, according to individuals privy to conversations leading up to the trade, repeatedly assured the Rockets he would welcome that adjustment.
That would be a key to the Rockets’ success late in games and especially in the postseason, when play tends to slow down and NBA playoff series are often decided down the stretch.
The Rockets also will have to adjust the offense to keep Westbrook in a position to attack without sacrificing spacing. Paul often headed to the corner, especially in his first season in Houston when Ryan Anderson was still in the rotation and in a pick-and-pop position. Westbrook will more often be on the ball or on the wing.
If he initiates the offense, Harden will have to look to catch-and-shoot far more often than last season when he could go weeks between assisted field goals.
If Harden runs pick-and-roll with Westbrook on the wing, Harden can still go one-on-one against teams that switch. He was by far the most productive and efficient scorer in the NBA in iso last season.
Teams have increasingly dropped big men into the lane and Westbrook is not likely to dissuade them from packing the paint. But the Rockets can look to get into their offense more quickly, with Westbrook attacking from the wing when Harden moves the ball out of pick-and-roll, with Westbrook given time to make the next pass to shooter.
All of that will challenge D’Antoni’s celebrated offensive creativity. But he does begin, as he often said when the Rockets acquired Paul, with stars determined to make it work.
The Rockets more than believe the move will extend the championship window, with Westbrook’s timetable better matching up with Harden’s. They believe that with the risk there is also opportunity, with the traits that make the move a gamble also bringing a possibility that a great player — and they — can become better.