How Can the Rockets Overcome Losing Russell Westbrook?

Michael Shapiro

On a purely statistical basis, the Rockets aren't significantly worse off without Russell Westbrook. Houston's offensive rating is actually better with the MVP point guard off the floor, and the Rockets still post a winning record in games without Westbrook. But cherry-picking a few encouraging stats obscures the point. James Harden and Co. can still beat Oklahoma City without Westbrook, but escaping to round two will require multiple players stepping up. A potential upset is firmly in play. 

So what exactly are the Rockets missing without Westbrook? Harden said it himself on Wednesday.

"For me, nothing changes no matter who’s on the court," Harden told the media. "What’s missed is his ability to get to the basket, draw defenders in and create opportunities for our team."

The metrics back up Harden's assessment. Houston's pace drops to the bottom half of the NBA when Westbrook sits, and it attempts six fewer threes per game. The Rockets offense becomes a touch plodding without Westbrook, which isn't necessarily a criticism considering they have the best isolation player in NBA history. But we've seen a slowed Rockets' attack stall in the postseason. Westbrook brought a dynamism to the offense unseen in the Harden era. 

Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni has expressed the need for Houston to push the pace despite Westbrook’s absence. The same principle applies in the half-court, especially when opponents double-team Harden. With plenty of attention on the three-time scoring champion, Houston’s supporting cast will need to be active and aggressive off the catch. Punishing teams in 4-on-3 situations is the best way to beat the Harden trap.

Does Houston have the playmaking to tread water if Harden is neutralized? There’s some reason for optimism. Previous Houston squads surrounded Harden with four largely stationary players when Chris Paul exited the game, and the situation was even more dire before 2017-18. Harden is perhaps the game’s greatest one-man show. But even he can’t win a playoff series alone.

Eric Gordon stands as the most likely candidate to fill the void in Westbrook‘s absence. It has been a dismal year from the Indiana product, and those struggles continued in Wednesday’s loss to the Pacers. But Gordon has the skill set to be a valuable offensive force next to Harden. The 12-year veteran is a dangerous threat beyond the arc, and perhaps more importantly, he has a true verve and aggression driving to the rim. Gordon has been a key force in each of Houston’s last two playoff runs. A similar performance vs. Oklahoma City would allow the Rockets to advance to round two relatively unscathed. 

Houston has a smattering of options outside of Harden if Gordon struggles. Both P.J. Tucker and Robert Covington are stationary shooters in the starting lineup, but Danuel House can add at least some threat off the bounce. The young forward certainly has the athleticism to break defenses down in the half-court. Doing so consistently is a different task. House’s development has been impressive this season, and he’ll likely get tested early and often vs. Oklahoma City.

Austin Rivers is the final piece of Houston’s playmaking puzzle without Westbrook, and the backup point guard is an increasingly attractive option. Rivers is shooting over 40% from three since mid-January, though his real impact comes as a drive-and-kick specialist. The 28-year-old's first step to the rim is tremendous. He’s quick and decisive off the catch. The Duke product seems to get into the lane at will, especially when the ball is reversed to the weak side. 

Rivers can be a bit of Jekyll-and-Hyde player. He dropped 41 points on Sunday, then registered a team-worst minus-18 on Wednesday. Rivers’ matchup with Dennis Schroeder is one of the most interesting subplots in round one. Playing OKC's superb guard trio to a draw would be considered a major victory. 

Westbrook’s absence would mark a death knell against either Los Angeles juggernaut, and Houston is certainly in danger of an upset if its point guard is out for the entire series vs. Oklahoma City. But we shouldn’t hit the panic button just yet. The Rockets will continue to revolve around Harden, and having the best scorer of his era isn’t a bad start. At least one of Gordon, House and Rivers should pick up the remaining playmaking slack, a difficult responsibility only in minutes when Harden sits. Houston’s offense isn’t especially dynamic without Westbrook. It can still be plenty effective.

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