Put Westbrook in the post
How to build the NBA’s best offense around a poor shooter
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BY DAVID THORPE
If the Rockets melt down into nothingness, go ahead and blame LeBron James. While you’re at it, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, and Paul George deserve some blame too. With the Warriors set for a down(ish) season, the Rockets–with James Harden and Chris Paul soundly entrenched as their stars–were positioned to be the new Western Conference team to beat. That is, until Davis’s demand to be traded to the Lakers became a fait accompli.
Even after that trade, and after the first mad flurry of free agent transactions, Houston was still looking like it could contend for that West title. But then Kawhi and George made their power pact with the L.A. Clippers. Houston? It had a problem. Not only had Paul's talents started to trend downwards in the last couple of years, but he had signed one of the least team-friendly contracts in the NBA. Prior to the Kawhi thunderblast, it might have been enough for the Rockets to win the West. But post-Kawhi's Decision, the Rockets needed a bigger star than Paul.
So they traded Paul to Oklahoma City for Russell Westbrook. The trade has smacked of desperation on the part of Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, one of the godfathers of the analytical influence era in pro basketball. How can Harden and Westbrook co-exist when both players want to dominate the ball and Westbrook is such a poor perimeter shooter? Will it be a re-run of the Westbrook-Durant days in Oklahoma City, less of a system and more of two talented scorers taking turns? Probably. But that Westbrook was entering his peak seasons, which is not close to the case now, nor going forward. What can Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni do to get the most out of this Westbrook?
I have a solution. It would mean updating the NBA’s best offense of 2007-08, which I like to call JazzFlex.
The Jazz worked the Flex to near perfection
Do you remember Ronnie Brewer, the beastly 6-foot-7 wing who played for the Utah Jazz for four years? His position in 2007-08 for the Jazz was shooting guard. But he was not, in fact, a shooter, nor really a guard of any kind. He averaged 12 points and fewer than two assists per game, making almost 57 percent of his shots, mostly using his body and length to overwhelm smaller wings around the rim. He wasn’t a perimeter threat; hitting only 11 of his 50 shots from deep (22 percent) that season.
As their base offense, the Jazz ran a decades-old system called the Flex, which utilizes lots of interior screening to create issues for defenders guarding either someone becoming open inside or another player using a screen to get open on the perimeter. It’s an incredibly basic and well-used offense in youth levels through high school.
In a very real sense, the Jazz inverted their offense, with guards killing defenders inside, and their physical big guys continuously opposing bigs away from the rim to help their struggling teammates.
The Jazz ran it to perfection, to the tune of 113.8 points per 100 possessions. That offensive rating was No. 1 in the NBA in 2007-08. (This year the team with the best regular-season record, the Bucks, featuring league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, scored 113.8 points per 100 possessions–fourth-best overall.)
For the 2007-08 Jazz, Brewer’s backcourt partner was their best player, All-Star Deron Williams. He was 6-feet-3, 200 pounds (at least) and loved to play bully ball inside, beating up smaller guards nightly. And he was an excellent marksman, making 39.5 percent of his 3s.
The Jazz’s forwards were Andrei Kirilenko, an athletic 7-foot, inside-outside threat, and Carlos Boozer, a burly bully inside with excellent range out to 18 feet. And in Mehmet Okur, Utah had the rare center who could shoot 3s. In fact, he took and made more 3s than any center in the NBA that year, hitting 38.8 percent of them on 4.1 attempts per game.
The Jazz had the league’s best offense with an All-Star point guard and an athletic shooting guard who couldn’t shoot. How did that happen? They did it with two guards who pulverized defenders inside with their size and power, big men who were excellent from the perimeter (plus Williams was great there too), and a 7-foot athletic freak who could take advantage of any weakness in the opponent’s defense. Brewer was the least successful starter on that Jazz team, but it was his ability to overpower guards that allowed Utah to use that offense so successfully. Had he been able to shoot the ball, it would have been great on paper, but it would have destroyed the identity the Jazz had on that end of the court. Brewer was so valuable to their offense that the unquestioned star of the Jazz at the time, Williams, publicly admitted to questioning the team’s commitment to winning when Brewer was traded in 2010.
Which brings us to RocketPower
It’s a combination of JazzFlex and the Warriors' Cuisinart offense–(we wrote about this during the playoffs).
Westbrook is not the athlete he once was, not every night anyway. But he's still a physical beast, capable of overpowering smaller or weaker players inside due to his frame and power. In and of itself, Utah's Flex isn’t the answer for Houston. Clint Capela can’t shoot, and the Rockets are likely to start three guards (Westbrook, Harden, and Eric Gordon). Their current offense of three shooters spacing the floor while Harden dictates everything is less potent with Westbrook on the floor.
Westbrook isn’t a guy who does well with few touches, and reducing him to the role of just a shooter doesn’t mesh with his poor shooting numbers. Brewer took less than 50 3s for the season in 2007-08; Westbrook averaged that many attempts per month this past year, with awful results. Of the 130 players who took enough of them to qualify, Westbrook ranked dead last in percentage of 3s made.
Klay Thompson, J.J. Redick, Ray Allen, etc. are snipers, not set-up men. It takes years to master that ability to shoot well without always having the ball in hand. The Rockets don’t have years. The idea that Westbrook is likely to improve as a shooter because he will be more open now is more of a hope than an expectation. The alternative is to let Westbrook control the ball often, but we know what happens there. The Rockets would want him to drive more with the open lanes created by Houston’s complementary good shooters. But history tells us he will still take an awful lot of awful deep shots–and miss 70 percent or so of them.
Westbrook can be the Draymond of the Rockets
So what can D’Antoni do to give his team some extra pop while helping Westbrook dominate efficiently? This is where borrowing from Golden State's Cuisinart offense can come into play for the Rockets. Except, instead of Draymond Green as the post man, feature Westbrook in the mid-post and pinch-post approximately 15 feet from the hoop. It was a beautiful Rockets offense when Rick Adelman was the coach, using post players like Luis Scola and Chuck Hayes, who are talented guys but possess nothing close to Westbrooks’ capability. Watch this and imagine Harden feeding Westbrook to initiate the offense (the first clip features nine passes in 14 seconds for the layup).
What Steve Kerr runs in Golden State has a lot in common with what Adelman ran so well on his last three stops with the Kings, Rockets, and Timberwolves. Imagine a D’Antoni offense that features Westbrook 15-to-17 feet away from the rim on most of their early clock sets, one dribble away from dunks, and positioned to make a pass anywhere in the halfcourt.
The post player in this offense, like The Triangle (run by Phil Jackson) and Kerr’s Cuisinart, must be able to read the game and make pinpoint passes. Draymond is now often that guy for Golden State. Andrew Bogut had his day when Kerr first created it, and Kerr has utilized their elite passing skills. Westbrook led the NBA in assists last year. This won’t be a stretch for him at all. Jackson and Kerr formulated these sets so that their star scoring guards wouldn’t have to carry too much of the scoring load in isolations. Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Steph Curry all benefited greatly: the system worked for them so they weren’t called to create all the scoring through sheer talent and individual effort.
Which is what Harden and Westbrook have been doing for years. Harden could also play the post, but asking him to spend more than a few possessions inside the arc is poor strategy considering his ability to make 3s. And don’t forget this: The most effective play for a team is to get fouled shooting a 3. Harden is the best in the league at that play, and the Rockets aren’t about to ask him to stop trying to get fouled behind the arc as he shoots. It’s Westbrook who needs to be in that post position, which leads us toward another key to RocketPower.
Westbrook: power forward
Draymond. Scola. Kevin Love. David West. All are power forwards who catch passes that start the offense. Westbrook can handle those duties. Power forwards have to rebound. Last year, Draymond grabbed 9.7 defensive rebounds per 100 possessions for the Warriors, second to hulking center DeMarcus Cousins’ 12.7. Last season Westbrook pulled down 12.8 boards per 100 possessions. While many of those weren’t hotly contested because his own man wasn’t going to the glass, there is a secret to NBA rebounding that works well for Westbrook.
NBA rebounding is a “first guy to the ball wins” deal. That isn’t the same in college, where the stronger player can arrive a millisecond later and still take control of the ball. Last week, two teenagers in the Summer League exhibited what college basketball generally looks like, when Zion Williamson pulled the ball cleanly from Kevin Knox.
Do you think anyone short of Thor can do that to Westbrook?
Playing Westbrook at power forward would hurt Houston’s defense, no question. But P.J. Tucker can be more perimeter-based on offense and can guard an opponent’s big man on defense, with Clint Capela at center. I like the idea of letting Tucker play some at the Hub of RocketPower. He’s today’s version of Chuck Hayes, a very memorable player for the Rockets who now works for the organization. Maybe Hayes can offer some coaching help to Tucker. But Hayes had a range of two feet as a shooter. Tucker, meanwhile, hit 37.7 percent of his 3s last season.
D’Antoni gets to create a new offense again
Remember, this is D’Antoni’s system, one where he sprinkles (or pours) in his own favorite sets from the past to make the new offense even better. Jerry Sloan, Utah’s head coach in 2007-08, didn’t exclusively run the Flex offense. It was one of many sets the Jazz used, and their primary go-to offense during fluid periods of play. After timeouts, dead balls, or even free throws by the opponent, he could call scores of actions that were either tweaks off the Flex or wholly disconnected to it. If the action was well-defended, they’d often flow into the Flex and read the defense to earn a good shot. In Phoenix with Steve Nash and with Harden in Houston, D’Antoni has proved masterful at fitting a system to the talents of his players. This Rockets team has weapons that make his task challenging but thrilling.
Conventional wisdom is that anything new D’Antoni installs this fall will most often turn into Harden dribbling alone on the perimeter, a deeply powerful weapon, late in the clock. I suggest something similar. Start with Westbrook in the post area, feed him, and play RocketPower. Let Westbrook run tight-to-the-rim ball screens and play in dribble handoffs as the big man, not the guard. He can read Harden-Gordon screens (pin-downs and pin-ins are Cuisinart staples, where one player screens down or inside for the other, and the better shooter typically gets the screen) or just beat his man with a quick attack that will get him to the rim in the blink of an eye since he’s starting out closer to the basket. If his man slacks off him, he has a much shorter runway to get to the rim before help arrives.
And as we’ve seen at Golden State, no one guards Draymond, so he has become an incredible screener for Warrior shooters. His defender is too far away too often to help on guys like Curry or Klay Thompson.
This doesn’t mean Westbrook should never play as he has been for a decade plus. He should and will. But rather than a main part of their offense, it should be targeted opportunities based on matchups, personnel on the court, and whether Westbrook is in win mode or “it’s me against the world” mode. When the latter happens, putting him nearer the basket will almost certainly result in a more efficient effort by him.
When all else fails, get it to a free-moving Harden
If nothing good materializes, with seven seconds left on the clock, find Harden and let him go to work. Instead of resting while dribbling for 15 seconds, let him move without the ball as Curry does. His gravity alone could be as effective. He can set screens too, on and off the ball that will undoubtedly create open shots for teammates, as we often see in the Warriors actions with Curry as a screener.
The energy tax in playing that way will likely be much less than having to handle the bulk of the scoring with all five defenders focused on him. NBA.com/stats tells us that more than half the time Harden shoots, it’s after dribbling seven or more times. Nobody else does that! RocketPower would let him play more like Curry, who shoots a higher percentage with far less work. It’s like he’ll have more energy at season's end when the games matter most.
Westbrook is a physical brute
Think of the top teams in the West and who starts for them at point guard. Mike Conley (Jazz), Rajon Rondo (Lakers, probably), Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers), Jamal Murray (Nuggets), and Curry (Warriors). Only the Clippers’ Patrick Beverley has the strength to push Westbrook out onto the perimeter. None of them would be good at defending Westbrook inside the 3-point line, so they would likely check Gordon (and Austin Rivers/Gerald Green off the bench). Which means forwards would have to guard Westbrook within 18 feet of the basket, or Harden out on the floor.
Either way, it’s an advantage for the Rockets. And if teams switch off ball screens, it’ll be easy to get centers on Westbrook. He likes to attack these slower players, starting behind the arc after he uses a ball screen to get them to switch onto him, but he too often ends up taking the 3. That gives the defense exactly what they wanted. In this design, he’d be asked to continue to operate inside. Few big men can stay connected to him in such tight quarters. Especially with shooters surrounding him and Capela in the dunk spot.
Ronnie Brewer gave Utah the fourth bully in its starting five. The 2007-08 Jazz beat teams to a pulp. They finished that year second overall in free throws taken (fourth in makes), second in field goal percentage (49.7 percent), and first in fouls. Now think about Houston’s likely starting five: Harden, Tucker, Westbrook, Gordon, and Capela. The weakest in that group is this guy:
In the past few years, the Rockets have gone from racing and jacking 3s to crawling and jacking 3s; “Pace and Space” to “Snail’s Pace and Space.” It has worked well until the postseason. They’ve lacked any real identity beyond having the solitary superstar performer. It’s time to change from a culture of one to that of many, and from Morey’s Moneyball to that of some talented bullies. Westbrook is enigmatic and maddening, but he’s also often incredibly energetic and destructive to opponents.
A multi-faceted weapon
There’s a chance to plug in some of Westbrook’s attitude, his fierceness, into the soul of his new team. They don’t need him to shoot 3s. They need him to be a hub of a new offense, one in which the ball finds him inside more than outside to utilize his attacking skills, power, and passing ability. The Warriors had their famous “Death Lineup” with Draymond as their center. The Rockets can throw Tucker in at center and Westbrook at power forward late in games where they have the lead, and go ultra-small but remain incredibly tough and strong.
Four shooters around Westbrook in the new offense will be an incredibly tough starting five to slow down. Finding a way to get Westbrook to help his new team, not just incrementally but hugely, must be the primary goal of the executives and coaches. He likely will never earn, through sheer statistics, his current salary. But his value as a player can skyrocket if he’s the engine that carries this team’s identity into a stronger and more connected core of fighters.
Houston’s mantra: Get Westbrook and Harden to buy in
Everyone’s job is on the line, as is the future of Harden in Houston. The Rockets were able to move Paul because they found a team in the Thunder hoping to dump an even worse contract (this is not a player comparison; it’s just a measurement of what is being delivered and at what cost). If the Westbrook/Houston experiment fails, the only team that might consider Westbrook would be the Wizards, trying to unload John Wall once he returns. That won’t be enough to convince Harden to stay in Houston, either. So, it’s Westbrook or bust for the Rockets. Now is the time to get him to buy into a system that best suits his game while hiding his weaknesses and enhancing the talents of the other players.
The same must be said for Harden. He MIGHT score less than he has been. He will definitely dribble less. And he has to be OK with both, much like Curry and Dwyane Wade adjusted to newcomers Durant and LeBron. Curry and Wade each won two titles with their new superstar teammates. The dynamic is different, yes, but the result still rests on the same choices–the current star embracing a new role to accommodate a new arrival.
The Bucks’ Brook Lopez and the Raptors’ Marc Gasol changed their games to best fit their talents in today’s NBA. Westbrook can absolutely do the same, and Harden showed as a young player that he can play off the ball at times. Morey has placed a big bet that both can, and will, adapt to whatever D’Antoni cooks up. The Western Conference is already thick with talent, whether it happens or not. If we’re writing about how the Rockets’ power guards are feasting in the paint and on the perimeter this spring, the favorites to win the West won’t just be based in Los Angeles.
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