The James Harden and Russell Westbrook experiment in Houston remains a work in progress. The early returns on the MVP backcourt have been mixed. Harden has somehow been even better than he was last season, while Westbrook has been just as inefficient as he was in Oklahoma City. Westbrook isn’t going to change on his own. Harden has to fix him.
It’s a new type of challenge for a player who essentially broke basketball last season. Harden’s stepback 3 is a cheat code that no one has found an answer for. It seemed impossible that he would top having the eighth-highest scoring average of all time (36.1 points per game) last season. But he’s all the way up to third (38.9) this season. The only player still ahead of him is Wilt Chamberlain.
The problem is that’s not the only NBA history being made in Houston. Westbrook is having the worst 3-point shooting season of all time (22.8 percent) among players who have attempted at least 5.0 3s per game. And that has allowed defenses to try something we have never seen before: There have been many games this season where Harden has been doubled as soon as he crosses half court.
The hope was that getting Westbrook out of Oklahoma City and pairing him with another MVP would make him a more efficient player. He would have less offensive responsibility playing alongside Harden as well as the benefit of more 3-point shooting around him. The improved floor spacing has certainly helped: Westbrook is shooting the highest field goal percentage of his career (67.3) at the rim. But that has been negated by his gruesome percentages (29.6) from everywhere else on the floor.
The advanced numbers are even uglier. Westbrook is one of 15 players in the NBA with a usage rating higher than 30. He’s dead last in that group in true shooting percentage (50.4), more than four points behind Donovan Mitchell (55.1) at no. 14. The distance between Westbrook and Mitchell is the same as the distance between Mitchell and the fifth-ranked player on that list. For all the good things that Westbrook does on the court, it’s hard to win with a player who throws up that many bricks.
So far this season, Harden has been a high-performance race car, and Westbrook has been the brakes. Harden goes from climbing up a steep incline with his costar to flying downhill without him. And that doesn’t even get into what happens when Westbrook is on the floor by himself:
Houston’s MVP Configurations
|Harden and Russ||617||plus-7.2|
|Harden w/o Russ||403||plus-13.6|
|Russ w/o Harden||217||minus-10.2|
The Rockets took a massive gamble when they traded Chris Paul for Westbrook this summer. While Paul seemed to age overnight last season and reportedly clashed with Harden off the court, they made for a much more sensible pairing on the court. Paul was an elite 3-point shooter who could play off the ball and stay out of Harden’s way. Integrating a nonshooter like Westbrook has been a far more difficult challenge.
The original plan seemed to be to keep everything the same and let Westbrook play in transition. Houston has gone from no. 26 in the NBA in tempo last season to no. 3 this year. The difference is all Westbrook. Of all their rotation players, the Rockets play at the second-fastest pace when he’s on the court and the slowest when he’s out. But while he has had a lot of highlight-reel plays in the open floor, he hasn’t been that effective. He’s in only the 31st percentile of transition scorers in the league.
Given Westbrook’s struggles, Houston has done well to stay within striking distance out West. They are the no. 5 seed with an 18-9 record and own a net rating of plus-4.8. The Rockets should get a boost when Eric Gordon returns from knee surgery next month, assuming that he gets out of the massive shooting slump he was mired in before his injury. But there probably isn’t much help coming on the trade market. The Rockets have been reluctant to pay the luxury tax under owner Tilman Fertitta and already used most of their future draft picks to get Westbrook. Their cupboard is bare and they have no salaries to move, barring something drastic.
Improving their current roster is a fairly simple equation for a franchise that has always been defined by math under GM Daryl Morey. Westbrook has to either take fewer shots or better ones.
Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni, who has always been fairly hands-off with his stars, isn’t going to change Westbrook. The only thing D’Antoni can do is change the situation around him. The obvious fix is playing Westbrook in smaller lineups where he’s the only nonshooter. There’s just not a lot of room for him—or anyone, really—to operate when he’s playing with a rim-running center like Clint Capela.
The cause and effect has been pretty clear cut. The Rockets have a net rating of plus-3.8 in 447 minutes with Harden, Westbrook, and Capela. That number jumps to plus-5.1 in 672 minutes with just Harden and Capela and plus-7.2 in 617 minutes with just Harden and Westbrook—and Capela on the bench.
Houston has always been a great small-ball team. It was one of the few squads that could match up with Golden State’s Lineup of Death because of its ability to play P.J. Tucker (6-foot-5, 245 pounds) at the 5. Those lineups are where swapping out Paul, an undersized and methodical guard, for Westbrook, one of the most explosive athletes in the league, could pay off. He plays much bigger than his size (6-foot-3, 200 pounds), leading all players in the NBA under 6-foot-6 in rebounding this season at 8.1 per game.
The Rockets could be the best small-ball team in the NBA if Westbrook focuses on cleaning the glass, finishing at the rim, and finding open shooters at the 3-point line. In essence, they need Westbrook to play like Draymond Green. He’d make a killing in pick-and-rolls with Harden, getting the same types of four-on-three opportunities as Green when he screened for Steph Curry and rolled to the basket. If Westbrook got the ball going downhill with three shooters around him, he could live at the rim instead of settling for jumpers.
But getting Westbrook to do that is easier said than done. Green is a former second-round pick who embraced a role as a glue guy. He’s not a former MVP who has spent his entire life with the ball in his hands. Westbrook has made a lot of sacrifices in Houston. Giving up his body to screen for Harden would be on a whole different level. The Rockets haven’t used him as a roll man once this season.
D’Antoni likely wouldn’t be able to sell Westbrook on the change. It would have to come from Harden. He’s the MVP candidate who needs a ring to secure his legacy. It’s his job to make everyone fall in line.
Look at what LeBron James did in his return to Cleveland. Before the start of his first season, he held a players-only meeting with everyone on the roster and outlined what their roles would be. LeBron had a vision for how his team should play and the ruthlessness to execute it. He got Kyrie Irving to play as a second option and turned Kevin Love into a floor-spacing big man. Neither was particularly comfortable in those roles. But LeBron never stopped working on them, sending messages to Kyrie through the media and subtweeting Love.
Harden needs a plan for his team beyond racking up his own astronomical numbers. That is the easy part for a player of his caliber. The challenge is everything else.
Harden isn’t just chasing one fully empowered superstar out West. He’s chasing two. LeBron and Kawhi Leonard carefully constructed their respective superteams this offseason. Whether or not they are better players than Harden is almost beside the point. They are better GMs. Anthony Davis and Paul George make a lot more sense as costars than Westbrook.
There’s so much that goes into winning an NBA title beyond what happens on the court. It’s not enough for Harden to outscore LeBron and Kawhi. He has to outthink them and outscheme them, too. If his plan was for Westbrook to stand in the corner while he went for 40 every night, he never had a chance.