Russell Westbrook is Maturing and His Best Basketball Could Lie Ahead

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Russell Westbrook
Sports Illustrated

The Houston Rockets have unlocked Russell Westbrook.

When Westbrook arrived in Houston there was a ton of excitement about his reunion with James Harden. The talent of both former MVPs has never been questioned, but legitimate concerns were raised about the fit. Could the two ball-dominant stars make it work?

There was no question that Harden would continue to be the offensive engine with his historic offensive output. The onus of change would mostly be on Westbrook. In Oklahoma City Russ was Mr. Everything, averaging a triple-double playing at 100 miles per hour as the spearpoint for a team that had seen it’s competitive peak walk out the door with Kevin Durant.

Westbrook re-signed with the Thunder and continued his All-Star play with the offensive freedom afforded to high-level players who are not playing with other superstars. He could shoot anything from anywhere, the perfect formula for statistically rich seasons that end in first-round exits.

Playing with the Rockets gives Westbrook the opportunity to play for a competitor at the back-end of his prime. In order to make it work it would require a happy medium between Houston’s analytics-driven approach and Russell’s “why not?” style shot selection.

He hasn’t come out and said it outright but a cleaner shot profile had to be Westbrook’s new year’s resolution. Among players with 15+ shot attempts only Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Kyrie Irving have shot better than Westbrook’s 52% from the field.

He is the second-leading scorer in 2020 with 33.1 points per game to date. The scoring efficiency has made Westbrook a sharper, more devastating offensive weapon that guts teams from the inside out.

Houston’s decision to go all-in and trade Clint Capela has created an even more ideal environment for Westbrook offensively.

He is 4th in the league in points in the paint and the shortest player in the top 20. His pace in transition and ability to get downhill is more dangerous because there is no traditional center mucking up the paint.

As good as Steven Adams is, PJ Tucker is the ideal Westbrook center because of his ability to punish opponents from outside. Teams now have to decide if and when to help on Russell’s drives because he is also one of the best passers in the league.

The Rockets will gladly take as many open threes as teams give them as a result of providing additional paint help. There is a sense that certain matchups will not work out this way for Houston or that teams will eventually counter, but the returns so far have been positive for micro-ball.

It remains to be seen how the Rockets will fare in the playoffs behind two superstars that have reputations of flaming out after the regular season. The difference this year is that the way Russell Westbrook is playing is sustainable.

He is still one of the most explosive players in the league and running a five-out offense around his talents is a viable option as long as he is healthy.

If Houston can find a floor-stretching big during this championship window they can keep the potency of Westbrook’s attack while still having a big body on the floor. No matter how the playoffs go in 2020 the Rockets may have discovered the best way to optimize Westbrook’s offensive talent.

If Russell Westbrook continues to be dedicated to making the right play and getting to the rim, this could be the beginning of the best basketball of his career. To say that about a person who averaged a triple-double for three straight seasons is a scary thought. For now, Russell Westbrook’s maturity on the micro-Rockets is a fascinating spin on his Hall of Fame career.

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