The Houston Rockets flipping Chris Paul and two picks for Russell Westbrook, has been the icing on the cake in perhaps the most unique offseason in NBA history. Has Daryl Morey finally lost the plot, overwhelmed by years of analytics-driven team construction that has produced some of the most exceptional offenses ever, having consistently failed to achieve in the postseason?
On paper, adding a player who was named MVP just two years ago in exchange for a declining, undersized guard – who has only played more 60 games in one season during the last three years (and only 61 in that season), and who is still owed $121 million over the next three seasons – is a move you make every single time.
But this is Russell Westbrook: an exceptional and mercurial talent, with a history of knee injuries (said knees almost annually require a surgical scope), owed $169.7million over the next four seasons (by which time he’ll be 34) and coming off his least efficient year, since his sophomore season in 2009-2010.
How is this backcourt going to co-exist? Two players with some of the highest usage rates in the league each season. Between them, Westbrook and his new backcourt teammate James Harden have the dubious honour of holding the top five spots on the “most turnovers in a single season in the NBA” list.
— Double Clutch NBA UK (@DoubleClutchUK) July 12, 2019
Ball dominant stars, used to being the focal point of their respective systems and always going to get “theirs”.
When Westbrook and Harden both got 9 Assists
— Almighty Jay (@GlooBoyyJ) July 12, 2019
Maybe MoreyBall has gone mad. The addition of Westbrook means that the Rockets GM’s endless pursuit of a mathematical advantage, focusing on high-efficiency points per shot offenses (simply put, “3 and key”) is now at complete loggerheads with his concurrent obsession that “stars count”. Undoubtedly they do… but there is a point where the type of star a player is outweighs just getting any old star (see Dwight Howard circa LA and Houston era).
Morey’s a gambler, and more often than not, he’s a good gambler. Melo aside, on most occasions when you doubt him, you just end up realising how much smarter he is than you (and me). So, could this thing work?
We don’t need to look very far at all to see a ball dominant star, who actually makes his team equally as good when he’s off the ball – Steph Curry. The sheer fear his shooting accuracy creates forces defense to work so hard in preventing him from getting the ball, that his team mates benefit hugely.
Westbrook is no long range bomber, but Harden is. And although he’s not Steph, to call him a poor-man’s Steph would be to do him an incredible disservice (the Beard has led the league in threes made and taken for the past two seasons). Could Harden enact a similar role, for periods of a game, creating opportunities for others that don’t show up in the box score? He may need selling on it, but this is a player who has carried a huge load for the past few seasons and has suffered for it, to the point where he appears to be running on empty, when it comes to the postseason.
Oh and the usage rate thing? Don’t worry about that, only two sets of teammates finished in the top 20 for usage rate last year. Steph and KD (13 and 20, respectively) and Russ and Paul George (10 and 18, respectively). So it is a workable scenario.
Think about how the Rockets have struggled with scoring when Harden is on the bench. With the 6’5 combo guard on the floor, the team are 8 points per 100 possessions better off. According to Cleaning the Glass, that puts Harden in the 94th percentile across the entire NBA. In other words, an elite level difference maker.
Now, imagine Harden not being forced to log 36.8 minutes per game (third in the league).
Miraculously, despite his heavy load, Harden still had the second highest efficiency rate in the NBA at 30.6. Logic would suggest that the greater the physical load, the harder it becomes to be efficient, so the inverse (reducing Harden’s minutes) could further increase his efficiency.
With the Beard going to the bench, if Head Coach Mike D’Antoni staggers their minutes, Westbrook gets to feast upon second units. Russ doesn’t need to jack threes, we already know he can’t effectively. Instead, he gets to push the tempo, as he so enjoys, and go end to end at 100 miles per hour.
In the half court, Houston has a number of three point options that OKC didn’t in recent years, stretching the floor and allowing Westbrook to go one on one with his defender. Blitz with big? Rockets center Clint Capela gets his points (actually, he might be the biggest beneficiary of this trade stats wise) and he’s a significantly superior athlete to Steven Adams.
Having come so far and fallen in the past two seasons, and with a number of other Western Conference foes re-tooling ready to make a run for the chip, Houston needed to do something to avoid falling behind. This move prises their championship window open for a little longer. But are they significantly better than they were last year?
The team looks set for another monumental regular season. However, the Playoffs are a different kettle of fish. Harden’s numbers and usage will creep up again and then what? Can Westbrook thrive in an off-ball role? How much can the Rockets survive without the ball in the hands of their best player? The 2019-20 season hints at being a championship or bust year for the Rockets. Think carefully before you back them to succeed, because there are more than a number of historical factors that hint as to why not.
Feature photo – Elsa / Getty Images / NBAE / Double Clutch illustration – Matthew Wellington