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How will Russell Westbrook go with Rockets and James Harden?



LAS VEGAS – The acquisition of Russell Westbrook by the Rockets, at first glance, and perhaps second and third look, would seem to be the antithesis of their typical analytical thinking.

Westbrook can be explosive, but ineffective; a prolific scorer, but a poor perimeter shooter; devastating on the open floor, but often reckless.

The Rockets take and make more than 3 points than any team in NBA history and were a sensational mid-field offensive team evaluating and exploiting the most effective methods of scoring in cold blood. Westbrook relies on fire attacks built on spectacular gifts.

Still, the decision to replace Chris Savard, a slick but slow defender, on defenses by Westbrook's quick and sudden attacks is also typical of the Rockets, built at least partly on the analysis of his adaptation. In many ways, it's the latest example of CEO Daryl Morey's determination – when eye tests and analyzes do not fit – to look deeper.

Westbrook is the latest in a long line of Hall of Fame caliber players – Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley, Tracy McGrady, James Harden and Paul – the Rockets have added to the exchanges since the first season of the championship.

Harden and Westbrook were first and second in points, assists, robberies, placement attempts and utilization rates over the last five seasons. They were among the top three points with their own score or help, as well as the leaders who scored or helped in the last three seasons. Harden was the only player with a higher utilization rate than Westbrook during his 2016-17 MVP season.

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The rate of use can be a little misleading. Nobody who scored as much as Harden last season (36.1 points per game) was also the leader. But that indicates the adjustments that will have to be made.

Part of this will be understood with the way coach Mike D'Antoni shifts his stars, as he did with Harden and Paul. They will likely share the same court for less than half of each game. One will execute the offensive while the other will remain seated.

The Rockets also believe that some of Westbrook's strengths will address the gaps.

A poor defensive defense team last season, Westbrook's defensive rebound percentage was much better than any league guard. A team that has struggled to play with its pace all season, despite its reputation, adds an instant guard.

But beyond the acquisition of star power that matches their history and the current NBA arms race, the Rockets believe that Westbrook's talent will be less visible than whether it has tripled chances to share the past with Harden.

Much of this trust – or at least the eagerness to take "a calculated wager" as a person familiar with the thought of the Rockets – points out the problems that could have created a doubt.

Westbrook has achieved less than 30% of its 3 points in four of the past five seasons. He made about 32 percent of his 3 shots and shot. Paul, in a difficult year shooting, made almost 43%.

The Rockets think Westbrook will increase his 3-point shot by 33-35% by playing next to Harden and other shooters. They believe that it will be overall more effective by taking more than 3 undisputed and less than 2 long dribbles.

More than that, however, the Rockets' confidence comes from the belief that Westbrook will play with at least three ranged shooters, spacing the ground, creating more room to attack the rim. They think this will help his own goal, but will also force the defense to stay in the hall and shoot at the shooters, including Harden.

This requires that Harden be in agreement with the idea of ​​not being supported more often. Although he will remain the playmaker in many possessions of the Rockets half-court, Westbrook will often start the offense, as he did when they were together in Oklahoma City.

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Harden, according to people familiar with the conversations leading to the trade, has repeatedly assured the Rockets that he would welcome this adjustment.

This is one of the keys to the Rockets' success at the end of games, especially in the playoffs, when the game tends to slow down and the NBA playoffs are often decided to the advantage.

The Rockets will also have to adjust the offensive to keep Westbrook in a position to attack without sacrificing spacing. Paul was often heading to the corner, especially in his first season in Houston, while Ryan Anderson was still in the rotation and in a pick-and-pop position. Westbrook will be more often on the ball or on the wing.

When he starts the offense, Harden will have to look to catch and shoot much more often than last season, while he could still spend weeks between goals.

If Harden triples with Westbrook on the wing, Harden can still face head-to-head against changing teams. He was by far the most productive and effective striker of the NBA in Iso last season.

Teams have increasingly dropped tall men in the hallway and Westbrook is not likely to dissuade them from tamping down. But the Rockets may seek to get into their attack faster, with Westbrook striker of the wing when Harden moves the ball out of range, and Westbrook has time to make the next pass to the shooter.

All of this will challenge D'Antoni's offensive creativity. But it begins, as he often says when the Rockets acquired Paul, with stars determined to make it work.

The Rockets believe more than this decision will extend the window of the championships, the schedule of Westbrook being better matched to that of Harden. They believe that with the risk, there is also an opportunity, with the features that make moving a game of chance, also offering the possibility that a great player – and them – can become better.

jonathan.feigen@chron.com

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