Houston Rockets

Why nobody can agree on Russell Westbrook

Since Shams Charania of The Athletic broke the news that Russell Westbrook wants out of Houston, one thing has become abundantly clear: Westbrook is the most polarizing star in the league.

There's no denying Westbrook's greatness. A one-time MVP with nine All-Star selections to his name, Westbrook is a lock to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer regardless of how the rest of his career plays out. (For what it's worth, Basketball Reference gives him a 99.9 percent of making the Hall of Fame. The only active players with better odds are Chris Paul, LeBron James and Kevin Durant).

Westbrook is even coming off of a season in which he made the All-NBA Third Team with averages of 27.2 points, 7.9 rebounds and 7.0 assists per game. His season didn't end the way he or the Rockets wanted to, but our NBA.com Staff still had him as the 22nd-best player in the league when we last did our player rankings.

And yet, ask two different people about whether or not they would want their favourite team to make a move for Westbrook in wake of Charania's report, and you're likely to get two very different answers.

Let's take a closer look at why.

MORE: Trade destinations for Westbrook

What we can agree on

There aren't many players who put as much pressure on teams at the rim than Westbrook.

In the 2019-20 season, Westbrook led the league with 20.8 drives per game. It contributed to him scoring 15.0 points per game in the paint, the third-highest rate in the league behind only Giannis Antetokounmpo (17.5) and Zion Williamson (16.8). Even at the age of 32, Westbrook is still one of the quickest and most explosive players in the NBA. He's always looking to use his speed to get into the paint, and he has both the strength and athleticism to finish at a high clip when he gets there.

Westbrook has actually improved as a finisher at the rim over the last few seasons. In his first nine seasons in the league, he made 57.7 percent of his shot attempts within three feet of the basket. Over the last three seasons, he's bumped that number up to 63.3 percent.

The Rockets made life even easier for Westbrook in that regard by moving starting centre Clint Capela at the trade deadline to surround him with four 3-point shooters at all times. It turned Westbrook into the most dominant paint scorer in the league and led to him playing some of the best basketball of his career.

One thing that hasn't changed with Westbrook is that he's always been at his best in transition. He's consistently among the league's leading scorers in the open court, ranking third in total points scored in transition last season. It turned the Rockets into a completely different team with him in the lineup. According to NBA.com, Houston went from scoring 14.6 percent of its points on the fastbreak with him on the court to 9.1 percent with him on the bench.

For perspective, that was the difference between the Rockets ranking fifth and 29th in the percentage of points scored on the fastbreak.

Westbrook also became one of the league's leading scorers in isolation with the Rockets, much like Chris Paul did when he played next to James Harden.

Westbrook's strength makes him a tough cover for guards...

...while his speed and athleticism make him a tough cover for bigs.

He's a limited shooter - more on that in a minute - but Westbrook can keep defences honest with his midrange pull-up. According to NBA.com, over a quarter (28.2 percent) of his field-goal attempts last season were 2-point pull-ups, and he made 41.0 percent of those opportunities.

Teams will still live Westbrook settling for jump shots if it means he's not getting to the basket, but he's someone teams respect from midrange when he gets rolling.

A couple more things about Westbrook:

  1. He's an elite rebounder. Westbrook has earned the reputation of being a bit of a stat-padder, but there's no denying that he's one of the best rebounders the league has ever seen at the guard position. Westbrook has led all guards in rebounding in five of the last six seasons, the 2019-20 season being the only one during that span in which he didn't.
  2. He's a good passer. I feel like Westbrook's passing is a tad underrated. He's not necessarily someone who will pick teams apart with his passing - he turns the ball over quite a bit as well - but he still creates a lot of offence for his teammates. Westbrook created 19.2 points per game for his teammates last season, putting him behind LeBron James (25.5), Trae Young (23.2), Luka Doncic (22.8), Ricky Rubio (21.8), Ben Simmons (20.8) and Damian Lillard (20.4) for most in the league.

Put it all together, and Westbrook still checks out as a positive offensive player by advanced metrics. Last season, he had the 12th-best Offensive Real Plus-Minus in the league. He didn't rank nearly as high in Offensive Box Plus-Minus, Value Over Replacement Player and Player Impact Plus-Minus, but he was still a positive in each metric.

His defence is another story, but that's a conversation for a different day.

Where it gets complicated

Let's start with his jump shot.

While he's capable of scoring from midrange, Westbrook isn't much of a threat on the 3-point line. Last season, he made 29.1 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts. Of the 209 players who attempted at least 100 catch-and-shoot 3s last season, only six converted them at a lower percentage.

To boot, Westbrook made only 24.2 percent of his pull-up 3s. Of the 128 players who attempted at least 50 pull-up 3s, only seven converted them at a lower percentage.

That isn't simply a case of small sample size either. A career 30.5 percent shooter from the perimeter, Westbrook is one of the worst high volume 3-point shooters in NBA history.

More than anything, it limits Westbrook as an off-ball threat. Teams aren't afraid to help off of him when he doesn't have the ball in his hands, which gums up spacing for everyone else. It's a big reason why the Rockets moved Capela at the trade deadline. Whenever Westbrook and Capela were on the court together, it gave opposing teams two players they could help off of. Trading Capela opened up the court for not only Westbrook but everyone else on the Rockets.

That only makes Westbrook a more complicated player to build around as he enters the backend of his career. As already mentioned, he's still one of the most explosive players in the league, but it's going to be harder for him to be the primary option on a team the more Father Time catches up with him. Why? His prototype - athletic guards with questionable jump shots - tend not to age very well. If he doesn't improve as a shooter, he's going to have a tough time transitioning into being an effective secondary or tertiary option on a good team.

The good news: Westbrook has shown signs that he can still be an incredibly productive player in a primary role. With Harden off the court last season, Westbrook averaged 34.0 points, 10.4 assists and 8.1 rebounds per 36 minutes on .496/.233/.748 shooting splits. Poor 3-point shooting aside, those are some remarkable numbers.

The bad news: Westbrook hasn't had much success in the playoffs in recent years as a primary option.

When Houston defeated Oklahoma City in last season's playoffs it was the first time since 2016 that Westbrook has been one of the first round. He lost in five games to the Rockets in 2017, six games to the Utah Jazz in 2018 and five games to the Portland Trail Blazers in 2019. (Making matters worse? Westbrook's team was the higher seed in two of those three matchups). He still put up big counting stats in each of those series, but his shooting percentages plummeted to 38.4 percent from the field and 31.2 percent from 3-point range.

Which brings us to tweets like this...

Part of the Westbrook problem is that he is going to make over $40 million in each of the next three seasons, which makes it difficult for teams to match salaries. (It's also a big commitment to make to a player his age). The other part is that it's hard to imagine him being the piece that puts a contender over the edge because his limitations are so pronounced and that having him as a No. 1 option would appear to put a rather concrete ceiling on a team based on how his last three years in Oklahoma City played out.

Matt Moore of The Action Network put it best: Westbrook is much more of a floor raiser than he is a ceiling raiser. There's still value in that - hence why the likes of the Charlotte Hornets and New York Knicks have been linked to Westbrook - but it depends on what side of the fence you sit on.

The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.

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