Russell Westbrook is reuniting with an old coach and pairing with a star shooting guard.
The trade that sent John Wall to Houston and Russell Westbrook to Washington wasn’t the most intriguing deal of the offseason. Both guards are on burdensome contracts, each owed more than $130 million over the next three years. Both were at or near the nadir of their value, with Westbrook having struggled at the end of last season and Wall having not played in almost two years.
But, if healthy, both players – Wall a five-time All-Star and Westbrook a former MVP – can still provide a lot of value to their new teams. And there’s plenty of intrigue in regard to how they’ll fit alongside their new backcourtmates.
The Rockets were the much better team last season, but at this point, Westbrook’s new situation in Washington seems a lot more stable. And no matter the level of discontent in Houston, the fit between Westbrook and Bradley Beal feels more natural than that of Wall and James Harden.
Beal is the more malleable of the two, of course. Two Bradley Beals could play together, while two Russell Westbrooks, with both glaring strengths and glaring weaknesses, would have a more difficult time coexisting.
Maximizing Westbrook means allowing him to get to the basket. He’s not the best finisher at the rim — his 60.8% shooting in the restricted area ranked 68th among 102 players with at least 200 attempts last season — but he’s almost the worst (high-volume) shooter from the outside. Westbrook’s effective field goal percentage of 39.9% on shots from outside the paint was *the third worst mark among 190 players who took at least 200 shots from the outside last season (not including backcourt shots).
* The two worst marks belonged to Jimmy Butler (34.3%) and Aaron Gordon (39.1%).
1. They will run
The easiest way to get Westbrook to the basket is to get him out in transition. In the first six seconds of the shot clock last season, 68% of his shots came in the restricted area. In the last 18 seconds of the clock, only 38% of his shots were in the restricted area.
If you want to run, it helps to have a good defense. Alas, the Wizards *ranked 29th defensively last season, and don’t promise to be much better this year.
* They ranked 30th until the last day of the season, when they held the shorthanded Celtics (playing without their top six guys) under a point per possession.
The Wizards would be able to run more if they defended better, but they will still run. While they ranked near the bottom in each of the other “four factors” on defense, they ranked fourth in opponent turnover rate last season. Combine that with a fervor for pushing after made buckets and they ranked fourth in the percentage of their possessions that were in transition (19.1%).
Westbrook ranked second among individuals with 7.4 transition points per game. His transition efficiency (1.01 points per possession) was below the league average (1.11), but he gets you with volume and with the ability to change direction at full speed.
Flank him with Beal (fourth with 5.9 transition points per game) and Davis Bertans (who led the league with 65 3-pointers in the first six seconds of the shot clock), and you have a potent fast break, even if the Wizards are too often taking the ball out of the basket.
2. Secondary attack
Getting Westbrook downhill in the half-court offense is obviously more difficult. Defenses will give him plenty of space, very willing to live with a pull-up jumper …
Though he played for a team that otherwise eschewed mid-range shots, Westbrook attempted 297 of them (75% of the Rockets’ total).
But the defense isn’t always able to dictate where Westbrook shoots from. Though defenses had every reason to play him soft, he still averaged 15.0 points in the paint per game, becoming just the fifth different player to do so (minimum 40 games played) in the 24 years for which points in the paint have been tracked. And at 6-3, he’s seven inches shorter than any of the other four (Shaquille O’Neal, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis and Dwight Howard).
Of Westbrook’s 364 buckets in the restricted area, 144 (40%) came in the last 15 seconds of the shot clock. Part of that was taking advantage of the attention paid to Harden and attacking the seams …
Beal doesn’t bend defenses as consistently as Harden, but he will draw extra attention and allow his teammates to eat …
3. Maximum spacing
Westbrook was at his best when the Rockets stopped playing big men. Over 13 games from when Houston committed to small-ball (Jan. 31) to when the season was suspended, Westbrook averaged an amazing 19.2 points in the paint per game.
Even if defenders are playing him soft, he can still put them on their heels and take advantage of having four shooters around him …
The Wizards aren’t going to play an all-6-7-and-under lineup like Houston, but they could certainly play the 6-10 Bertans, liberal launcher of long 3s, at the five. And if Thomas Bryant – 41% (though on just 91 attempts) from 3-point range last season – is their starting center, he can space the floor as well.
A big who can shoot can draw the opposing big out of the paint and allow a quick ball-handler to drive by …
4. Shooter as a screener
Westbrook and Beal can work in tandem. Shooters can be the best screeners, because their defenders are loath to leave them. Westbrook-Harden pick-and-rolls weren’t a huge part of the Rockets’ offense, but Harden did set 125 ball-screens for his backcourtmate last season, according to Second Spectrum tracking …
In Washington, Beal set a lot of screens for his point guards, and he can have the same kind of gravitational pull …
But Ish Smith, Isaiah Thomas and Shabazz Napier aren’t nearly as explosive off the dribble as Westbrook. And a lot of those Beal picks were dummy, double-drag screens meant to set up an ensuing cross-screen or pin-down for the Wizards’ star. This is one of the Wizards’ favorite actions, with Beal able to sneak back door if his defender is top-locking the ensuing pick …
More standard Westbrook-Beal pick-and-pop actions could present defenses with a pick-your-poison situation. Of course, the simplest way to defend guard-guard actions is to switch them, which the opponent did more than half the time when Harden set a ball screen for Westbrook. It requires good communication, but the switch flattens the action out …
Because Harden is a ridiculously good isolation player, the Rockets were more efficient when defenses switched that screen than when they didn’t, according to Second Spectrum. Neither Beal nor Westbrook is nearly as good playing one-on-one. While Harden has scored 1.11 points per possession on isolations over the last two seasons, Beal and Westbrook have scored 0.91 and 0.81, respectively.
But the Wizards are not a heavy isolation team. In fact, there may not be an offense in the league that contrasts more with that of the Rockets. While Houston ranked 29th in ball movement (296 passes per 24 minutes of possession) and 28th in player movement (10.6 miles traveled per 24 minutes of possession) last season, Washington ranked third (362) and second (11.6).
5. If you like offense…
The addition of Westbrook will stifle that ball movement to some degree. In Scott Brooks’ last season with Westbrook in Oklahoma City (2014-15), the Thunder ranked 24th in ball movement. They ranked 29th two seasons ago.
Still, his new team should allow Westbrook to operate more on the move, more off the catch, and with similar space to attack as he had in the second half of his only season in Houston. He could be the screen-setter and roll-man himself…
His own relentlessness will also benefit his teammates. In each of the last four seasons, Westbrook has ranked in the top four in assists on 3-pointers, leading the league in ’18-19, the season before he was traded to the team that shoots all the 3s.
When this season tips off, you can forget the contract and the circumstances of the trade that brought him to Washington. Russell Westbrook with the ball in his hands is always a threat to attack and always worth watching. The Wizards are going to run and the Wizards are going to be fun.
* * *
John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.