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Can Russell Westbrook Ever Change? He’ll Need to in Houston

Westbrook’s playing style won him an MVP, but it couldn’t lead the Thunder out of the first round of the playoffs. Can he ever be less Russ? The Rockets’ reshaped future depends on it.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Six days after Paul George asked for a trade to go join Kawhi Leonard in Los Angeles, the other shoe has dropped in Oklahoma City: Russell Westbrook is no longer a member of the Thunder. OKC general manager Sam Presti pulled off his second franchise-shaking trade in a week on Thursday night, shipping Westbrook—an eight-time All-NBA selection, the 2017 NBA MVP, and the final remaining face of the Thunder franchise’s foundation and glory days—to the Houston Rockets in a blockbuster deal for a package headlined by fellow future Hall of Fame point guard Chris Paul, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Royce Young. To put it mildly: Holy shit.

The move continues Presti’s on-the-fly rebuilding project, which began when he leveraged George’s trade request into a half-decade’s worth of control over Clippers draft assets, continued with flipping Jerami Grant to Denver for a 2020 first-rounder, and will now include control over four Houston selections: protected first-round picks in the 2024 and 2026 NBA drafts, and the right to swap first-rounders with Houston in the 2021 and 2025 drafts. It ends Westbrook’s tenure in Oklahoma City after 11 seasons that saw him become the heart and soul of the relocated franchise. It reunites him with former teammate James Harden, nearly seven years after his own deal to the Rockets, to form yet another high-powered (and potentially volatile) backcourt in Houston.

It also brings Westbrook to a crossroads in his career. Which way he goes from here could go a long way toward determining the legacy of one of the most gifted and polarizing players of a generation.

Westbrook lands in Houston after days of speculation and debate over which destination would prove to be his best fit, and which team would be willing to swallow hard and sign up to take on the largest total contract in the sport. As productive as he still is—22.9 points, 11.1 rebounds, and 10.7 assists per game last season, his unprecedented third straight triple-double average—there didn’t appear to be many teams with the financial wherewithal to import a supermax deal that could pay Westbrook $171.1 million over the next four seasons. (The last remaining season, 2022-23, is a player option for a whopping $47.1 million.) It seemed like we might be in for a bit of a wait while prospective trade partners worked to line up the parameters of a deal. Instead, the Rockets—considered a “long shot” in the process, but always in search of more superstar talent, and known to be interested—swooped in to shuffle their reportedly discordant deck by ponying up a quartet of picks to snare Westbrook.

The deal offers a valuable reminder that what appear to be thorny or even impassable issues—a lack of financial flexibility, concerns about on- and off-court fit, etc.—can be resolved when a team is so motivated to get its man, so convinced of the importance of landing the game-breaker that will propel it to the next level, that it is willing to surmount any obstacle. And there’s the rub with Russ, especially in Houston: What the new version of this familiar backcourt dynamic will look like now, with Harden firmly established as Houston’s supermax alpha dog and an MVP (and three-time runner-up) in his own right, promises to be fascinating.

For all the slings and arrows, Westbrook is still great, fresh off an All-NBA third team selection, and capable of seizing control of a game like few other players in the world. But after three straight first-round playoff exits, a 4-12 postseason record since Kevin Durant became a Warrior, and ghastly net ratings when he played without George last season, we’ve now got reams of evidence to suggest that he’s not great enough on his own to guarantee you anything more than just a ticket to the dance.

Westbrook’s unapologetic and irrepressible maximalism has been a topic of much debate over the years, on this website and in plenty of other places. His penchant for playing with the volume turned up to 11 and the knob ripped off has resulted in awesome feats and translated into great individual success; it has also run aground when it matters most, first at the highest levels of the sport and now, increasingly, just barely after getting off the starting line. Peak Westbrook has not been enough, by himself or even flanked by another MVP-caliber talent, to win it all. Now, he’ll have to start again, in an environment in which he’ll be the new kid on the block rather than a founding father—a setting in which everything won’t be purpose-built around him.

My question: Could this be a good thing?

Could the end of what Westbrook has spent the bulk of his career building, and the need to build something new, serve as a catalyst for midcareer growth? Some introspection about what he might bring to the table in a different context, and whether both he and the Rockets—a team that won’t have much use for Westbrook’s beloved stop-and-pop midrange “cotton shot” from the elbows—might be best served by his contributing a slightly different recipe to this potluck? Maybe even some ... evolution?

It would probably be too much to expect Westbrook to completely reorient his game toward becoming a knockdown spot-up shooter; Jason Kidd didn’t start that project in earnest until he hit his mid-30s in Dallas. But he doesn’t have to completely overhaul his game to have a chance to be a big help in Houston. While Westbrook isn’t on Paul’s level as a surgical practitioner in the pick-and-roll—this is not a knock; few in history have been on CP3’s level in the screen game—his more physical, bombastic, and explosive approach could add a jolt of adrenaline to Houston’s offense. Westbrook isn’t quite the burner he once was, but he’s still got more burst off the line than the current model of Paul does, and he’s better equipped to blow by a defender to get all the way to the basket. Only 11 percent of Paul’s field goal attempts came at the rim last season, compared to 40 percent for Westbrook, who shot a career-best 63 percent on those tries, according to Cleaning the Glass. Those numbers for Westbrook could both rise when he’s flanked by more dangerous shooters in a better-spaced half-court setting.

Another ball handler capable of breaking down a defense off the bounce to get into the teeth of the coverage before taking it himself, lofting a lob to a lurking Clint Capela, or whipping a pass out to an open shooter could be a real boon for the Rockets offense. Westbrook led the league in points created per game via direct assist in each of the past two seasons, and he did that on a team where hardly anybody could hit a 3-point shot; he threw a league-best “802 passes that led directly to a 3-point attempt” in 2018-19, according to Second Spectrum data cited by Chris Herring of FiveThirtyEight. His shot creation might look even better on a roster featuring at least a half-dozen capable catch-and-shoot targets in a scheme that has set new NBA records for total team 3-point attempts in each of the past three seasons.

Maximizing Westbrook’s value within that freewheeling, bombs-away philosophy, though, will require him to focus more on creating for others than for himself. Westbrook attempted 5.6 3-pointers per game last season, the second-highest rate of his career, despite making just 29 percent of them, the third lowest. Barring a major change in beyond-the-arc accuracy for Westbrook—who has the lowest career 3-point percentage of any player in history with at least 2,500 attempts—the bulk of those shots would be better directed toward the waiting hands of his teammates. Will Russ be able to find it within himself to stay within himself, knowing that the Rockets’ other options—Harden, Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker, Austin Rivers, Gerald Green, Danuel House Jr.—are much better equipped to cash in on the looks he can create than he is?

There will also be major questions about how effectively Westbrook can replace Paul on the defensive end. Russ logged big minutes for an excellent Thunder defense last season and proved he can be a disruptive force, ranking fourth in the league in steals and fifth in deflections. His off-ball work, though … well, it needs work, and neither he nor Harden (whose defensive effort has improved since its meme-producing nadir) have consistently shown a capacity to stop top-flight opposing ball handlers at the point of attack. Westbrook is better built and better suited to check point guards than the bigger Harden; is he ready to accept that challenge, and help Houston stay solid enough on that side of the floor to be able to overwhelm opponents with its offense? (If not, a lot of responsibility figures to fall on the shoulders of Gordon, who locked up Donovan Mitchell in the Rockets’ opening-round playoff victory over the Jazz before Houston fell to the Warriors in Round 2.)

Stepping into a secondary offensive role might not be as hard for Westbrook to accept as the general public might think. We’ve already seen him show an increased willingness to take a step back to create space for the growth of an ascendant teammate: Last season, he posted his lowest usage rate since 2010 to make room for George’s emergence. Will he be willing to do the same in Houston, tossing the keys to Harden and recommitting more frequently to working off the ball, if that’s what Daryl Morey, Mike D’Antoni, and the rest of Houston’s brain trust believe will give the team its best chance—not just to win an individual game, but to finally break out of the Western Conference for the franchise’s first NBA Finals berth in a quarter-century?

Maybe not. Westbrook has been doing things his way, all the way, for a long time, and inertia can be a powerful force. It takes a lot to change a man; hell, it takes a lot to try. But for what comes next in Westbrook’s career to stand a chance of being more successful than what immediately preceded it, it’s likely that more than just his location and his uniform will need to be different.

For a player long defined by his predilection for living at the extremes, could less be more? Can Russell Westbrook ever, in any meaningful way, even be less Russell Westbrook? This move to Houston might be our best chance to find out—and his best chance to launch a significant and successful second act.