The Russ Diary: Westbrook takes off in Houstonvia Getty

The Russ Diary: Westbrook takes off in Houston

After a pretty drastic and unexpected change of scenery in July, the Thunder’s former MVP Russell Westbrook had quite a bit of skepticism following him to Houson. His critics said there was no way he and James Harden could coexist, and that having a player known for his inability to shoot from distance on the highest volume 3-point shooting team in the NBA was bound to explode. Others said the Rockets’ spacing would change Westbrook, and the new coaching and system would correct some of his old habits. It wasn’t likely Houston had the real talent to win a title, but maybe they could make things interesting. So how have things panned out for Russ in a totally new ecosystem?

Russ being Russ

Well, if you’d followed Houston in the early going you’d have said he was the same Russ as always. He definitely had some good outings, but he was still having the classic good Russ/bad Russ experience, turning in his weekly high volume 3-point shooting night where he couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn. The peak of “bad Russ” came early on in a few games, peaked by a game against the Heat where he was a team worst -46. Single game plus/minus doesn’t really tell the whole story (he was bad, but he’s definitely had worse games) but it was the crescendo of negativity early on. Injuring his hand and not playing all summer after a knee scope likely didn’t help the cause.

Since then?

Maybe it was a bit of an adjustment, but within the last two months the change of scenery has reduced a lot of Westbrook’s weaknesses and allowed him to flourish. Most recently, he’s started to garner some national attention even among those in the analytics community who have been hardened skeptics.

The new fit

Watching Russ over the last few months has been both infuriating and refreshing. Infuriating because one can’t help but wonder what a prime Westbrook would be capable of on a team built with spacing and shooters, while we read things like:

“(Sam Presti) asked loyal lieutenants such as Paul Rivers and Michael Winger to research the nature of shots Westbrook creates. Outsiders assumed Westbrook should be ringed by floor-spacing snipers, like Harden in Houston, but Presti demands evidence.”

Was there really enough evidence to ignore what has always seemed obvious (spacing) and instead surround one of the best passers in the NBA with poor shooters who were incredible athletes? Now with those snipers, Westbrook has dialed his own 3-point shooting well back to a point where he’s been both effective and efficient. His shot chart since December 19 shows only 11 percent of his attempts from three and over half at the rim. Of note: he is still taking some midrange shots, but he’s actually likely been Houston’s most effective midrange shooter over this span too, shooting 91/210 with the entire remainder of the Houston roster 73/208.

This trend goes back further, but has gotten even more extreme as he’s gotten comfortable (9 percent of Westbrook’s attempts are threes post Christmas). 

He’s not just getting his own scoring, but has been running the bench lineups just as Chris Paul used to, after a really (REALLY) bad start to the season doing so. Westbrook-led non-Harden lineups have been a +9.6 net rating over the last two months and +5.5 over the last three months.

He’s currently 6th in the NBA in made shots from 0-3 feet from the basket. Though he doesn’t make those shots at quite the rate of big men, he’s near a career high at 63.5 percent, not too far off some bigs like Andre Drummond (65.9 percent). Houston’s most recent experiment with micro ball has entirely opened the floor for him as well, with his shooting at the rim skyrocketing in a limited sample.

And to boot, his advanced numbers have gradually climbed:1

So we’ve seen what many expected from Westbrook if he were on a roster with spacing: a more efficient version of Russ, not required to provide spacing and free to become a miniature Giannis with added skills in passing and ball handling.

If this was a roster type he’d had available just three or four years ago. the potential would’ve been through the roof. Even though it’s fun seeing him enjoy the new style it hurts a little knowing he’s not what he once was and could have been even better.

Is Good Russ bad for the Thunder?

Westbrook’s strong play has really done no harm to anything the Thunder got back in future picks when trading him to Houston. Of the full haul, only one asset is set to be in play in the near term:

The 2021 Houston pick swap likely was never going to be a high end pick. OKC getting Chris Paul back, and rehabbing his trade value somewhat, has helped their short term outlook. The remaining picks and swaps over the long term remain very appealing. Both Harden and Westbrook are over 30 years old now and, by then, will be in somet kind of decline. Houston has very little in terms of youth,and just traded its 2020 first round pick to get Robert Covington.

To top all of this off, Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta has shown some unwillingness to spend. He didn’t extend Mike D’Antoni before the season, and the legendar coach seems destined to be moving on barring a title run. Oh, and their general manager, who’s been one of the best in the business? Yeah, he made a comment preseason that caused a minor crisis and took the Rockets off national TV in China. Costing a cheap owner money is one way to get on thin ice.

This season started off with the same old Westbrook, but he’s become an improved, maybe even optimized version of himself. It’s also brought up a lot of what ifs in terms of what could have happened on a Thunder team built differently for the last decade2. But rest easy, and enjoy watching Russ do well. It’s much too soon to project future picks (ask Boston how the Nets, Kings, and Grizzlies picks looked a year out) but Westbrook lifting Houston’s performance will do no obvious harm to any Thunder assets down the road.

Heck, by 2026, maybe he’ll have returned to OKC on a cheaper deal, extending his playing days with some of this rejuvenation.

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