Russell Westbrook stopped shooting 3s and the Rockets couldn’t be happier

Russell Westbrook is an all-star. It’s a surprise that’s presumably based more on counting stats and his Hall of Fame resume than any current impact had on winning. But regardless of whether Westbrook deserved the honor (Devin Booker was robbed), his recent play deserves further examination.

Over the last couple weeks, Westbrook has seemingly discovered the perfect balance between restraint and fearlessness. That matters far more than any all-star nod ever could. But before we take a look at Westbrook’s recent stretch, here are a few caveats:

  1. The Houston Rockets have the 19th-best offense in the league with Westbrook on the court, and tie the Dallas Mavericks for first place when he’s not; in the half-court, Houston is No. 1 in offensive efficiency when Westbrook is off the floor. (That includes the second night of back-to-backs, of which he’s yet to appear in one.) With Westbrook in the game Houston still ranks just outside the top 10 here. Pretty good, but not “first-place” good.
  2. Westbrook is 405th in defensive real plus-minus. He gambles as often as he ball watches, doesn’t always race back in transition, and his chaotic means tend to spill into open-floor opportunities for the other team — be it on a wild layup that instantly generates a 5-on-4, a quick-trigger jump shot that his teammates weren’t expecting, or a pass straight into the hands of an opponent. Not all of Houston’s defensive issues are on Westbrook — they’re actually better on that end with him on the floor — but career-long bad habits have not gone anywhere. That’s disappointing, even if nobody expected him to change.
  3. After 11 seasons, Westbrook left the Oklahoma City Thunder shooting 30.8 percent behind the three-point line. Right now he’s down to 23.5 percent, the second-lowest mark of his career and third-worst in NBA history by any player who’s jacked up at least 170 threes.

It’s that last point that’s the largest concern, with Westbrook taking five shots every game that had a slim chance of going in. But over the past six games something borderline-monumental has taken place: Westbrook has stopped shooting them. It began Jan. 18 in a nationally-televised loss against the Los Angeles Lakers, when Westbrook scored 35 points and made 65.2 percent of his shots, but also went 0-for-0 beyond the arc.

He followed that up by scoring 32 points on 66.7 percent shooting in a narrow loss against his former team. This was the only three he attempted:

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Houston’s next two games were wins against the Denver Nuggets and Minnesota Timberwolves. In them, Westbrook averaged 36.5 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists, while making 51.9 percent of his shots. None were three balls. Sure, this is a small sample size. It’s also behavior that’s nearly unprecedented. Heading into the past two weeks, Westbrook hadn’t gone two straight games without putting up at least one three since the 2011 NBA All-Star break.

Against the Portland Trail Blazers Wednesday night, three of Westbrook’s 29 shots were threes. In the first he was wide open in the corner, the second came right before an end-of-quarter buzzer, and the third was late in the game with Houston trailing by double-digits.

This is backwards evolution that’s far from harmful. Yes, threes are objectively good. But that doesn’t mean everyone needs to shoot them. Sometimes the arc can do more damage than good for an individual player, and in an increasingly homogenous league, characters like Westbrook can take advantage of the three-point line without launching their own attempts.

Earlier this year I wrote a piece about Westbrook’s evolving fit in a new system, how he was changing Houston’s identity, and, above all else, why his decision-making would be one of the season’s most important variables. This wasn’t a call for him to eliminate certain looks from his repertoire, but for the Rockets to reach their full potential he must acknowledge his own failings, trust his teammates, and know when it’s appropriate to shoot, pass, or drive. The past few games indicate he might be figuring it out.

Westbrook’s shot chart from the past five games isn’t perfectv…

… but so long as it’s accompanied by propulsive acrobatics that defy everything we know about the human body’s losing duel against gravity, the Rockets won’t complain. When the paint is open, he plunges into it. When defenders ignore him on the perimeter, he slingshots into that open space either on a well-timed cut or the instant after a teammate passes him the ball.

There’s no settling for what the defense wants him to do, and any alternative was always going to be a square peg in a round hole. Westbrook is shooting 29.9 percent when wide open beyond the arc this season — AKA 101st out of 104 players who’ve taken at least 80 such shots. But he is also someone who, only three seasons ago, hurled five pull-up threes every night, and when they came after seven or more dribbles an astonishing 38.4 percent went in. In his mind the next shot is always going in. To think anything else would be to tumble into a psychological surrender that few players ever come back from.

Westbrook has managed to sustain his impossibly high confidence while accepting his own limitations. That’s not easy, and as he’s stopped shooting threes everything else about his game has taken off. The regular season is not the playoffs, where spacing is even more paramount, but right now he looks like his one-time MVP self in ways that do not veer into James Harden’s lane. The two are continuously finding new ways to leverage the intelligence, vision, and defensive attention each of them deserve. This is the Rockets at their best:

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According to a team source, nobody in the organization told Westbrook to stop shooting threes, and the team expects his period of adjustment to continue as we go deeper into the season.

At a recent game, Westbrook described the trend with a keen self-awareness that underlies the type of individual growth Houston is desperate for, telling reporters: “I was only taking the shots I wanted. That’s me maturing in this game and figuring out my spots and shooting the ball when I’m ready to.”

He’s self-experimenting, still learning how he can maximize sections of his game that remain spectacular while extinguishing those that are detrimental to the whole. This season he’s averaging more two-point shots per game than ever before, and his percentage on those shots has never been higher. That’s good, but it doesn’t make him flawless. There are still too many long twos, some coming in spots where the defense has stacked the paint to take away a drive. He can always pass more.

Three-point percentage matters but much less so if the Rockets are comfortable letting Westbrook run the show as Harden (and all his gravity) hang out on the perimeter — cutting into space, warping the defense in ways that blow dust off an area of offense Houston’s coaching staff has yet to explore. Nudging someone who’s so devastating with the ball off of it sounds inane, but basketball teams are harder to stop when more than one player is a focal point of the nightly gameplan. That’s just a fact.

Houston’s complementary pieces can all shoot, and most know how to put the ball on the deck to make a play. Eric Gordon’s return adds another dimension to their attack, and gives Westbrook even more options on drives that leave skid marks in his wake. The Rockets can ultimately only go so far as Harden takes them, but Westbrook’s sudden focus on the parts of basketball he’s still extremely good at could elevate the Rockets into a championship-caliber tier some (i.e. me) expected them to be in before the season began. January was a rough month for the team, but they shined with Westbrook on the court without Harden for the very first time. On the whole as another reason to be bullish about Houston’s short-term future, it has the second-best point differential in the NBA against teams with a top-10 defense.

Westbrook is an all-star by reputation, but if his pride overwhelms this recent stint of humility in the playoffs, all will be for naught, and Houston can forget about reaching any of the goals they’re trying to achieve.

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