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Russell Westbrook

3 ways Russell Westbrook must change his game with the Rockets

Houston Rockets general manger Daryl Morey has long believed that the collection of elite talent is a better predictor of championship contention than stylistic fit, an assumption many decision-makers hold throughout the league. But pairing James Harden with Russell Westbrook puts that assumption to arguably its biggest test yet, and given the former’s unprecedented blend of production, usage, and efficiency, a greater onus to change his game – perhaps thrusting the Rockets to new heights in the process – certainly falls on the latter.

Will Westbrook be up to the challenge? It’s impossible to say for now, but these are the three areas he must improve upon most for Houston to re-stake its claim as a top-tier title contender.

Spot-up 3-Point Shooting

Westbrook’s historic struggles as a shooter are well known by now, but there’s a notion he’ll fare better from beyond the arc with the Rockets because a larger share of his attempts will come off the catch. Indeed, Westbrook shot a dismal 26.9 percent on pull-up triples last season, worse than every player in basketball who took at least two such shots per game with the exception of John Wall, per NBA.com/stats. By sheer virtue of cutting that number in half, Westbrook should shoot better than the 29.0 percent he managed from 3-point range in 2018-19.

But any expectation that he’ll suddenly morph into a reliable, threatening long-range shooter begs disappointment. Westbrook made 31.9 percent of his catch-and-shoot triples on 2.3 tries per game last season, the most he attempted since tracking data became available in 2013-14. He has for the most part been a more accurate standstill shooter than he was this past season, but not to the point that suggests it will become a strength of his game in Houston. The closest he has come to reaching a level that would force defenses to pay him attention away from the ball came in 2014-15, when he made 38.7 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s, while taking only 1.1 per game.

Moving Without The Ball

Cutting has never been a staple of Westrbook’s game, even dating back to his first few years with the Thunder, when the presence of both Harden and Kevin Durant ensured he played a significant amount of time away from the ball. But he flashed prodigious talent moving without the ball back then, using his unparalleled combination of burst and explosion to slice his way through the defense – normally from the weak-side wing or baseline – for thunderous finishes.

Westbrook, after multiple knee surgeries and on the wrong side of 30, isn’t the athlete he used to be. Until last season, when he quietly shot 63.1 percent, the 12-year veteran had never managed to shoot at least 60 percent from the restricted area. Don’t let the rim-rocking dunks fools you – Westbrook has never been an elite finisher. But given the prospect of additional rim opportunities coming off the pass, he could absolutely post a career-best mark from the restricted area in 2019-20.

That possibility hinges on Westbrook doing far more movement away from the ball than ever before, eradicating his penchant for watching the action with his hands on his knees. If he doesn’t, he and Harden won’t be even half as dangerous as they would be otherwise.

Defensive Engagement

The common refrain of Westbrook “bringing it every night” conveniently ignores his often lackadaisical, occasionally apathetic approach to defense. His history of ranking among the league leaders in steals is actually an indicator of that reality, too. When Westbrook isn’t deviating from his team’s defensive scheme to jump passing lanes and swipe at the ball as a helper, leading to those high steal numbers, he’s routinely a step or two out of position, leaving his teammates hanging out to dry. He’s more frequently engaged on the ball, especially while guarding superstar peers, but still gets hung up on screens as much as any perimeter defender in basketball.

Houston has bent over backwards to accommodate Harden’s defensive struggles, and will have to again even if he commits a bit more on that side of the ball going forward. The Rockets, needless to say, can’t afford to be forced to do the same for Westbrook.