Comparing Russell Westbrook small ball success vs OKC Thunder system

OKC Thunder, Power rankings week 12: Russell Westbrook #0 of the Houston Rockets smiles during the game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on January 9, (Photo by Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images)
OKC Thunder, Power rankings week 12: Russell Westbrook #0 of the Houston Rockets smiles during the game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on January 9, (Photo by Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images) /
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Former OKC Thunder stars James Harden #13 and Russell Westbrook #0 of the Houston Rockets talk during game (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images) /

Harden taxed:

While Russ is excelling in the shift to small ball the same can’t be said of James Harden — yet. Throughout his career, Harden has always preferred to create his offense by having the ball in his hand. This system shift means he’ll need to switch up his offense. For the Rockets to make this system work to its full potential it means the former MVP will need to take more catch and shoot attempts – – something he’s never truly embraced.

While Westbrook’s speed doesn’t require a big to clear space for him in the paint the same isn’t necessarily true of Harden.

Diving into the same tiers as above shows how Harden while producing isn’t adapting as quickly or netting the gaudy numbers he was early in the season.

First 24 games:

Harden’s core stats are at their peak in the initial tier with 38.7 points, 5.9 rebounds, 7.5 assists. What stands out is the shot distribution and efficiencies: 24.4 field goal attempts at 44.0 percent, 14.0  perimeter attempts at 34.9 percent and 14.0 free throw attempts at 88.1 percent.

Next 20 games:

In this next tier of 23 games there are signs the team was already looking at the shift based on Harden’s shot attempts and regression of free throws. Additionally, the absence of Clint Capela due to injury likely played a role in his reduced free throws since he wasn’t driving the paint as often.

His core stats take a slight dip: 32.9 points, 7.9 rebounds, 7.2 assists. As for his shot attempts they don’t drop much (22.9 at 43.2 percent). The fewer attempts are a product of fewer perimeter shots (11.9) but his efficiency improves (37.2 percent). Note the drop in his free throw attempts however from 14 to 10.3 (84.7 percent).

Since trade deadline:

In this final schedule tier the statistics note Harden’s struggles to adjust to his new role. He’s still putting up star level numbers but his accuracy is taking a hit as he adjusts.  His core stats showcase his lowest scoring in the three seasonal tiers of 29.4 points and without a big like Capela blocking out his rebounds drop to 5.9 but his assists are the same (7.5).

The biggest difference is his shot attempts drop (19.6) as does his efficiency (43.1 percent). Likewise, his 11.4 perimeter attempts hit a new low in efficiency of 32.5 percent. And, he continues to get to the line less (10.6) than he did when there was a big in the rotation.

Westbrook excels in small ball – but can Rockets win with it?

The two issues with the change to small ball are how they affect James Harden who no longer has a big man clearing a path for him to get to the rim. Additionally, if the Rockets tweak the system that will mean Harden has to be ready to take spot-up shots. Harden has always preferred to handle the ball so this is an area he’ll need to change in his game if the Rockets are going to be successful.

More from Thunderous Intentions

Punctuating the fact this new system will require Harden to adapt. Of his 603 field goals made this season 517 were unassisted or 85.7 percent. In comparison to last season, Harden was assisted on 110 of his 843 shots meaning or 86.9 percent were unassisted.

This system is allowing Westbrook to perform to his best self. Whatever side in the debate you fall on this also may highlight the fact Westbrook was trying to adapt by playing within the role laid out for him in OKC. Yet, with a lack of perimeter snipers, it limited his ability to reach his full potential.

That said, Harden is now in the spotlight as the superstar who needs to adapt. Until he excels in a role that includes increased catch and shoot attempts this Rockets’ system can’t reach its full potential.

OKC Thunder fans can’t help but cheer for Russell Westbrook’s success (within reason 😉). Witnessing the Brodie charge down the hardwood on route to a jarring dunk will always elicit smiles. By the same token, it’s been a wonderful season for the OKC Thunder and a delight to witness team ball and clutch time wins.

Next. NBA 2020 Mock Draft 1.0 – Options abound for Thunder. dark

Ultimately, this was a win-win for both sides and one we’ll hope once play resumes finds the Thunder reaping further rewards.

*note: all stats via basketball reference, nba stats and hoopstats as per direct links.