The NBA’s newest Big Two is the most fascinating from a tactical perspective. James Harden and Russell Westbrook played together for three seasons almost a decade ago for the Thunder. But how will they readjust as teammates now that both have won an MVP playing apart? And can the latter’s low-efficiency offense fit into an analytically optimized environment designed by Daryl Morey and Mike D’Antoni? The answer to those questions, in the wake of last week’s blockbuster trade that sent Westbrook to Houston and Chris Paul and picks to Oklahoma City, will reverberate in all directions—through the West; through Harden’s and Westbrook’s respective legacies; and through the Rockets’ sideline and front office, where Morey and D’Antoni, like Harden and Westbrook, still search for their first NBA championship.
Since Morey became the Rockets’ general manager ahead of the 2007-08 season, only the Spurs have won more games; since Harden joined the Rockets, only the Warriors and Spurs have a better record. But that sustained regular-season success hasn’t meant much in the playoffs—this upcoming season marks the 25th anniversary of Houston’s last Finals team.
So Morey added Westbrook with the hope that his new All-NBA backcourt would be able to press further into the playoffs than his last All-NBA backcourt could. But the former Thunder guard seems a flummoxing fit in Houston’s spacey, 3s-and-layups system, especially with another high-usage, iso-happy guard already on the roster. How, then, will Westbrook mesh with Houston’s established system? Can Harden and Westbrook coexist? As we wait for opening night of the 2019-20 season, we can examine the recent histories of Westbrook, Harden, Paul, and the Rockets to get an early read on how it could all play out. Here are 30 facts, figures, and trends that help explain the advantages and weaknesses of Westbrook in Houston.
1. Westbrook has been a bad 3-point shooter throughout his career—the worst ever, in fact, among players with at least 2,500 attempts.
2. Westbrook has never reached the league average in 3-point percentage in any season.
3. Westbrook has shot about 14 percent worse than the league average throughout his career. For comparison, Reggie Miller and Mike Miller were both 14 percent above the league average through their careers; Westbrook is as bad at 3s as two of the best long-range shooters of all time were good.
4. In four of the last five seasons, Westbrook has taken at least four 3s per game and made less than 30 percent of them. Allen Iverson (three times) and Jason “White Chocolate” Williams (two) are the only other players in NBA history to do that more than once.
5. In the last half-decade, the only non-Westbrook players to reach those benchmarks even once are Kobe Bryant, in his final season, and Marcus Smart in 2016-17. Westbrook, again, has accomplished the feat four times in that period.
6. Will Westbrook shoot even more 3s in Houston? Recent history suggests as much. Over the last three seasons—when Houston has really amplified its 3-point focus—eight non-centers have joined the Rockets and played at least 40 games. They increased their average per-game 3-point attempts by 41 percent, and their average 3-point attempt rate (the proportion of attempts that come from beyond the arc) by 46 percent. Every single one took at least 22 percent more 3s as an overall proportion of their shot attempts.
3-Point Changes in Houston
|Luc Mbah a Moute
7. That’s a small sample and those players were perhaps selected for Houston’s roster specifically because of their 3-point prowess, but the pattern also seems clear. That average suggests Westbrook would take eight 3-pointers per game next year.
8. In the last decade, a player has taken at least eight 3-pointers per game 20 times. The worst 3-point percentage among that group was 34.7, by Harden in 2016-17. That’s still better than Westbrook’s best season ever from beyond the arc.
But 3-pointers aren’t the only jump shots on the court, even if Houston might try its best to force that relationship. Here, another discrepancy emerges.
9. Last season, Houston as a team attempted 4.8 midrange jumpers per game, by far the fewest in the league. Westbrook took 4.9 per game.
10. Westbrook made those midrange shots at a lowly 32 percent clip—last among players with at least 200 attempts.
11. The new Rockets guard has long called a pull-up midrange jumper his “cotton shot” because he always expects it to fall through the net. But since 2013-14—as far back at NBA.com/Stats tracks pull-ups—he’s shot worse than 40 percent on 2-point pull-ups. In his career, he’s shot worse than 40 percent on all 2-pointers of at least 10 feet.
12. Westbrook’s previous shot distribution thus doesn’t seem to mesh with Houston’s. But the potential silver lining is that if D’Antoni can coax some change from his new point guard, Westbrook could meaningfully improve his efficiency just by excising the kinds of shots that Houston would want excised anyway. In his career, Westbrook has a 46.4 percent effective field goal mark (which adjusts normal field goal percentage to account for the extra value of 3-pointers). That ranks him 156th out of 169 players who have taken at least 10,000 shots since the introduction of the 3-point line. If he had never taken a midrange jumper, his eFG would zoom up to 50.5 percent, which would rank him a much more palatable 68th. Even a 3-pointer from the league’s worst 3-point marksman is worth more expected points than a Westbrook midrange jumper.
Beyond where Westbrook’s shots will come from, the other prominent question about the new pairing is how many shots Westbrook will get, period, when sharing the floor with Harden. That query makes sense given the pair’s ballooning usage rates since they last played together in Oklahoma City.
13. For instance, Westbrook, in 2016-17, posted the highest usage rate in recorded NBA history, ending 41.7 percent of possessions with a shot, turnover, or trip to the free throw line.
14. Harden, in 2018-19, posted the second-highest usage rate in recorded NBA history (40.5 percent).
15. Over a full career, Westbrook ranks no. 2 all time in usage (behind only Michael Jordan). Harden ranks 11th. But if you counted only his Houston tenure, Harden would rank second, a smidge ahead of Westbrook.
16. The two guards have been especially ball-dominant in recent seasons. Westbrook hasn’t dropped below a 30 percent usage rate since 2009-10 (his second season in the league), and Harden’s been above 30 for five consecutive seasons. The only other player who can say that is Westbrook.
Longest Active Streak With a 30+ Usage Rate
17. Can two players with such high usages really coexist? History suggests such concerns might be overstated. For instance, Kevin Durant’s career usage rate with Seattle/Oklahoma City was 30.5 percent; in three seasons in Golden State, it dropped an almost imperceptible amount, to 29.1. Steph Curry’s usage rate in the three seasons before Durant joined, meanwhile, was 29.9 percent; in three seasons with Durant, it actually rose slightly, to 30.4.
18. Or consider another recent pairing. Chris Paul’s usage rate on the Clippers was 24.3 percent; in Houston, it was 23.5. Harden, meanwhile, saw his usage increase considerably with Paul as a teammate, from 31.0 percent in Houston before Paul’s addition to 38.4 percent after. So it’s definitely possible for two ball-dominant players to mostly maintain that trait while teammates.
19. Overall, 10 teams in NBA history have featured two qualifying players with a 30 percent usage rate or higher—and those 10 teams were really good. On average, they won 54 games (or the equivalent for a lockout-shortened season); five reached the Finals, and another three reached the conference finals. Only the 1980 San Diego Clippers, with World B. Free and Freeman Williams, missed the playoffs or won fewer than 50 games.
20. Of the successful teams, three already involved Westbrook, with Durant in Oklahoma City. Three more were Shaq-Kobe Lakers squads, two were LeBron-Wade Heat joints, and the final team saw Shaq and Wade team up in Miami. The lesson is that if two players are both sufficiently talented to warrant using so many possessions, their team is likely to benefit from their shared skill, rather than suffer from an over-restrictive “my turn, your turn” policy. An NBA game contains a whole lot of possessions, and that number is only rising—it reached 100 per team per game last year, per Basketball-Reference, the highest single-season total in three decades. That leaves more than enough room for both Harden and Westbrook to exert their offensive games at full capacity when playing together, to say nothing of D’Antoni’s ability to stagger their minutes to ensure that one is in to command possession at all times.
Westbrook on the Ball
It’s worth zooming in on D’Antoni’s offensive play sheet a bit more, to examine not just how often Westbrook might shoot or dribble the ball, but in what circumstances he might do so. In some respects, Westbrook would seem to fit right in with D’Antoni’s ethos.
21. Last season, the top three players in isolation plays per game (minimum 40 games played) were, in order, Harden, Westbrook, and Paul. One difference is that Harden has always been an outrageously efficient isolation scorer—last season, he scored almost twice as many isolation points as any other team did—while Westbrook has tended to rate below league average in points per isolation possession.
22. Westbrook fits—and perhaps fits better—in other areas, too. Also last season, Harden led the NBA in drives per game (19.6) while Westbrook ranked third (18.4).
23. The two guards differed in what they did next, though both were successful in converting drives to points. Harden mostly shot and drew fouls; among players with at least 10 drives per game, he scored on the highest percentage of his drives. Westbrook mostly passed; among that same group of frequent drivers, he ranked first in assist percentage on his forays to the rim.
24. Westbrook ranked second in assist percentage on drives in 2017-18. First place that season was Paul, who spent his first season in Houston dishing to shooters spotting up on the perimeter and centers barrelling toward the rim.
25. Westbrook is suited for the same kind of distribution in Houston, with one caveat. It’s not true, as the common perception might suggest, that Westbrook will be playing with more capable targets for his passes in Houston than he did in Oklahoma City. Over the past three seasons, the most common non-Westbrook 3-point shooters for the Thunder succeeded on about 38 percent of their catch-and-shoot 3s—the same as the players now on Houston’s roster over the same period.
26. The Rockets also emphasize shot creation by their guards—only Paul and Harden averaged even 2.5 assists per game last season—and Westbrook is already quite familiar with this brand of scoring. Out of the 120 players last season who made at least 300 shots, Harden ranked first in the percentage of his field goals that were unassisted (87 percent). Second place was Paul (86 percent). Third was De’Aaron Fox, and fourth was Westbrook (75 percent). The season before, Paul ranked first, Harden second, and Westbrook third. In other words: Harden and Westbrook might not share the ball much with each other, but they can score on their own just fine.
Westbrook off the Ball
What about when Westbrook doesn’t have the ball? That’s yet another big test for D’Antoni—and the player himself—given Westbrook’s history of off-ball nonchalance. It’s tricky to quantify movement with public data, but we can look at two quick measures that show how little Westbrook integrated into this subset of offense in Oklahoma City.
27. The first is performance as a roll man in the pick-and-roll. Last season, Westbrook finished a grand total of one possession in this role. The season before, he finished three. Going back season by season, that kind of absence continues: one, three, one, three, four, one.
28. To be fair, it’s not as if D’Antoni has typically used his guards in this fashion. Harden, for instance, finished just three plays as the roll man last season. But this option could be tantalizing this season—imagine a pick-and-roll in which a trapping defense doubles Harden and leaves Westbrook room with the ball in his hands, in a four-on-three power play driving toward the rim à la Draymond Green. Given Westbrook’s passing panache, such an offensive set could sing, especially in a small Tuckwagon lineup that features four shooters around Westbrook. Other teams use unorthodox pick-and-roll combinations to trick defenses—Curry, for instance, finished 38 plays as the roll man last season—and Houston would do well to at least experiment with the tactic this season.
29. The other measure to examine is screen assists, or picks that lead directly to made shots. Going back three seasons, I calculated per-game screen assist averages for every guard with at least 50 games played. Here is the percentile ranking for Westbrook in screen assists over each of those seasons, plus those rankings for a handful of other elite point guards for comparison.
Percentile Ranking for Per-Game Screen Assists Among Guards
30. In 2016-17, Westbrook tallied one total screen assist all season; last year, he was at five. Every other elite point guard is a consistent, if not elite, screen setter; Westbrook barely bothered in OKC. (Curry would be the most prolific screening guard in the league if not for Ben Simmons, who’s a different kind—and build—of player at the position.) Notice how Paul rose from near the middle of the league to near the top once he joined the Rockets. If Westbrook follows suit early in the season, displaying newfound engagement in the offense when the ball isn’t in his hands, it will be an encouraging sign for Morey and Co., and for the Rockets offense more broadly as the team tinkers to maintain its elite production with a new second star.