On rUSsell WEstbrook

Taking a concept to its ideological extreme can be a perilous exercise: first, one must fully concoct an actionable conviction, one that finds pros outweighing cons; then, after experimenting with the idea, one must attempt to put it into practice and – the hardest part – convince others that this pursuit is, in fact, worth investigating, in the hopes that an audience sees its potential, wildly glorious benefits and agrees that it is, at the very least, worth a shot.

Ideas like this tend to provoke the “hard sell” label, and they allow detractors to seize upon various nooks and crannies in order to mock the ideation and its true believers. To buy all the way in, one must steel themselves for the possibility of a very public humiliation, often in the mouths of bad actors and those who could never regress to the norm for lack of having ever deviated from it. Somehow especially content with the median, these people envy middle managers and the people who ride the coattails of people who actually possess half-decent beliefs, for they themselves believe only in what they see, not in what may be.

When they traded starting center Clint Capela to the Atlanta Hawks in a multi-team deal that netted them the coveted Robert Covington at this year’s trade deadline, the Houston Rockets bought all the way into an idea that head coach Mike D’Antoni pioneered over a decade ago yet was unable to fully realize before various factors ended his tenure with the Phoenix Suns. Now, with none other than Russell Westbrook as their nominal center on offense, Houston is making the bet that running teams into the ground can overcome any, uh, shortcomings they may otherwise have.

If you can believe it, Mike D’Antoni always had one misgiving about his influential time as coach of the Steve Nash-era Suns: that they did not shoot enough three-pointers. Indeed, the coach of the team that concocted “Seven Seconds or Less” of the shot clock as an offensive strategy felt that he and his team had left something on the table by not leaning all the way in on speedy efficiency and a maximization of ball movement, both around the court and to the bucket.

Since taking over as coach of the Rockets from Kevin McHale early in the 2015-’16 season, D’Antoni has utilized James Harden, deploying him in various initiator capacities and, in doing so, turned Harden into one of the greatest offensive weapons in the history of the sport. In each of the three full seasons since, the Rockets have led the NBA in made three-pointers per game, each time setting a new record.

Harden, of course, is a massive part of that; his finger-dancing step-backs have become a signature and have already influenced the likes of Trae Young and Luka Dončić, two figureheads of the next generation of NBA superstars. In Houston, Harden has played a typical inside-out game with Dwight Howard and Capela, each of whom is an ideal screen-and-roll partner[1] who nevertheless sometimes stymied Harden in attempts to get to the rim.

After toying with two different iterations of a maximum R&B backcourt, one pairing Harden with Chris Paul and another with Russell Westbrook, with Capela as the fulcrum pivot man, Daryl Morey decided to ship Capela eastward, leaving a shape-shifting platoon of players 6’7” and shorter to fill most of the minutes in D’Antoni’s rotation.

At its heart, the defensive setup requires PJ Tucker, a 35-year-old erstwhile journeyman forward who was out of the NBA for five years after his professional career began before solidifying a spot with the post-D’Antoni Suns and, now, with the Rockets, to use his low center of gravity and awe-inspiring mass to take on many defensive assignments that formerly belonged to the seven-footer Capela.

On offense, however, Capela can shift outward, either bringing the opposing team’s center with him or forcing an unwieldy switch. In his place, either of Harden or, increasingly, Westbrook can bum rush the rim, either backing down a weaker (if taller) defender or looking outward for a pass to an open three.

At first glance, Westbrook-as-center makes very little sense: he’s listed at 6’3”, and though he is one of the strongest and most athletic guards in the league, he is nevertheless overmatched physically by most opposing bigs. Traditionally, in the post-Durant years and even with Paul George by his side, the easiest way to stop Westbrook in Oklahoma City was to nudge him into a wall of taller defenders and force a pass or ill-advised shot.

In Houston, though, the game is different: with the system already designed around Harden as the hub and a stable of shooters at their disposal, the looks got better this season, yet Westbrook’s lingering shooting woes remained.

In turn, the Rockets suffered; having two well-known non-shooters in a five-person lineup that both started and closed games muddled the spacing around Harden, and even the most capable Westbrook-Capela pick-and-rolls would only open nominal driving lanes momentarily, as both would ultimately look to occupy the same space.

Trading Capela has effectively allowed Westbrook to take that space for himself while drawing help defenders, who would usually be prematurely side-eyeing Harden, to open space at the perimeter for everyone, including Harden. Essentially, Houston figures that four guys surrounding an abject non-shooter who is also Russell Westbrook is better than three guys surrounding two abject non-shooters who are Westbrook and Clint Capela.

Likewise, keeping defenders honest at the three-point line opens driving lanes for Westbrook, who, along with a more disciplined approach to shooting from distance and a renewed commitment to searching for open shooters, is playing the best basketball since perhaps his MVP season. An even greater accomplishment? He’s made the Rockets an imminently more watchable team night after night.

It’s a small sample, but a sample nonetheless: in eleven games from February 4th onward with Westbrook basically manning the post, the Rockets have averaged five more three-point attempts per game than before the trade[2]. The Rockets are 8-3 in those games, and they maintain the second-best offense in the NBA over the course of the entire season.

For his part, in the eight games Westbrook has played, he has an effective field goal percentage of 57.6% as compared to his season-long average of 49.4%; he is shooting over 42% on 2.4 attempts per game from three in that span, a far cry from his previous 23% on over four attempts per game. He is averaging 33.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game in reasonably efficient fashion. This may finally, finally be Westbrook at his most Westbrook, right when his fellow Rockets need it the most.

The two best formulas in the NBA for winning right now, at least in theory, are placing proficient shooters around LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo, historically below-average shooters who seem to annually find new ways of playing to their strengths – the Bucks have done it slightly better than the Lakers this year, but both teams are leading their respective conferences.

An idea can snowball into a movement; D’Antoni knows this, having been at the forefront of what culminated in the last half-decade of Golden State Warriors basketball without ever reaping the benefits of it. Now, it is none other than the godfather of this particular brand of pace-and-space who has come to slay that particular beast with a new iteration, one that retains the idea of point guard-as-hegemon while distributing power a little more equally. Fancy that.

Who knows if this is going to work in the playoffs, of course – the postseason is a relentless juggernaut, a sixteen-game slog of endless adrenaline, chippy calls, taunting and the idea that ostensibly indifferent referees should swallow their whistles and let whatever happens play out. Okay, good.

Before last year’s Toronto Raptors overcame an injury-ravaged Warriors team, the Rockets consistently presented the greatest challenge to the Durant-vintage Warriors. It’s no mistake that Mike D’Antoni got as close as anyone to beating them at their own game, only because their game was one his. Now, he’s inverted the hierarchy in a way that even Rajon Rondo never fully could via Russell Westbrook, an all-time anomalous player whose relentless nature defines him and, with any luck, may very well supplant Harden’s much-maligned blandness as its dominant personality[3].

I’m not asking you to like the Rockets – they do a lot of things of which I am not especially appreciative, and there are a lot of times when I groan at both their own moves and the defenses people have for their style of play online. I only want you to see that, sometimes, something as good as Russell Westbrook being utilized as a center is so fundamentally problematic and counter-intuitive to so many stakeholders who haven’t succeeded that, after a while, you can see how it could start to make sense, somehow.

*     *     *

[1] In the case of Howard, that was more theoretical than anything most of the time, at least until his current run at redemption with the Lakers.

[2] It is worth noting that, per basketball-reference.com, they are shooting only marginally better – 36% to 35% – than before the trade – BUT! To a point that is upcoming, they are also drawing about four fewer fouls per game, which takes a variety of factors into account, including Harden getting more shots that he wants (thus, not necessarily trying or needing to try to draw as many fouls) and a lack of Capela’s banging down low, which naturally draws more calls.

[3] This is not to take anything away from Chris Paul, mind you, whose own redemption – as if he needed one – is happening in Oklahoma City, perhaps piloting a playoff-bound squad to a matchup with his former teammates and the man for whom he was traded. It’s amazing how many generationally-defining series that guy ends up in, but it’s equally amazing how many of those are a result of his machinations, and if he has one act of revenge left in him, it will most fully land on the Rockets in a seven-game first round series, provided he can keep his ankles, hamstrings and calves in order.

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