On Halloween, one day after they sprinted past the Washington Wizards for a 159-158 victory, the Houston Rockets held a film session. Aside from pointing out defensive lapses, of which there were and continue to be many, the meeting’s focus was clear: Fast is good.
Houston’s offensive coordinator Brett Gunning stood in front of the room to point out all the different reasons why the Rockets were playing faster than they ever have before. Houston hadn’t been a snail under Mike D’Antoni, but last year they finished 27th in pace. At the time of this particular meeting, they ranked second.
As Gunning spoke, Austin Rivers caught Russell Westbrook’s eye. Both started to laugh. Afterwards, Gunning walked over and asked him what was so funny. “When you were talking about our tempo and why [it’s fast], I just looked at Russ,” Rivers said. “BG just said ‘yeah, that’s the real reason.’”
The Rockets have always wanted to accelerate their attack, but past personnel and a wise decision not to fix what wasn’t broken — they finished second in offensive rating last season — kept them from doing so. Their front office believes that more possessions simply gives them more chances to widen their lead. Luck becomes a little less relevant. In this area, Westbrook is the conduit they’ve been searching for.
“He’s one of the fastest I’ve ever seen,” Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni said. “It’s gotta be a blur a little bit on the sides. It’s just like going in the car, going 100 miles an hour.”
When he’s on the court, Houston sizzles up and down at a speed that begs for giant safety nets to be installed along the Toyota Center’s baseline. They currently lead the league in pace and average the fewest seconds per possession. After their opponent makes a basket, their possessions are almost a full second shorter than last year’s league leader: Westbrook’s Oklahoma City Thunder. Turnovers are an issue and a faster speed makes it harder to fortify their defense on the other end, but transition is where the Rockets can be their most unstoppable selves, and their new point guard is why. When Westbrook races towards the paint defenders must make a split-second decision: do we want to meet this demon in the paint or give up an open three?
“Not a lot of people know that, especially young guys. Everybody wants to score the basketball, score the basketball,” Harden said. “But he does an unbelievable job of using his athleticism to create opportunities for his teammates.”
It’s too early to say if Westbrook’s alliance with Houston will work, but what we do know is that championships are not won in the open floor. The Rockets have been at their best when Harden is on the court without his fellow MVP, and Westbrook’s force tends to lessen in half-court settings. The contrast between how he’s changed one area of his new team for the better while holding them back in another illustrates why this partnership is so fascinating. It’s a battle that could last as long as their relationship: Westbrook will either find ways to complement the Rockets or infect everything they stand for.
“You know, we’re not trying to change Russ. We’re bringing him here as the MVP and what he has done he’s done. Now can he just — we play a certain way — does he kind of move towards that a little bit? That’s on him. I hope he does. He has,” Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni said. “If you’re gonna have to change a guy, you might not want to bring him in in the first place. So he’s adapted and we’ve adapted to him also.”
The good news for Houston is that Westbrook is using his newfound space to live at the rim, where he’s attempted a career-high 48 percent of his shots. So far, he’s also more accurate than ever once he gets there. Since 2014 he has never made more than half his field goal attempts when driving to the rim. This season he’s shooting 63 percent.
“There’s nobody in the lane ... in his way,” Brooklyn Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson said. “He’s got that ocean open to drive.”
The bad news is that he’s been one of the worst three-point shooters in the league, and the unnecessary long twos that only look smart when they go in still exist. When off the ball, some defenses stick to Westbrook, in constant fear of him rumbling through for an offensive rebound or tip dunk, and when he catches a kick-out there isn’t a closeout defender in the world who can stay in front of him.
Others have used Westbrook’s man to squeeze Harden, taking away the drive and either forcing a step-back three or pass. Harden’s field goal percentage in the restricted area is 11.1 percent higher when Westbrook is not by his side, which isn’t a coincidence. It can be an awkward dance, and plays like the one below show how hard it’s been for Westbrook to get comfortable being uncomfortable.
As Westbrook adjusts to a different basketball aesthetic, his minutes, shots, and touches are down to levels he hasn’t seen in quite some time, if ever. Two years ago he averaged 5.72 and 5.34 seconds and dribbles per touch, respectively. Right now he’s down to 4.34 and 4.09. His stints have changed, too: A rhythm player if there ever was one, Westbrook is exiting games earlier than he ever has, resting through the middle of quarters in the same way Chris Paul once did.
He’s also used to having the ball in his hands more than everybody else. Last season, it was 4.3 more minutes per game than Paul George, and in their first year as teammates that number was 6.3. Now, Westbrook has possession of the ball for three fewer minutes than Harden. Some of that sacrifice is self-made, which is truly incredible coming from someone who treats every possession like it’s an outtake from the last 30 minutes of Goodfellas, and packs more please don’t try this at home fury into any one game than some players are able to unleash in an entire career.
But a general concern felt by the Rockets that may linger throughout the season is how insecurities held by most NBA megastars can subconsciously impact their own on-court decisions. Even when they wear the same jersey, stars are uber-competitive with other stars; Houston is toast if jealousy trickles onto the floor. It’s still early, and the season is long enough to draw raw feelings from even the best of friends, but so far Westbrook has been reserved in noticeable and necessary ways, embracing the fact that every play is no longer designed with his individual success in mind. From Houston’s perspective, the key is for Westbrook to realize that, as a ringless 31-year-old, he might need the team as badly as they need him.
“He has surprised me,” Rivers said. “I think he has adjusted his game. I mean, I think he knows James is by far our best scorer. Russ could be much more aggressive if he wanted to but I think he knows we wouldn’t win as many games because James is already shooting ... James shoots a lot [laughs].
“If he was trying to average 30 every game [while] James is trying to average 30 every game, it’d just be a shit show, and guys would start to say stuff and be unhappy, because everybody wants the ball, you know what I mean? I think he took a backstep in scoring for James ... I think he’s looking to pass even more than he ever has.”
Despite collecting 300 more assists than any other NBA player over the past 10 years, currently leading the league in corner three assists and trailing only LeBon James and Luka Doncic in potential assists, Westbrook is better known for the scorched-earth, self-serving decisions that didn’t exactly motivate Kevin Durant or George to stay for the long haul as his teammate. That reputation is hard to shake.
But if he continues to accept that the team he plays for isn’t his — particularly in the postseason, against coaches who have time to exploit Westbrook’s need to do everything himself — that revelation can unlock the more supportive part of a skill-set Houston needs if it wants to be the last team standing.
“It’s a process but it’s not nothing that I haven’t seen,” Westbrook said. “So my job is to throw the ball where they gon’ be not where I think they gon’ be, and that’s the most important part about playmaking and making the right plays. And that’s all I do.”
That’s sort of what this is all about: Westbrook’s partnership with Houston hinges on a delicate balance between how they need him to fit in and the many ways he’s always wanted to stand out.
Westbrook is, at once, the most confident human being who ever lived yet also constantly needing to prove himself. He’s still prone to turning his one-on-one matchup into a holy war that harms his team more than the opponent.
But he isn’t taking the bait as often as he used to, and more mature elements of Westbrook’s game are still in bloom. “He’s still aggressive. He’s always been aggressive,” Rockets guard Thabo Sefolosha, who was Westbrook’s teammate for five years in Oklahoma City, said. “I think he understands the game better [now], rotations, where guys are open.”
One difference in Houston has been that instead of tallying assists because the defense is forcing him to pass, Westbrook is now assisting teammates when the defense wants him to shoot — similar to how Draymond Green realized he had to give up open open looks for the betterment of his Golden State Warriors. Look how he threads the needle to PJ Tucker; he’s wide open but doesn’t even look at the rim.
“He’s really good at finding the open guys. The right guys,” Tucker said. “I don’t know anybody who can guard him one on one and stay in front of him every time, so they’ll try to pre-rotate and come help.”
Westbrook has made steps in the right direction, but setting out to correct his flaws may be a lost cause — like negotiating with a pyroclastic cloud or telling a Tyrannosaurus Rex to go vegan — and even if he starts making the most brilliant passes in NBA history none of this will matter if he continues to hit just 14 percent of his spot-up threes while enabling a defense that’s routinely gored.
As a best-case scenario, the Rockets will eventually get Westbrook to buy into their tried and true philosophy. He’ll push the ball, live at the rim, crash the glass, and continue to set up his teammates while also eliminating the early-clock jump shots and hopeless gambles that hurt Houston on both ends. Less can be more, and there’s still enough fundamental talent here for him to put them over the top. But at the same time, if Westbrook’s stubbornness continues to invade possessions that otherwise would not self-combust, he can obliterate everything the Rockets built.
On a new team, surrounded by different teammates, coaches, and principles, the hope is he’ll find a way to favor the more brilliant dimensions of his game while bypassing everything about it that makes D’Antoni, Daryl Morey, and even his teammates want to pull their hair out.
Both sides must evolve for this to ultimately work, and so far we’ve seen them oscillate between growing pains and a breathtaking fireworks display. But to get where they want to go, Westbrook must commit even more than he already has. The Rockets are built to win it all. In many ways, it’s up to him if they ever will.