(Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)

Article written by Itamar Roitman (@Itamar1710)


That’s the word the Rockets have preached ever since trading center Clint Capela for forward Robert Covington.

One of the reasons for the trade was to make life easier on Rockets’ star Russell Westbrook, a player who has always dominated in the open floor but struggled a bit in the half-court when the defense is set and there are multiple bodies in the paint.

Throughout the season, there was a noticeable difference in  Westbrook’s performance when playing with one of Capela, Isaiah Hartenstein and Tyson Chandler vs when playing as a part of a small lineup, where the floor is completely spaced out and he has plenty of room to go to work against his defender and get to the cup at will.

Westbrook’s stats per 75 possesions until the Covington tradePTSASTTOVFG%TS%restricted area shot attemptsrestricted area FG%ORTG
When 1 of Capela\Chandler\Hartenstein is on the court236.94.242.1%49.9%8.154.4%108.1
When there isn’t a center on the court for the Rockets28.47.43.454.4%59.2%12.768.9%112.1

Westbrook went from being a highly inefficient scorer who’s dependent on his jump shot to score when playing with a center, to a guy who gets to the rim at a historic rate and, as a result, is as efficient as any top scorer in the league when playing as a part of a small lineup.

The difference is so stark, that the Rockets felt that committing 74 million dollars over the next four seasons to an inside center like Capela was not an efficient resource allocation — and that they’d be better off going all-in on small-ball with a spaced floor by trading the Swiss big for a cheaper, better player in Covington.

In this article, we’ll take a look at how Westbrook and the other Rockets have done in the small-ball era from an offensive standpoint whenever Harden sits on the bench and Russ is running the show.

First, let’s take a look at the stats.

Rockets’ stats since 1/31/2020ORTGAST%TOV%3s attempted per 753pt%2s attempted per 752pt%
Westbrook on, Harden off108.542.5%12.1%26.132.4%37.656.9%
Westbrook on, Harden on113.554.2%11.2%31.636.5%33.853.4%
Westbrook off, Harden on116.755.9%12.2%40.536.2%25,161.8%

The Westbrook-only units shoot much fewer threes than the Harden lineups, and they hit those threes at a much lower percentage. Instead, they shoot more two-pointers, which they hit at a very good percentage, but not good enough to compensate for the lack of threes attempted and made compared to the other Rockets’ lineups.

In fact, their two-point percentage of 56.9 would rank first in NBA HISTORY.

So, how do they do it? As you may have guessed, the answer starts with Russell Westbrook.

Remember how Westbrook was playing very well whenever the Rockets went small before the Covington trade? Well, he’s been even better since. Russ is averaging 27 points and 4.9 assists per 75 possessions on 57.2 percent true shooting, and even shooting 38.5 percent from three when playing alongside the Beard (on 2.7 attempts per 75).

But when Harden’s off the floor? That’s where he dominates.

Since January 31, Westbrook is averaging a terrific 33.8 points and 6.8 assists per 75 possessions in the minutes without Harden, on a good efficiency of 58 percent true shooting (53.7 field goal percent). His free throw rate in those minutes is 34.3 percent, which would be the best mark since his MVP year, and he’s been unstoppable getting to the rim and finishing there.

The All-NBA guard is attempting 12.5 shots in the restricted area per 75 possessions since Jan 31 when Harden’s sitting on the bench, which is.. a lot.

It is more than the Milwaukee Buck’s Giannis Antetokonmpo’s average for the entire season.

It would rank second in the NBA this season, only behind the New Orleans Pelican’s monstrous Zion Williamson.

Oh, and according to NBA.COM’s shot tracking data, it would be the second most restricted area shot attempts per 75 possessions since this data was first tracked (1997 season).

And did we mention that he has hit 66 percent of said shots, which would rank third for any guard attempting at least five of these shots per game, only behind Luka Doncic and Ben Simmons? Just watch how easily he gets to the rim whenever he’s guarded by an opposing guard:

And if you try to put a bigger body on him to stop his drives, Westbrook has no problem creating separation and pulling up for the mid-range jump shot. He is shooting a Chris Paul-like 53.3 percent from the mid-range when Harden isn’t on the court since January 31, on absurd volume (seven attempts per 75 possesions).

Just watch how comfortable he is operating in the mid-range area, knowing that teams are always willing to concede the mid-range shot over the drive:

As you may have noticed, the Rockets like to hunt poor matchups on offense. Harden and Paul made a living out of punishing those together in the 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 seasons, and Westbrook has done the same this season. Although for him, it’s a bit different. While Harden and Paul like to hunt the opposing big and force a switch which usually ends in a step-back 3, Westbrook prefers to attack those smaller guards, who have no chance against him down low.

Here’s an example of that: In the clip below, Russell Westbrook is guarded by Lonzo Ball, and Ben McLemore is guarded by JJ Redick. McLemore sets Westbrook the screen, and the Pelicans opt to switch it. Westbrook then easily blows by Redick and finishes with the left.

Opposing teams like to hide their worst perimeter defender on McLemore since he is not a threat to create for himself or others. As a result, the Rockets usually use McLemore as a screen-setter for Westbrook, and the two have developed a nice chemistry together. Westbrook tends to draw a lot of defensive attention whenever he has the ball, so McLemore often uses the opportunity to get behind the defense for a score at the rim:

But Westbrook isn’t the only one who has benefited from the extra spacing. Out of the 139 minutes he has played without Harden since Jan 31, Austin Rivers has been on the floor for 118 of them, by far the most on the team for any player not named Russell Westbrook (McLemore is third with 89 minutes).

In those minutes, Rivers is averaging 14.5 points per 75 possessions, shooting 61.9 percent on twos and 38.1 percent from three for 50 percent from the field and 60.6 percent true shooting — all of these marks, aside from points per 75, would be career highs.

His hot three-point shooting may not sustain, but Rivers, who has always been an underrated isolation player, has found himself a nice role with the bench units, making up for Eric Gordon’s subpar play by roasting weaker defenders in isolations, guards and bigs alike:

However, dominating inside can only get you so far in today’s NBA. The Russ-led bench units are only shooting a poor 32.4 percent from three, and even though their 26.1 threes attempted per 75 possessions would rank tenth in the NBA this season in terms of volume, D’antoni and company likely want that number to be much, much higher.

So why is their three-point percentage so low? And why are they not shooting enough threes?

Your answer to both of these questions is probably “Russell Westbrook”. And while that’s not a wrong answer, it’s not 100 percent accurate.

It’s nearly impossible to be at the top of the league in terms of threes attempted per possession when your point guard, who has a usage rate of 41.7 percent, is a poor three-point shooter. And it’s hard to be an accurate three-point shooting team when that point guard is shooting 20 percent from behind the arc.

But Russell Westbrook has only taken five threes in the 139 minutes he has spent on the floor without Harden since January 31, and he is known to be a fantastic passer to three-point shooters, leading the league in three-point assists in the 2018-2019 season and finishing second in the 2017-2018 season.

The biggest reason for the low three-point percentage is simply underwhelming shooting by good shooters, something that should even out with bigger sample size. Across these minutes, Danuel House Jr. is only shooting 1-of-8 from three for 12.5 percent, Gordon is shooting 3-of-12 for 25 percent and Mclemore is shooting just 35 percent from behind the arc. The Rockets haven’t been a good three-point shooting team in terms of three-point percentage under Mike D’Antoni, but these numbers will improve because the Rockets haven’t been taking bad shots, they’ve just been missing good looks they usually make.

The Rockets have done a decent job creating open threes by getting inside and forcing the defense to help, then kicking it out to the shooter. Here are a couple of examples of the Rockets getting open threes out of such plays, and then missing them:

The team still has plenty of room to grow in that area, though. Their assist percentage of 42.5 would be the lowest mark since at least the 1997 season, and while some of that is intentional to minimize the number of turnovers, they do need to move the ball more.

There have been too many times where a shooter is open for three, but the ball handler doesn’t make the easy pass and ends up settling for a worse shot. Better awareness and willingness to move the ball would lead to more open threes and better three-point percentage as a result.

Needless to say, but another way to get more threes up and improve the efficiency of the offense is to simply take better care of the ball. Westbrook is averaging 6.4 turnovers per 75 possessions in those Russ-only minutes, which would be the “best” mark in NBA history (minimum 250 minutes). For some reason, Westbrook’s handle hasn’t been as tight this season; a lot of his turnovers are a result of him losing control of the ball, or getting ripped by the opponent.

The Westbrook-led lineups have a turnover percentage of 12.1, which would rank seventh, but better ball control by Westbrook, as well as more kick-outs to open shooters would make a real difference on the offensive end.

Last season (when healthy), the Rockets excelled in the minutes Harden sat, and a large part of that was due to Eric Gordon’s excellent play. Gordon averaged 24.3 points and 3.2 assists per 75 possessions without Harden in the 2018-2019 season, shooting 36.3 percent from beyond the arc on an absurd 10.8 attempts per 75 with a true shooting percentage of 56.6. However, Gordon hasn’t been nearly as good without Harden this season in the small-ball era, only averaging 10.7 points as a part of the Russ-led bench units on 25 percent from deep to go with a paltry 43.4 true shooting percentage (63 minutes).

As opposed to the deadly weapon off the bench he had been in previous seasons, Gordon has been a liability in those lineups on both ends of the floor. The former Sixth Man of the Year has reportedly fully recovered during this hiatus, and is in “excellent shape”. A healthy Eric Gordon is a pretty good isolation player (1.06 points per possession in isolation this season, which ranks in the 85th percentile), who could unlock new actions in the offense as an off-ball threat and actually make some threes.

When asked about the return to play in Orlando, the Rockets often mentioned picking up the pace as a coaching adjustment they think is necessary. According to Austin Rivers, that means more kick-ahead passes — passing the ball up the floor instead of dribbling it, to catch the defense off guard.

Notice how here, the Rockets push the ball off a made basket by the Minnesota Timberwolves. It’s taken just three seconds into the shot clock and Ben McLemore is already spotting up for an open three before the defense is set:

Plays like that make the job easier on Rockets’ stars Russell Westbrook and James Harden, as well as give the Rockets a chance to get some easy buckets early in the shot clock.

The Rockets’ offense in the Russ-only minutes hasn’t been as good as some have hoped, largely due to poor three-point shooting and lack of ball movement. But Westbrook’s shown a sharp increase in efficiency and has largely been dominant since the January 31 mark of the season, so with more reps, a few more made shots and a minimization of careless mistakes, the bench unit should be capable of producing an elite offense.

(Statistics courtesy of nba.com)

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