Russell Westbrook and the Small-Ball Rockets

02/20/2020 at 02:02pm

By Brian Martin

The Houston Rockets have the NBA's leading scorer for the entire season, and the leading scorer since Jan. 1. And they are not the same player.

At 35.3 points per game on the season, James Harden still holds a commanding lead as he goes for his third straight scoring title. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the league's second-leading scorer at 30.0 points per game. The 5.3 PPG difference between Harden and Giannis is larger than the gap that separates Giannis from 13th-ranked Brandon Ingram, (24.9 PPG).

But since the calendar flipped to 2020, the leading scorer in the NBA has been Russell Westbrook at 33.1 points per game, while Harden has dropped to fifth at 29.9. Westbrook is also grabbing 8.1 rebounds, dishing out 7.4 assists and getting 1.9 steals per game - all of which lead the team among players still on the roster.

Westbrook putting up numbers is nothing new - this is the same player that has averaged a triple-double in each of the past three seasons. The difference in this stretch is the efficiency in which Westbrook is getting those numbers and how the Rockets have shifted to ultimate small-ball in a move centered around getting Maximum Russ.

On Feb. 6, the Rockets were part of a four-team, 12-player trade that saw starting center Clint Capela exit after spending his first six seasons in Houston and Robert Covington return to where his career started in 2013-14. In Covington, the Rockets get a wing that can knock down threes and play solid perimeter defense. What they don't get is a center, as the exit of the 6-foot-10 Capela essentially ended the strategy of playing a traditional lineup for the Rockets.

Instead, the Rockets are asking 6-foot-5 PJ Tucker to spend more time defending opposing centers. For the season, Tucker has defended centers for 13.3% of his defensive matchup time - that number is sure to rise during the stretch run coming out of the All-Star break.

Harden will also have to take on more post defense responsibilities with Houston’s small-ball lineup. Last season, Harden spent 11.2% of his defensive time guarding centers and held them to 40.6% (58-143) shooting while also forcing 32 turnovers. So far this season, Harden has spent only 7.6% of his time on centers and has allowed 52.5% (42-80) shooting – a mark that is still below the normal field goal percentage for centers over the past two seasons (54.4%). Harden has defended a league-high 92 post up possessions and has allowed opponents to shot just 26.8% (19-71).  Harden’s 0.55 points per possession is tied for the fourth-lowest among the 191 players that have defended at least 20 post up possessions.

Houston’s lack of a traditional center also presents matchup problems on the other side of the court as opposing bigs now have to deal with the speed and quickness of five players all 6-foot-7 or smaller. What we've seen through the first few games since the trade is Russell Westbrook being defended by opposing bigs such as Rudy Gobert and Anthony Davis and finding success against two of the league’s top defenders.

Rockets vs. Lakers (2/6)

DefenderTimePTSFGM-A (FG%)
Anthony Davis5:00147-10 (70%)
Kyle Kuzma1:5693-4 (75%)

Rockets vs. Jazz (2/9)

DefenderTimePTSFGM-A (FG%)
Rudy Gobert6:07168-15 (53.3%)
Royce O'Neal1:2363-6 (50%)

Rockets vs. Celtics (2/11)

DefenderTimePTSFGM-A (FG%)
Marcus Smart3:29124-6 (66.7%)
Jayson Tatum3:1383-5 (60%)

In 39 minutes over two games with the starting five of Westbrook, Harden, Tucker, Robert Covington and Danuel House Jr., the Rockets have outscored their opponents by 26.5 points per 100 possessions with an offensive rating of 125.3 and a defensive rating of 98.8.

On the season, Harden ranks third in usage rate (35.9%) while Westbrook ranks seventh (32.8%). Since the beginning of 2020, those rankings have essentially flipped, with Westbrook ranked fourth in the league (35.5%) and Harden ranked seventh (34.0%). Westbrook has successfully taken some of the offensive burden off of Harden's shoulders and put it on his own. But both players have added pressure on the defensive side of the court as they no longer have any real rim protection behind them.

Of course that poses the question about whether or not the Rockets can find success with this lineup long term. Using a small-ball lineup has been an effective strategy for many teams in recent years - the Warriors were known for their death lineup during their championship run - but those lineups have been used as a change of pace as opposed the a full-time strategy.

However, it should be noted that the percentage of big man minuets across the league is lower this season than in any year since the introduction of the 3-point line in 1979 as the chart below illustrates.

With the Rockets going small, the court has opened up even more for Westbrook to do what he does best, attack the basket against any and all defenders.

For the season, Westbrook leads the NBA with 20.4 drives per game, producing 11.9 points per game on those drives. But the difference between his numbers in 2019 and 2020 are significant.

TimeGPDrivesDrives PPGDrives FG%Drives FTA
Pre Jan 13018.4 (5th)9.2 (16th)56.3 (7th)2.1 (19th)
Since Jan 11524.4 (1st)17.3 (1st)60.7 (2nd)3.2 (8th)

Westbrook’s increase in drives to the basket over the past six weeks has altered his shot distribution significantly from his first three months as a Houston Rocket.

Pre Jan 13021.242.74.923.16.379.945.450.6
Since Jan 11525.752.32.326.57.376.153.557.1

Not only is Westbrook generating more scoring opportunities for himself on his drives to the basket, he is also creating more open shots for his teammates. Westbrook leads the league in passes and potential assists off drives per game.

The number of times Westbrook has driven the ball inside, drew multiple defenders and passed out to a perimeter shooter has increased by nearly 24% since Capela last played for Houston. Westbrook’s potential assists off drives have increased by nearly 50% in that same time frame.

Houston has gone all-in with small ball. The Rockets will look to exploit mismatches, put up a ton of 3-pointers, try to hold their own on the boards and prove that defensive versatility can make up for a lack of size. In their four games since the Capela trade, the Rockets lead the NBA in opponent turnover percentage (18.0%), but rank 20th in defensive rebound rate (72.2%).

Houston’s’ defensive versatility can be seen with their league-leading 32.8 switches per game on the season. Since Capela’s last game on Jan. 29, that numbers has increased to 42.4 per game as the Rockets will essentially switch onto any position. Houston’s switch-heavy strategy has been effective in defending the pick and roll this season; they have allowed just 0.84 points per possession on screen events, which is the seventh-best mark in the league.

With players like Tucker and Harden spending more defensive time on bigs, that leaves Covington with the task of defending the top perimeter scorers and playmakers. Here is a look at how Covington has fared against these potential matchups come playoff time.

Overall eFG%
Donovan Mitchell8:0131425%51.9%1
Kawhi Leonard7:012922.2%51.5%4
Paul George5:1381373.1%52.4%2
LeBron James4:194683.3%54.4%3
Nikola Jokic1:5111100%55.8%1
Chris Paul4:162450%54.9%1
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander6:124675%50.7%1
Kristaps Porzingis4:243650%49.2%0
Anthony Davis3:1177100%54.8%0
Bojan Bogdanovic11:3841145.5%55.9%1

Meanwhile, on the offensive end, it will continue to be up to Harden and Westbrook to share the scoring and playmaking load. If Westbrook can maintain his recent run of production and efficiency, and James Harden continues being the top isolation threat in the league, the Rockets may be able to simply outscore teams and post enough points to make up for any defensive slippage due to going small.