The potential downfall of the James Harden and Russell Westbrook partnership has been one of the league’s most discussed issues since the moment Adrian Wojnarowski’s finger tapped “send” on the tweet announcing the trade to the general public. These worries are valid. There *is* something to be said about the difficulties of merging two forces as dominant as the two highest usage guards in the history of the NBA.
But harping on these issues is choosing to focus entirely on what these players can’t do, while ignoring the aspects of their games that, on the surface, appear to be sources of tension, but actually serve to complement each other, creating a dynamic fit unlike any other in the league today.
James Harden has a very specific style of play. With him, the defense is allowed a certain amount of downtime. He rushes nothing. He plays the game at his own pace, and his pace is extremely slow. So when he is bringing the ball up the court and setting up the possession, the defense doesn’t necessarily get to relax, but they are permitted a moment to breathe, in a way.
There’s no time for leisure when Russell Westbrook is on the court. He also has a very specific style of play. He also plays the game at his own pace, but his pace is extremely fast. He can kick the game speed into overdrive at any given moment. Defenses have to be prepared for his quickness every second he is on the court.
Opposing defenses are lulled into a sense of comfortability playing against Harden’s speed, or lack thereof. You know you can’t stop him, but you also know it will be a slow death. So while teams are getting used to being allowed to get back on defense calmly and think about what they’re about to do, Westbrook is planning out the perfect opportunity to throw a wrench in this routine with sheer velocity, using the gravity his speed creates to form the perfect complement to James Harden’s tempo-less attack. At least that’s what the Rockets’ front office imagined when they traded for Westbrook this summer.
But now, there is no longer a need to operate off the strength of imagination. Through the first two games of the young NBA season, we are already beginning to see the combination of Harden’s death-by-a-thousand-cuts approach to offense in the halfcourt and Westbrook’s breakneck attack in transition that appeared so tantalizing on paper perform as advertised in real game action.
Last season, the Rockets ranked just 27th in pace, as you would expect given their style of play. Through two games this season, they sit at second. They’ve jumped from 98 possessions per game to 110. While this will more than likely even out some as the sample size grows, it shows the immediate impact that Westbrook’s presence has made in Houston.
This play is the perfect example of what Westbrook brings in the fast break. The ability to push the tempo and score at the rim with the defense on their heels is one of the easiest ways to manufacture points, especially when teams are used to the polar opposite style of play when Harden is the ball handler.
Westbrook uses the fast break to create buckets for himself at the rim, but that is only his second-greatest strength. His greatest threat is as a passer, which he utilizes in transition just as well.
He has mastered the art of the drive and kick, using the magnetic force that his slashing commands to drag in help defenders, creating open threes for his teammates, such as he did for Danuel House here.
He takes advantage of transition opportunities as well as anyone. But he also turns plays you wouldn’t necessarily expect into de facto fastbreaks.
Here, the Pelicans made a shot, which would typically grant them enough time to get back on defense and set up their coverage while the offense checks the ball in and brings it up the court. Not against Russell Westbrook. He treats this semi-transition opportunity the same he would a fastbreak off a missed shot, traveling from rim to rim before the defense can even consider reacting.
Westbrook does something similar with this play, implanting his speed into the game at a moment’s notice and rushing straight at the rim with a full head of steam the second the ball is inbounded, drawing a foul in the time most guards would take to cross half court.
You get the idea. Russell Westbrook is really, really fast. And now, so are the Rockets by extension.
It’s not just the fact that they have begun to play faster that is so impressive, it’s how efficiently they’ve been scoring while sped up.
Here are the Rockets’ transition scoring numbers with Westbrook on the court and Harden on the bench, per Cleaning The Glass.
Points added per 100 possessions through transition: 8.6 (100th percentile)
Percentage of total possessions that began in transition: 13.2% (20th percentile)
Transition points scored per 100 transition possessions: 157.1 (100th percentile)
*100th percentile= better than 100% of lineups, 20th percentile= better than 20% of lineups*
These numbers are, simply put, amazing. Through two games (again, very small sample) there has been literally zero lineups across the entire NBA that have scored more transition points and scored those points more efficiently than those including Russell Westbrook. What’s most interesting is the frequency of transition possessions that those lineups have had. Despite ranking in the 100th percentile of both transition points added and transition efficiency, they are in just the 20th percentile in how often they take these shots.
This contrast in volume and efficiency shows that despite being so incredibly deadly when running, Westbrook is picking and choosing when to use his greatest weapon. He is still playing within the scheme the Rockets have employed for years, choosing to fit in opposed to playing the style he has his entire career, but is as effective as ever when sprinkling in the elements of his game that make him, him. This is the perfect way to utilize a player whose skills differ from that of the team so much, adding much needed variety to how the Rockets play.
For sake of comparison, here are the same transition numbers for lineups that include James Harden but not Russell Westbrook.
Points added per 100 possessions through transition: -2.6 (0th percentile)
Percentage of possessions that began in transition: 12.5% (20th percentile)
Transition points scored per 100 transition possessions: 71.4 (0th percentile)
So yeah, the difference is jarring. They go from the best transition team in the league with Westbrook on the court to quite literally the worst when only Harden is playing. But the frequency of transition possessions remains fairly similar, further exemplifying the way Westbrook has blended the styles of play so effectively thus far.
The difference in the numbers between the two types of lineups is stark, but it’s not just when Harden sits that you see Westbrook’s effect on the team’s transition attack. You see similar results with both on the court. Like when it is just Westbrook playing, they aren’t spamming transition shots, but when they do take them, they’re highly efficient.
Points added per 100 possessions through transition: 8.6 (100th percentile)
Percentage of possessions that began in transition: 15.2% (50th percentile)
Transition points scored per 100 transition possessions: 160 (100th percentile)
While, again, these numbers are all admittedly products of a small sample size and are bound to regress some, the information we can glean from them is not invalidated by the size of the sample. Not only do they match what we’ve seen on the court, they match what we have come to expect from Russell Westbrook and James Harden-led teams, making it fairly safe to assume this data is a sneak peak of what we will see from the team going forward rather than a blip on the radar that fizzles into nothing. And if this is who the Rockets are going to be going forward, allowing them to combine an elite transition attack with what was already the league’s best offense without any threat in transition at all, the perfect storm could be brewing.
In short, these newfound improvements in transition are no outlier. This is who Russell Westbrook is. This is the value he brings to teams. And this is exactly what the previous iterations of the Houston Rockets have lacked. Dynamic unpredictability. Westbrook’s addition has essentially changed the Rockets from the league’s most predictable team to one that is now a tale of two offenses, giving James Harden an unpredictable sidekick who is standing by, waiting to put his foot on the gas as soon as his meticulous counterpart begins to sputter. Just as the Rockets’ front office imagined he would.