When the Houston Rockets traded Chris Paul and two future first-round picks to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Russell Westbrook in the offseason, they took a gamble.
They took a similar gamble a few years earlier when they traded for Paul, but there were clearer signs at the time that Paul could coexist next to James Harden - provided, of course, that he took a backseat to Harden on offence. There were a few more warning signs with Westbrook, mostly because he's been an inefficient 3-point shooter and a turnover machine for much of his career.
So how is the gamble paying off?
We'll have a clearer answer in the playoffs - the Rockets acquired Westbrook with the postseason in mind, not necessarily the regular season - but Westbrook's game has changed in some interesting changes to ease his fit next to Harden. While he's still generating a large chunk of his scoring in transition, he's not running nearly as many pick-and-rolls as he did during his time with the Thunder.
Westbrook is instead creating more of his offence in isolation and on spot-ups.
Paul underwent a similar transformation when he joined the Rockets in 2017. He almost doubled his points per game in isolation in his first season in Houston, putting him behind only Harden and LeBron James for most in the league. His pick-and-roll scoring declined as well, albeit not quite as drastically as Westbrook's has.
What's interesting about Westbrook is his spot-up attempts have skyrocketed next to Harden in a way Paul's never did. The reason why: Paul was too good of a shooter for defenders to help off of, whereas teams have been far less hesitant to help off of Westbrook, who has made only 20.8 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts this season. (Of the 200-plus players who have attempted at least 50 of those shots, nobody has converted them at a lower rate. It's contributed to him being the worst jump shooter in the league. Not great.)
It doesn't help that Harden is having one of the most prolific scoring seasons we've ever seen. Drawing double teams is nothing new for Harden, but teams have gone to new extremes to get the ball out of his hands to force other players to beat them with Westbrook often being the biggest target.
We saw it when the Rockets played the Golden State Warriors on Christmas Day. We saw it against the Denver Nuggets. We saw it when they played the Toronto Raptors. We even saw it when they played the LA Clippers, a team that is built around two All-NBA perimeter defenders in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
Even though the Clippers had Leonard guarding Harden on the final possession of the game, George helped off of Westbrook to double the one-time MVP. JaMychal Green then stunted towards Westbrook before quickly recovering to P.J. Tucker in the corner, giving Westbrook an open 3-pointer that he was unable to knock down.
How Westbrook and the Rockets handle those traps could ultimately determine Houston's ceiling this season because teams are going to continue doubling Harden, particularly in crunch time, until they prove they can consistently beat it.
Developing into a reliable shooter is the simplest solution, but that's probably not going to happen considering Westbrook has made only 30.4 percent of his 3-point attempts in his NBA career. The other option is to have him attack the basket instead of settling for jumpers.
Westbrook has been doing more of that lately, both as a cutter and driver. Even at age 31, he is one of the quickest and more athletic players in the league, capable of finishing over and through defenders in the paint. It's the part of his game that the Rockets were likely drawn to the most when they traded Paul and two future draft picks for him.
Westbrook is also among the league leaders in assists created off of drives this season. Clint Capela, Ben McLemore and Tucker have been the biggest beneficiaries of his passing, as they're the ones who are usually open when teams collapse on his drives - Capela as a cutter and lob target around the basket, McLemore and Tucker as spot-up shooters in the corners. Further evidence? The Westbrook-to-Tucker one-two punch has been the most prolific corner 3 tag team in the entire league.
In an attempt to maximize Westbrook's playmaking ability on drives, the Rockets have found some success by moving him to the weakside and having him cut to the free throw line when Harden gets doubled, almost using him as their version of Draymond Green. That way, he's a greater threat to make a play, whether it's for himself or someone else.
"That's what it's all about," Tucker told Kelly Iko of The Athletic. "Because then, they have to make decisions. You start to get downhill, the guys inch off the corner, now the wing's open. If he steps up, the lob is open. If not, a corner 3."
Ultimately, all of this is why the Westbrook experiment can't really be judged until the playoffs - the Rockets have clearly built this team with a championship in mind and it could very well take between now and April for them to figure out how to get the most out of him.
The encouraging sign is that Westbrook's numbers have improved across the board as the season has gone on. He went from averaging 21.9 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.8 assists in the month of November to 27.1 points, 8.4 rebounds and 7.4 assists in December, all while shooting better from the field, perimeter and free throw line. He was still well below league average from 3-point range last month (22.8 percent), but he relied far less on those shots, going from 5.7 3-point attempts per game in November to 4.4 in December.
If Westbrook can continue to trend in that direction, he'll give the Rockets a fighting chance of making their latest gamble work.
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