To Russ or not to Russ

I shared some lineup data on Saturday morning, on Twitter, prior to the Rockets’ win over the Phoenix Suns. It did not reflect positively for Russell Westbrook.

What that means is that the Rockets are killing people when Russ is off the court. That hasn’t been the case when he’s been on the court.

As I outlined later Saturday morning, in a series of tweets, right now you get the sense of the team desperately trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, and a peg with limited upside at that. Saturday night was evidence of the upside: Westbrook is the best rebounding guard in the league, and when he attacks the basket and stays away from the jumpshot, good things happen for his team. But as we all know from the past decade of evidence, its futile to hope for consistency in decisionmaking from Russ. He’s most likely going to follow the Phoenix game up with a dud sometime this week where he makes all of us want to pull our hair out because of his broken jumper.

It’s interesting because the Rockets swiftly parted ways with Carmelo Anthony last season when he wasn’t working out, rather than letting it play out further to give him a chance to get fully acclimated. These circumstances are different. Westbrook’s ceiling is far higher if this experiment works, he’s making $40 million, and it took two future draft picks to get him from the Thunder. Westbrook also happens to be here because James Harden made the personal request.

The best version of this Rockets team involves Eric Gordon and either Ben McLemore or Danuel House providing the spacing for Westbrook to operate in the second unit. Gordon is the guy who can make all of this work. Harden has shown it doesn’t really matter who you put around him; Westbrook, by contrast, is going to need shooters surrounding him at all times.

I keep going back to the same question in my mind. If Gordon returns and reverts to the Eric Gordon to whom we’ve become accustomed over these past few seasons, with the way teams defend Harden when Westbrook is on the floor, if the season was on the line in a playoff game, who among us wouldn’t just roll with a lineup of Harden/Gordon/House/Tucker/Capela? This can all change–and hopefully it does–but to me, right now, the decision seems very clear. Harden is maybe the best perimeter scorer this game has ever seen. Anything that increases the chances of taking the ball out of his hands is a net loss for me. But its a long season. While the Suns aren’t exactly a defensive powerhouse, the win was an encouraging sign going forward as the team continues to learn how to attack these 4 on 3’s.

About the author: Rahat Huq is a lawyer in real life and the founder and editor-in-chief of Red94.net.

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