The Rockets’ puzzling returns, lineup data, and the Westbrook trade

  • We are 37 games in now and I have absolutely no idea what to make of this team yet. They’re sitting in fifth in the West at 25-12, but are 7-3 in their last ten games. The second seed Nuggets are at just 26-11. The Rockets have had some absolutely atrocious losses so far, particularly in December during the midst of a cream puff schedule upon which they should have fattened up. One could say that this is merely a symptom of playing down to one’s competition and that they’ll be fine when it matters as evidenced by some of the gems they’ve turned in against the best teams in the league. The rebuttal there is that this team isn’t good enough to be trusted to just flip a switch. This isn’t the ’98 Chicago Bulls: they haven’t “been there, done that” to where they can be afforded the luxury to carry such a mindset. Rebuttal to that: look at the rest of the West – every team at the top is newly assembled and except for the Lakers, all of the supposed heavyweights are underachieving.
  • The Rockets largely now are who they will be going forward. Eric Gordon was the big addition and he is back. The cutting of Gary Clark earlier in the week in conjunction with the team’s lack of tradable salaries is a strong indication that the team intends to remain under the luxury tax threshold and that no big trades are on the way. They will likely sign a veteran on the buyout market who hopefully can help. But by and large, this is now who the Houston Rockets are. They are the cream of the crop in the league offensively, and are middle of the pack defensively. They have literally been roughly 2nd and 16th in those two respective categories since the third week of the season. The fear here is that I’m not too sure there have been many teams to have won the championship in recent history after being this low in defensive rating at this stage in the season.
  • Danuel House Jr. has been a major problem the last four games, averaging just 4.5 points per game on 32% shooting and 27% on 3’s.
  • The Rockets’ preferred starting lineup of James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Danuel House Jr., P.J. Tucker, and Clint Capela has now shared the court for 346 minutes. They have a net rating of +9.3, an offensive rating of 109.5, and a defensive rating of 100.1 during those shared minutes. Amongst lineups league-wide who have played at least 200 minutes, their ranks in those respective categories are 7th, 11th, and 7th. Not as sparkling as it was a few weeks back when they hovered around the top in all of those areas. There are only nine quintets who have played at least 300 minutes and the Rockets’ rank in those same areas amongst those are fourth, sixth, and third. I had been saying for some time now that the greatest source of optimism on the early season was how the Rockets’ starters, (with House, not Gordon), had been faring. The thinking there was that if the bench just got a boost, the team would take off.
  • The Rockets could literally either win the championship or lose in the second round. That’s my conclusion. Thanks Booger, back to you in the studio.
  • Where you feel most optimistic is thinking about that Clipper game where the presumptive West favorite threw three All-NBA defenders at James Harden, and Houston came out looking like the better team in essentially all three games. The rebuttal to that is the following question: what does this team look like if James Harden is merely good and not great. Can you rely on him to be great to win a title? Kawhi Leonard certainly was not great in the close-out Game 6 last year in the NBA Finals but his team had enough to help push the Raptors past the top.
  • It was a tough pill to swallow this week watching Chris Paul up close carve his way through the Rockets’ defense, picking it apart with pinpoint precision in leading a ragtag Thunder group to a blowout victory over Houston. For his part, Russell Westbrook played very well in his return despite a shaky start. For me, Paul’s play evoked a certain nostalgia to the wondrous 2017-2018 season, one which–from my timeline I can tell–you either relate to or are disgusted by. I called watching CP3 orchestrate the Rockets offense one of my most favorite experiences in 20 years as a sports fan. My thoughts on the trade remain largely the same. After the initial utter disgust and horror, I came around to it because it extended the team’s window. Westbrook is also a healthier player than Paul despite the latter’s durability thus far this season. But I hated how much the Rockets gave up. And a recent interview by Tilman Fertitta, in which he revealed that he pushed the trade through, confirmed my greatest fears. You probably could have gotten Westbrook for far less had you just waited and let the general manager do his job.

Is Russell Westbrook finally fitting in?

Within the thousands of articles written about Russell Westbrook’s fit with the Houston Rockets, there weren’t that many that were positive to start the year. That’s because, up until recently, there wasn’t much positivity going around.

As of December 7th 2019, Russell Westbrook was dead-last in three point percentage amongst shooters who have shot more than four attempts per game. He also had the second lowest true shooting percentage amongst players who attempted at least 15 field goals a game. His first 20 games were not a pretty sight. His shot chart to start the year (below) is not great!

Additionally, he had the worst net rating of the Rockets’ starters. Even now, Russell Westbrook has relatively average advanced metrics. His RAPTOR Wins Above Replacement metric is 0.3, which is not where you want a 30-plus million dollar a year player to be.

fivethirtyeight.com

However, there have finally been some glimmers of hope.

Over his last seven games, Russell Westbrook has a +/- of 6.6, second highest on the team. This very positive metric is correlated to his improvements in shooting. Before December 8th, Russell was horrendous at every spot on the floor besides the restricted area.

In fact, he was below league average in nearly every shooting zone. While the league averaged 1.05 points per shot, Russell was treading water at 0.87.

Since December 7th, things have been much different.

Westbrook is now thriving in multiple areas on the court by posting above league average points per shot in the mid-range and the paint areas. Most importantly, his total points per shot has been near average.

Just for fun, here is James Harden’s shot chart.

Even better, Russell Westbrook is taking better shots. While throughout the season he has a total three point frequency of 23.1%, over the last ten games he is shooting from deep only 17.1% of the time.

One of the biggest markers of improvement, however, is his pull-up shooting. Before December 9th, Russell Westbrook was shooting an abysmal 32.0% on pull-ups with 8.2 attempts per game. That is 0.64 points per shot attempt from pull-ups.

Since December 9th, he has been shooting 43.5% on pull-ups on 9.2 attempts per game, or about 0.87 points per shot. This is not good, but it’s better.

While by no means conclusive, these are positive metrics that could indicate a solid regular season moving forward for Russell Westbrook. He looks much more active on the court offensively, driving hard to the basket with his patented up-and-under moves instead of settling for long jumpers.

While he will never be the statistical darling some fans crave (see heat map below), he can become an effective player and even a star if he sticks to what works effectively for him.

Fertitta and the long, drawn-out slap to the face

Colin Ainsworth is a writer and researcher living in New York. Previously, he wrote about the Rockets for The Dream Shake, mostly about Dwight Howard, *whispers* Royce White, and where the team intersected with pop culture. He is extremely for hire, and his thoughts and takes and jokes (all of them correct and good) can be found on twitter @drainsworth

During the final season of CBS’s How I Met Your Mother, a single episode took place, primarily in flashbacks, over the course of one final slap to the face in slow motion. An over-investment in this show’s lore, this episode was excruciating, overwrought, and I would argue insulting to fans of the show who had devoted so much time and care into its story.

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