After a difficult series against the Lakers, the Rockets offense must look at their newest star guard to take some blame for the 4-1 series defeat.
Poor shooting, untimely turnovers and a fan section spat defined Russell Westbrook’s short-lived playoff run with the Houston Rockets. While the Rockets adjusted their roster to work around what Westbrook could do, they fell largely short because of what he couldn’t do.
The former MVP struggled to make a difference in the Rockets second-round match-up against the Los Angeles Lakers, racking up a -9.2 plus-minus for the series. The Houston Rockets went on a majority of their scoring runs with Westbrook off the floor. When on the floor, he played at an erratic pace — throwing bad shots and committing turnovers.
Westbrook finished the series averaging 19.8 points on 41 percent shooting. While that shooting percentage doesn’t scream inefficiency, it helps to note Westbrook also shot 25 percent from the three-point line, 53 percent from the free-throw line and under 35 percent for all shots extending beyond five feet.
And there are plenty of qualifiers that play into Westbrook’s struggles.
The Rockets were the lower seed entering their series. The Lakers are a top-five defensive team, with length that the Rockets – Westbrook in particular – do not have. Westbrook was sidelined for the start of the playoffs behind a quad injury.
But the fact still remains that Houston traded away their young, up and coming big man in Clint Capela to clear the lanes for Westbrook to succeed in that system. So, now the tidal wave of questions is here.
The first being what comes next?
That question is a team-wide wonder that involves a possible coaching change, trades and free-agency gambles. The problem is that Westbrook is on a supermax deal while at the not so fresh age of 32-years-old. His stock following this postseason will not be high enough to match the contract a suitor would have to take on.
Westbrook is set to make a base salary of $41,358,814 next season. And yes, 19.8 ppg in a playoff series is nice, but is it $41,358,814 nice? Westbrook will simply not be a moveable piece.
So the Rockets should jump to option two: making the Westbrook experiment work.
That option is an even bigger head-scratcher. Westbrook and James Harden, despite their off the court friendship, are not a good fit on the court. Westbrook has shot 30.5 percent from three over the entirety of his career. He is not a quality three-point shooter, and defenses guard him as such. And for Harden, that creates clustered driving lanes and limited passing lanes.
Westbrook being a shooting liability allows for the weak side to zone up since he is not a threat. Players on the help-side are able to drift and time passes because they do not have to worry about defending Westbrook on the perimeter.
This isn’t anything new, though. Westbrook struggled to play with other stars around the league because of these same pressing flaws. It is difficult to get Westbrook involved in any off-ball action because he is such a one-dimensional scorer. If he is not getting downhill either on-ball or on a cut, he is unable to score.
In the past year, particularly his MVP year, Westbrook was able to make up for his limited scoring arsenal with his passing ability. With the Oklahoma City Thunder, Westbrook was one of the premier passers in the league. His accuracy in the pick and roll, as well as on lobs, was elite.
That playmaking has taken a backseat in Houston. So what has changed?
This season, pick and roll action accounted for 21 percent of Westbrook’s assists in the half-court. Last season was doubled at 41 percent. His best strength has been minimized in the Rockets’ offense. Their roster and system do not have Westbrook in the position to do what he does best. And to make matters worse, Westbrook has failed to adjust.
He has become sloppier and more turnover-prone, posting his second-worst assist to turnover ratio in his career during the regular season, and his worst in the playoffs. Now that may be an easier pill to swallow if he was connecting with Harden on the court. But that isn’t happening either.
Westbrook-to-Harden assists on the season are the lowest of any all-star caliber duo. Lebron James assisted Anthony Davis 181 times this season, per Second Spectrum. Nikola Jokic assisted Jamal Murray 130 times. Damian Lillard assisted CJ McCollum 100 times. Harden assisted Westbrook 94 times this season. Westbrook assisted Harden 35 times.
When you look at these numbers, it’s puzzling because of the career Westbrook has had up to this point: the only player to average a triple-double in a single season, multiple Western Conference Finals appearances and a Finals appearance.
Westbrook plays hard all of the time, generally on both ends. His athleticism used to put him above guards who had higher efficiency from the field, primarily because he was able to contend with the giants down low. That has changed. Yes, the Rockets system provides many of the struggles that Westbrook is dealing with. But those struggles existed with the Thunder as well, they just weren’t as loud.
The biggest issue with Westbrook’s game right now is his athleticism. His style of play at his size is dependent on being faster than the man in front of him, and more athletic than the big man waiting for him down low. Both of those factors have slowly deteriorated over the years.
Westbrook is 32 years old and has undergone multiple knee surgeries after tearing his meniscus in 2013. Anyone will tell you that Father Time is undefeated and that knee injuries are the devil. Westbrook is combating both and losing the fight.
As he gets older, pieces of his athleticism are fading. Add in knee problems and it’s no longer pieces fading, it is chunks. And those chunks are making a big difference in his game. He isn’t lightyears faster than his defender anymore. He isn’t jumping stomach to chest with bigs anymore. Instead, he’s a step slower and he’s going chest to chest with seven-footers who are gloving his shot.
Westbrook’s situation is reminiscent of Derrick Rose.
Rose was the youngest MVP in league history and relied on being explosive. He didn’t have the best jump shot in the word. His handle wasn’t on an elite scale. He didn’t excel on the defensive end. He was special because he could get in the lane with ease and finish over bigs. Rose was a career 31 percent three-point shooter, who’s acrobatic style involved absorbing a lot of contact down low, which in return put pressure on his knees and ankles.
Once Rose injured his knee multiple times, he struggled to find his place in the league. His athleticism wasn’t the same. He was no longer leaving defenders in the dust. He couldn’t hang in the air long enough to make acrobatic finishes mid-air. He wasn’t dunking over big men anymore. He needed to adjust his game.
After bouncing from team to team, Rose had a breakout year in 2019 with the Minnesota Timberwolves. He shot 50 percent from the field that season, shooting 38 percent on pull-up jump shots. In 2013, he had shot 24 percent on pull-up jump shots. Rose added a reliable jump shot to his game. It took six years to do so.
Westbrook needs to do something similar. The only problem is he doesn’t have six years to change his game. He might not even have a year. Westbrook will have to adjust his game to both his body and the current team he is with in order to live up to his $41.4 million dollar reputation.