Few superstars have been as polarizing as Russell Westbrook has been for much of the last decade. Few superstars have seen their shot selection so widely mocked and criticized while still being considered one of the league’s most freakish talents. And while Westbrook was once popular enough to win an MVP award, it would seem an equal percentage of the NBA intelligentsia view that season as the nadir of his career. At this very moment however, while It’s only been a couple months of the “new” Westbrook, it seems that’s all finally starting to change.
Particularly after the Rockets traded Clint Capela and committed to playing without a traditional center, Westbrook has played some of the most efficient and devastating basketball of his career. (The uptick in Russ’s play and efficiency actually began a little earlier in the season, but now the Rockets are a fully realized offensive juggernaut.) Since Capela played his last game on Jan. 29, Houston has a 118.0 offensive rating, second best in the league. And its 8.3 net rating is fourth best. The new system has also reaped benefits for the Westbrook-James Harden duo. The pair had a 5.3 net rating when sharing the court through Jan. 29. From the day after through Wednesday’s win against the Grizzlies, Harden and Westbrook have a bonkers 18.3 net rating when sharing the floor.
I wasn’t a fan of the move when Houston first traded Chris Paul for Westbrook. CP has played stellar basketball for the Thunder, and swapping him out for someone like Westbrook, who is nowhere near the outside shooter Paul is, didn’t make much sense as a one-for-one swap. Through the first couple months of the season, it almost seemed like the Rockets were winning in spite of Westbrook. Harden was posting absurd scoring numbers, while Russ continued to clank threes from the outside, the duo producing a partnership that was statistically worse than what Harden and Paul did the previous couple seasons. While Westbrook obviously deserves the most credit for his new style of play, Daryl Morey was smart in realizing the team’s current setup wasn’t the best way to get the most out of his two superstars. The Capela trade wasn’t only about Houston wanting to shoot even more threes or trolling people who hate the way the Rockets play, it was about giving Harden and especially Westbrook even more room to showcase their talents.
At this point in his career, Westbrook still has the athleticism to make most defenders pay in a one-on-one situation. Having Capela out of the paint gives Russ much more room to operate, and he’s taking advantage. Instead of spotting up while Harden isos or runs pick and rolls, Westbrook can now more easily dart into the paint on cuts, more easily catch-and-go from the perimeter, or more easily drive into the restricted area without the fear of meeting extra defenders.
The biggest bugaboo with Westbrook was always his shot selection. Why was a historically bad three-point shooter launching so many attempts from beyond the arc? Putting Westbrook into Houston’s famously trigger happy system seemed like a recipe for disaster, and for a while, the fit was awkward at best. That finally seems to have changed.
Since the Capela trade, Russ is shooting only 2.4 threes per game, nearly two less a night than he was shooting before, cutting out practically all of his pull-up threes. (For more context, Westbrook hasn’t shot fewer than three threes a game since the 2011 season.) Without a big hanging out near the rim, Russ is shooting nearly four more shots per night within 10 feet, up to 15.1 from 11.3 since Jan. 30. And he’s converting at a better rate too, hitting 62% of his shots from inside compared to 56.1% since Capela was on the team.
It’s fun to watch this new version of Westbrook. His first step is still killer, and he will blow by defenders who are flat footed for even half a second. At one moment Westbrook is beginning a hesitation dribble on the wing, the next he’s softly laying the ball of the glass while mean mugging the hapless fools who thought they could stop him. Russ is finally leveraging his absurd athleticism to constantly parade to the rim, mixing in some post ups and pull-up twos along the way. Ultimately, the combination of four floor spacers on the court at all time and Westbrook’s commitment to taking high-percentage shots is quickly turning Houston into one of the most feared teams in the West.
If there’s a caveat, it’s trust. Will Westbrook continue to play this way moving forward? Or will he revert back to some of his bad habits in high-pressure moments? The Westbrook 2.0 sample size is realistically incredibly small compared to the rest of his career, or even only compared to his three non-Kevin Durant years in OKC. Frankly, it’s fair to wonder if this version of Westbrook is the only one we’ll see moving forward in his career. On one hand, even someone as famously stubborn as him had to realize his previous style of play wasn’t working through three straight first-round exits. But he also made it this far in his career by being blessed with the ability not to give a f---, and Russ was still having a successful if not legendary career by playing his way.
For now, it seems everyone can finally agree on this: In this present moment, Westbrook is maximizing his talents. He didn’t do it because of the blogs, and apparently he didn’t even do it because his coach asked him too. Whatever pointed Russ in this direction, it’s led to some of the best basketball of his career. As long as he doesn’t stray from this path, the Rockets may have unlocked one of the most unstoppable duos in the league.