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How swapping in Russell Westbrook for Chris Paul changes the Rockets

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The Russell Westbrook-Chris Paul trade has big implications for the Houston Rockets and the NBA Getty Images / SB Nation illustration

You couldn’t script two more polar-opposite stars than Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook. One is surgical and calculating, the other rambunctious and proactive. One succeeds with craft and touch, the other with aggression and physicality. One maximizes every opportunity they get; the other seeks opportunities that otherwise don’t exist.

Each fundamentally changes an entire team’s style of play — just in drastically different ways. With Paul joining the deliberate Harden two years ago, the Rockets revolutionized isolation play, downplaying fundamental basketball elements like passing, moving, and running in the name of pragmatism. Meanwhile, Westbrook’s Thunder were known for hard-charging athleticism that overwhelmed most teams, but not the more calculating defenses in the playoffs. Both approaches succeeded until they bumped up against the same glass ceiling.

With the rest of Houston’s roster returning, the Westbrook-Paul swap gives us the opportunity to examine an important basketball question: Does a team like this benefit more from Paul’s precision or Westbrook’s killer instinct?

There’s a moment in Houston’s Game 6 elimination loss to the Warriors that offers practical application. After a hard-fought first 34 minutes, Houston slowly took control of the game with a 10-2 run spanning the third and fourth quarters. Paul was at his best during this stretch, carving up Golden State’s defense with crafty passes and unblockable mid-range jumpers. Up seven with 10:45 left, the Rockets forced Klay Thompson into a deadly live-ball turnover and raced the other way on a 3-on-1 fast break.

Here’s what ended up happening.

Golden State’s Andre Iguodala drilled an open three 10 seconds later to cut Houston’s lead to four, and you know the rest. Stephen Curry and Draymond Green pick-and-rolled the Rockets into a crushing playoff elimination, exposing fissures in the Paul-James Harden relationship. After weeks of rumors and coaching drama failed to yield the roster reconstruction Daryl Morey sought, the Rockets had just one option: Swap Paul (and future draft picks) for Westbrook while bringing the rest of the band back together.

Imagine that scenario where Westbrook is on the floor instead of Paul leading that doomed 3-on-1 break. Russ’ decision-making can be iffy, but there’s no way he allows the Warriors’ defense to get back into the picture. Instead of a four-point lead, Houston goes up nine (or even 10), forces a Warriors timeout — Steve Kerr is already standing in timeout position as the fast break develops — and probably rides that momentum to a Game 6 win. If we’re going full Butterfly Effect here, maybe that Game 6 win leads to a Game 7 victory over a battered Warriors team, a Finals appearance, and a real Houston title instead of one via internal audit.

Then again, we can’t apply the Butterfly Effect positively for just the fast break without also accounting for all the work Paul did to get Houston there.

Make no mistake: The Rockets will be very different with Westbrook, even with the rest of the rotation sticking around. During Westbrook’s 11-year OKC career, the Thunder never ranked lower than eighth in the highest percentage of plays generated via transition, according to Ben Falk’s Cleaning the Glass. Only 76 percent of their offensive possessions came against a set defense last year, the second-lowest mark in the league. Houston, by contrast, played 81.5 percent of their possessions against a set defense during the regular season, jumping to 82.7 percent in the playoffs. The Rockets forced tempo frequently prior to Paul’s arrival, but progressively slowed down during his tenure.

With Paul and Harden roasting mesmerized defenses, this approach made sense. Since hiring Mike D’Antoni in 2016, the Rockets ranked second, first, and second in half-court offensive rating, with only the Warriors topping them. With two of the craftiest operators in NBA history sharing a backcourt, Houston chose a your-turn, my-turn approach that maximized their strengths. It clearly worked, one side effect being that Houston generated fewer running opportunities that could’ve made everyone’s lives easier.

Westbrook certainly addresses that side effect, though at the cost of others. During his 11 years with the Thunder, Oklahoma City’s coaches changed, stars came and went, and supporting casts were overturned. Westbrook was the one constant in their inability to win a title. On average, his mere presence on the floor made the Thunder play 2.2 possessions faster per game over those 11 years.

Historically, everyone has adjusted to Westbrook, not the other way around. That includes Harden, Westbrook’s former teammate in OKC. It’s little surprise that Harden used significantly more possessions with Westbrook out of the game than with him on the floor, but during his final two years in Oklahoma City, he also was less efficient with Westbrook than without, according to NBA stats.

One reason: The Thunder played at a rate of four more possessions per 100 faster with Westbrook and Harden in together than Harden alone. Harden thrived individually when he was able to conduct a deliberate half-court offense, but was less effective (though still excellent) when he had to sprint with Russ. It’s jarring to watch old Thunder games and see Harden running the wing as Westbrook pushed the ball in transition.

It’s hard to see that dynamic flipping entirely with Westbrook now joining Harden’s team. Two seasons ago, the Thunder played at a rate of nearly five more possessions per 100 with Westbrook on the court, the highest differential of his career. Westbrook took on a slightly lesser role last year to help Paul George, but still made OKC’s play nearly two possessions faster in his minutes. For better or worse, he’s as headstrong in his style as ever.

Even though Harden has clearly vaulted ahead of Westbrook in the superstar pecking order, it’s unrealistic — not to mention incredibly foolish — to shoehorn Westbrook into the same strategy the team used with Paul flanking Harden. But the Rockets don’t need a completely flipped dynamic to improve next year. They just need the marginal gain of Westbrook creating more chances for easy buckets in transition to outweigh whatever drop they suffer in half-court situations.

The arguments against that happening are clear. Westbrook’s jump shot, never a strength, has cratered into one of the league’s largest liabilities. If Harden continues his patented dribbling dances, the floor-shrinking teams already performed off Westbrook when he was Harden’s teammate seven years ago will be child’s play compared to what they’ll do now.

Oklahoma City used to account for that problem by having Westbrook cut backdoor.

Or by moving the ball to Westbrook in space and putting Harden in the same-side corner to give Russ wider driving lanes.

Since then, defenses have become more daring helping off non-shooters, Harden has spent less time off the ball, and Westbrook has become much more stationary in the rare moments he doesn’t have it. Paul didn’t move much either, but at least defenses had to honor his shooting. They don’t have to honor Westbrook’s.

Even on the teams that push the most, half-court plays account for around 75 percent of their possessions in the regular season and more in the playoffs. That’s a huge chunk of sequences that will be less effective, perhaps significantly so, due to the Westbrook/Paul swap.

On the other hand, transition chances are so much more fruitful than even the best half-court offense is, on average. Consider that the league’s least efficient transition offense last year (Miami) scored more than 12 more points per 100 possessions on such plays than the league’s most efficient half-court offense (Golden State) did against a set defense, according to Cleaning the Glass. Converting, say, five possessions a game from half-court to transition has a significant effect even for the league’s most surgical half-court offenses — and especially so in the playoffs, when tempo tends to slow.

The extra transition chances Westbrook creates should add a lot more points to Houston’s total. Houston actually converted transition opportunities effectively last season, scoring at the 10th-best rate in the league. That’s actually much better than Westbrook’s Thunder, who have finished 25th, 24th, and 26th in transition points per 100 possessions since Kevin Durant’s departure in 2016. But Houston ran so much less frequently than the Thunder that their efficiency advantage was neutered.

In a best-case scenario, Westbrook’s ability to push the ball blends with the elements that made the Rockets a successful running team on the rare occasions they actually ran. Because they are so three-happy, the Rockets create difficult spacing problems for retreating defenses. Their wings run to the three-point line and don’t hesitate to fire when open.

But with Harden and (especially) Paul preferring a deliberate pace, Houston didn’t have a driver that consistently put pressure on the rim in these situations. This, of course, is Westbrook’s specialty. Oklahoma City never had the floor spacing Houston will use to open the court for Westbrook’s kamikaze fast-break drives, which should make both Westbrook and those shooters significantly more effective on the break.

Getting more easy scoring opportunities while also making them even easier? That sounds like a good way to become a better team.

None of that happens in a vacuum, of course. The other Rockets — chiefly Harden, but also the role players — will need to adjust to Russ’ approach after internalizing a more stationary one to account for Paul. Running usually comes from getting stops, and Houston is a weaker defensive team than Oklahoma City. (Westbrook won’t help there, either). Westbrook will at least need to make a token effort to be a threat off the ball when the game slows down, something he’s rarely done in his career. There’s also the issue of how to handle the many minutes when Westbrook and Harden play separately. (One advantage to having Paul’s style mirror Harden’s: It was easier for the other four players on the floor to adjust to being in different lineups).

But if those things happen, the question of whether Paul’s precision or Westbrook’s killer instinct is more important to a team becomes a false one. The Rockets could just end up getting the right balance of both instead of having to choose.