NBA Weekly Digest: Is Russell Westbrook Helping or Hurting the Rockets?

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistDecember 6, 2019

NBA Weekly Digest: Is Russell Westbrook Helping or Hurting the Rockets?

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    The Houston Rockets traded Chris Paul and four first-round picks for Russell Westbrook.

    It was a gamble. A huge one. And it's too early to fold this hand, though they have to be eyeing the pile of chips in the middle of the table and wondering if they really should've shoved them all in.

    It may seem odd to read this in the wake of a Rockets win against the Toronto Raptors, especially when Westbrook notched another triple-double. But the shooting numbers he continues to post feel like a two and a seven being dealt to Houston.

    Yes, he finished Thursday's 119-109 win with 19 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists, but going 7-of-27 from the field is jarring. Eight turnovers don't help, either. And this is coming off the back of a 7-of-30 performance in a loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday.

    For the week, Westbrook took 22.7 shots per game and shot 29.4 percent from the field. He hit on 15.4 percent of his 4.3 three-point attempts per game. The three-game stretch brought his season-long percentages down to 39.9 and 21.6, respectively.

    There was always talk of the Rockets adding some chaos with this Westbrook addition. Well, they got it. The question now, and until Houston starts winning some non-James Harden minutes, is whether it was a worthwhile one.

    Westbrook can still put pressure on the rim. He'll naturally pull defenses inward on some of his drives. But he's just been way too inefficient to scare any teams away from Houston's leading scorer. Just ask Harden himself.

    At this point, opponents should probably be begging Russ to take shots. Independent of free throws, Westbrook is averaging 0.86 points per field-goal attempt. All other Rockets are at 1.12. Heck, let's even take Harden out of that second equation. The supporting cast is scoring 1.14 points per attempt.

    So far, that extreme inefficiency hasn't killed Houston when the two superstars share the floor. Again, they just beat the Raptors in Toronto. And on the season, Houston is plus-8.3 points per 100 possessions when both are in the game.

    That's a strong mark, but brace yourself for these next two. When Harden is on the floor without Westbrook, the Rockets are plus-13.2 points per 100 possessions. And when Westbrook is operating without Harden, that number nosedives all the way to minus-10.9.

    When he's not buoyed by one of the most prolific scorers in basketball history, Westbrook is annihilating his own team's offense. And we haven't even mentioned his defense yet.

    FiveThirtyEight's RAPTOR rating, which pegs Russ as a clear negative on both ends of the floor, actually says he's been slightly better on the offensive end.

    Again, it's early. Winning can bury a multitude of basketball sins. But those chips in the middle of the table are in a precarious position, and we may not know what happens to them until the playoffs.

    What will Harden do if Westbrook tries to singlehandedly win a game? Throughout his career, Russ has 10 postseason games in which he hoisted at least 30 shots. His Oklahoma City Thunder teams went 2-8 in those contests. If you drop the qualifier to 28 shots, you also drop the record to 2-12.


    19-year NBA veteran Jamal Crawford returns to The Full 48 with Howard Beck to discuss his 51-point game, Dirk Nowitzki’s last game, his Kevin Garnett fandom, the Phoenix Suns and Devin Booker, the Timberwolves and Andrew Wiggins, and retirement.


    Nineteen-year NBA veteran Jamal Crawford returns to “The Full 48 with Howard Beck” to discuss his 51-point game, Dirk Nowitzki's last game, his Kevin Garnett fandom, the Phoenix Suns and Devin Booker, the Timberwolves and Andrew Wiggins, and retirement.

Luka, LeBron and the Potentially Historic 2020 MVP Race

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    Adam Pantozzi/Getty Images

    On Dec. 1, rising superstar Luka Doncic hit a step-back three over LeBron James to effectively end the Dallas Mavericks' 114-100 victory over the first-place Los Angeles Lakers. The shot itself felt more like a ceremonial torch-passing than your typical three.

    For well over a decade, LeBron has been the best basketball player in the world, but it feels like his epic career has entered its final chapters. Luka, who looks like the game's next great point-forward, appears ready to seize that mantle.

    Of course, he'll have plenty of competition for that title, just as LeBron has throughout his career (Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Garnett and Stephen Curry all had their moments). Reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo is still on the rise. James Harden is averaging nearly 40 points per game this season. Believe it or not, Anthony Davis is just 26 years old.

    But Luka might fit the LeBron archetype better than all of them. And together, they give the league two shots at history this season.

    Giannis and Harden figure to be heavily involved in the MVP race, just as they were last season. But if Luka wins, he'd be the youngest MVP in league history. He's in his age-20 season. Derrick Rose and Wes Unseld were both in their age-22 seasons when they earned the honor.

    On the other end of the spectrum, LeBron is in his age-35 season. Technically, Karl Malone's birthday falling earlier in the calendar year means he'll remain the oldest MVP in league history at the end of 2019-20, but LeBron would tie him in terms of season age (the age a player is on Feb. 1 for standardization purposes).

    Right now, Luka and LeBron are third and fourth, respectively, in Basketball Reference's MVP Tracker (Giannis and Harden are the top two). And as long as they keep producing at these levels, the comparisons will keep rolling all the way to the end of what has the potential to be the NBA's best MVP race ever.

A Tough Week for the Officials

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    Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

    No one's perfect. Let's get that out of the way.

    When you're watching an NBA broadcast or in attendance at a game, just ask yourself every once in a while, "Would I have seen that one? Could I have called it a split second after it happened?"

    Basketball moves fast, especially in the NBA. And the success rate of the officials is higher than screaming fans might have you believe.

    But every once in a while, certain misses get the entire NBA world talking. Having three in one week is tough.

    On Tuesday, James Harden converted a field-goal attempt that was not counted. It was a dunk. On a breakaway. There was something of an optical illusion as the ball hit the net hard enough to whip itself all the way around and back on top of the rim. But the points were never awarded.

    The Houston Rockets went on to blow a 13-point lead and lose to the San Antonio Spurs in double-overtime. Per ESPN's Tim MacMahon, the team is now preparing to file an official protest.

    After admitting they messed up the initial call (or no-call), crew chief James Capers said the Rockets missed their 30-second window to challenge. Verdict on that one is still forthcoming.

    The next night, LeBron got away with a travel around midcourt that he would later admit was "one of the worst" of his career. Watch the video in that link. It's wild.

    Later in that same game, during a live possession, a shoeless LeBron literally danced two or three feet out onto the floor as Kyle Kuzma blocked Tony Bradley on consecutive attempts at the rim. Again, no call.

    These are extreme examples, but they're exactly what fans and players remember when they think about officiating. Having them all occur in the same week heightens the scrutiny. But year in and year out, storylines and articles about officiating hit the NBA.

    The league and its referees have attempted to educate fans on the difficulties of this job. There are the last-two-minute reports, social-network engagement from the refs and more. Those things always seem to get squashed by plays like those described above.

    Is this just a losing battle? Will there always be an "us vs. them" dynamic between fans/players and the officials?

    One fascinating idea came from Thinking Basketball's Ben Taylor, who suggested a body cam that could show fans just how quickly all these things are happening. Continued engagement with the fans should help, too.

    Even if this is an issue with no clear solution, continuing to search for one makes sense.

Pay Attention to Devonte' Graham

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Devonte' Graham is putting up better basic numbers in the NBA than he ever did in college.

    His career highs as a Kansas Jayhawk were 17.3 points, 7.2 assists and 2.8 threes per game. This season, the sophomore campaign for the second-round pick, he's averaging 18.7 points, 7.7 assists and 3.6 threes.

    And his efficiency is absurd.

    According to Bleacher Report's Dan Favale, Graham's 41.1 percent conversion rate on pull-up threes trails only Paul George among players taking three such attempts per game.

    Among those with a 40-plus three-point percentage and at least 100 three-point attempts of any kind, Graham's 8.6 attempts per game rank seventh all-time. Four Stephen Curry campaigns and the 2019-20 versions of George and Karl-Anthony Towns are the only players ahead of him.

    This combination of volume and efficiency is amazing, and it's helped carry the Charlotte Hornets far above preseason expectations.

    The loss of Kemba Walker understandably led to plenty of people burying this team. But as of this writing, Charlotte is just two games back of the No. 8 spot in the East. Basketball Reference's Playoff Probabilities Report forecasts the Hornets' best-case scenario at 45-37.

    There's plenty of time for this to fall apart, but Graham's hot shooting and timely playmaking (7.7 assists per game) have already shifted perceptions. At the very least, the Hornets are watchable. On any given night, like Wednesday against the Golden State Warriors, this guy can drop 10 threes. He also has a game-winning triple to his name from November.

    If you're not following along yet, you're missing one of the league's more exciting young players.

What Is Happening with Nikola Jokic?

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    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    Nikola Jokic finished fourth in MVP voting last season. He was the first-team All-NBA center. He averaged an almost unbelievable 25.1 points, 13.0 rebounds and 8.4 assists in 14 playoff games.

    But after finishing each of the last three seasons in the top five for box plus/minus, he's dropped to 12th in 2019-20. His basic numbers paint an even bleaker picture.

    His scoring average of 15.4 points per game is his lowest since his 2015-16 rookie campaign. His 10.1 rebounds per game are his fewest since 2016-17. His 51.6 true shooting percentage is a career low by a wide margin.

    "Right now I'm struggling, so coach, he's a smart guy, he's not going to give the ball to the guy who's not making shots," Jokic said after the Denver Nuggets lost at home to the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday, per DNVR's Harrison Wind. "I'm cool with it. I'm good."

    That answer is mostly fine. It suggests a team-first mentality. But even if Jokic is "cool with it," Denver shouldn't be. And teammate Will Barton knows that. Wind shared the forward's thoughts on the matter:

    "We've got to play through him. Every year that's what's going to work best for us. We're a good team when he's not scoring but we're a great team when he's being dominant down there and we have championship potential when he's cooking and we know it. We can get away with it some games and beat teams, but to be the team that we want to be we've got to play through him."

    Head coach Mike Malone isn't taking opportunities away from Jokic. Last season, he averaged 93.5 touches per game. He's at 92.1 this season.

    No, this is more about Jokic himself. He's had lulls like this throughout his career. They don't generally last this long, but they're not terribly uncommon. He also has plenty of stretches like the 2019 playoffs.

    After four-plus seasons, if Denver still doesn't know how to draw out that playoff version of Jokic on a regular basis, there may be no way to do so. But someone has to at least try convincing this All-NBA center of how good he is.

    Maybe they could show him a prolonged film session comparing the 2019 postseason to the meandering performances he's had this season. Even better, splice some clips of Matt Foley or some other motivational speaker in there. It's time to get creative.

    Very few basketball players in the world have as much raw talent as Jokic. The Nuggets won't be a legitimate title contender unless they figure out how to extract that talent more consistently.

Fun (and Misery) with Numbers

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    Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

    17.8

    The Utah Jazz are attempting 17.8 shots per game in the paint but outside the restricted area. The Memphis Grizzlies (20.3), Denver Nuggets (18.1) and Cleveland Cavaliers (17.9) are the only teams putting up more attempts in this dreaded floater zone.

    Utah's 35.5 percent shooting from that zone ranks 27th, which amounts to a whopping 0.71 points per attempt. If you remove free throws from the equation, the entire NBA is averaging 1.04 points per field-goal attempt.

    Individually, Donovan Mitchell is taking 5.8 such shots per game, which trails only Kawhi Leonard's 6.3. Mitchell's field-goal percentage on those shots is 34.4; Leonard's is 43.6.

           

    53.6

    Kyle Korver holds the single-season record for three-point percentage at 53.6. Right now, each of the league's top five in three-point percentage are within five points of that mark.

    Meyers Leonard's 53.8 percent is actually ahead of Korver's standard. George Hill's 52.5 percent and Marcus Morris Sr.'s 52.4 percent are within two percentage points.

    Odds are, all of those players will hit a regression at some point this season. But keep an eye on Leonard and Hill as potential threats to the record. I have no data to back that up. Call it a hunch.

           

    Box Plus/Minus Leaderboard

    1. Luka Doncic (13.7)
    2. Giannis Antetokounmpo (12.6)
    3. James Harden (10.9)
    4. LeBron James (9.2)
    5. Karl-Anthony Towns (9.2)

Lines of the Week

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    Cato Cataldo/Getty Images

    James Harden, Nov. 30: 60 points (16-of-24 from the field, 8-of-14 from three, 20-of-23 from the line), eight assists, three rebounds, three steals, 52.4 game score

    In the regular season and playoffs combined, there have been 73 games in which an NBA player scored at least 60 points. No one pulled it off with fewer field-goal attempts than the 24 Harden needed against the Atlanta Hawks this week.

    Only Klay Thompson eclipsed the 60-point threshold in fewer minutes.

    Given that Harden sat the entire fourth quarter of the blowout, this performance naturally leads one to wonder: In this era of star-reliance, three-point volume and decent pace, is Kobe Bryant's 81 in play?

           

    James Harden (again), Dec. 3: 50 points (11-of-38 from the field, 4-of-20 from three, 24-of-24 from the line), nine rebounds, six assists, four steals, 34.3 game score

    Harden is going to make this section of the Digest pretty frequently this season. Twice in one week is nothing to sneeze at.

    But including this one caused a bit of an internal struggle. The game itself will be remembered for the Harden dunk that wasn't, and 11-of-38 from the field is awful. Of the 999 individual performances of at least 38 field-goal attempts (regular season and playoffs), only 19 came with fewer makes than Harden's 11.

    On the other hand, Harden tied Dirk Nowitzki's record for most free-throw attempts in a game without a miss. That, in and of itself, warrants inclusion.

             

    Luka Doncic, Nov. 29: 42 points (12-of-24 from the field, 3-of-11 from three, 15-of-18 from the line), 11 assists, nine rebounds, one steal, 37.4 game score

    Luka might as well get comfortable here, too. He's helping some of the league's more established stars make the ridiculous look routine.

    This week, he had his third game of at least 40 points and 10 assists. LeBron James (here they are, connected again) is the only other player in league history who had three before his 21st birthday.

    And in case you're worried about the future of the league, Trae Young's 49-point, 16-assist performance is the only other entry on the list.

Weekly Awards

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    Bart Young/Getty Images

    Easing Concerns Award

    Prior to December 1, only two NBA teams had an easier strength of schedule than the Los Angeles Lakers. After a 10-game winning streak that featured wins over a number of sub-.500 teams, that schedule understandably became a hot topic.

    Then, LeBron, Anthony Davis and the Lakers beat the Nuggets and Jazz in a back-to-back. Both games were on the road and at altitude.

    After two comfortable victories over near-locks for the Western Conference playoffs, Locked on Lakers' Anthony Irwin tweeted, "Looking for strength of schedule takes like," alongside a picture of Baby Yoda decked out in Lakers gear.

    You know what? After the last few years, Lakers fans can have all the fun they want on these little victory laps.

       

    Fully Guaranteed Award

    When the Portland Trail Blazers initially signed Carmelo Anthony, the deal was non-guaranteed.

    After Melo averaged 16.9 points through his first eight games with Portland, the Blazers amended his contract to make it fully guaranteed for the rest of the season, per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski.

    Good for Anthony. After over a year outside the league, he's found a spot where he can at least finish out this campaign.

    It hasn't been all roses for him up North, though. He's posting a below-average true shooting percentage. And among the 280 players with at least as many minutes, he's 235th in FiveThirtyEight's catch-all, RAPTOR rating. He's 276th in defensive RAPTOR.

    There's still cause for concern over his shot selection, ball stopping and all-around defense. But so far, Portland is better with him on the floor, and he's been a little bit of a pressure release for Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.

Tank Watch

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    It's never too early to do a little reconnaissance on the league's tankers. And a couple teams already have their armored divisions in their highest gears.

    After representing the brutal Western Conference in the Finals in each of the last five seasons, the Golden State Warriors are on pace for 14 wins. After getting smash-blasted by the Nuggets at Madison Square Garden by 37, the New York Knicks are cruising at a 15-win pace. The Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers, New Orleans Pelicans and Memphis Grizzlies aren't much better.

    How would LaMelo Ball fit on some of those teams? His point forward potential would be intriguing alongside Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. He could join a positionless wing group that includes RJ Barrett and Kevin Knox on the Knicks. Anthony Edwards' shooting and Cole Anthony's playmaking could fit on plenty of teams too.

    The more interesting aspect of tanking right now, though, may be the trade possibilities these teams offer. Think about some of the veterans from the above teams who could help teams in the hunt for a playoff spot or title contention.

    Would the Warriors consider moving Draymond Green (probably not, given what these few weeks have likely done to his trade value)? What about Marcus Morris Sr., Taj Gibson or Wayne Ellington from the Knicks? Would someone want Jabari Parker's scoring punch off the bench? What about former champions Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson and Andre Iguodala?

    On December 15, when players signed this summer become eligible for trades, there should be plenty of calls placed to the tank commanders.

Matchups to Watch

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    Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

    Denver Nuggets at Philadelphia 76ers, Dec. 10, at 8 p.m. ET

    Coming into this season, there was a fairly healthy debate on who the league's best center is. Jokic is the most recent first-team All-NBA center. Joel Embiid is the reigning second-teamer. Naturally, those two headlined most of these debates.

    But with both stumbling (especially Jokic) out of the gate this season, Karl-Anthony Towns has stormed up to the top of the unofficial leaderboard.

    Still, this is one of the best center matchups in the game. And perhaps the heat of competition against each other could get one or both trending toward the levels at which they finished 2018-19.

       

    Los Angeles Clippers at Toronto Raptors, Dec. 11, at 7 p.m. ET

    This one is obvious. It's Kawhi Leonard's first trip back to Toronto, where he helped the Raptors win the 2019 NBA title. Since then, of course, he spurned the North to sign with his hometown Los Angeles Clippers.

    Certainly, the fact that he delivered a title suggests that the fans won't be quite as rowdy as they were for the returns of other stars who left incumbents. Maybe they'll even be some cheers or a tribute video.

    But you have to believe there will be at least some spite in the air. A month and a half into the season, it looks like the Raptors could get all the way back to the Finals. Showing Leonard what he passed up and beating the Clippers would make that picture even clearer.