Can Russell Westbrook gain value in Houston?
For the first time in his career, Russell Westbrook is no longer a member of the Thunder, having been dealt to the Houston Rockets for Chris Paul, the Rockets 2024 and 2026 first-round picks, and the right to swap first-round picks with Houston in 2021 and 2025.
If the Thunder can find value from CP3, either on the court or via trade, the deal may evolve into quite a haul. The two pick swaps are almost certainly inconsequential as each of the 2024 and 2026 picks are only lightly protected (1-4). If Houston drop from contention after Westbrook and Harden pass their primes however, then those picks may convey as valuable lottery choices.
In the case of Westbrook, the trade rumblings that materialized immediately in the wake of the Paul George deal quickly turned to fact. While the Rockets were not considered the front runners to land the ball-dominant Westbrook, the concern now from a fantasy perspective is how he fits back in with his similarly ball-dominant, former teammate and franchise mega-star – James Harden.
Westbrook averaged a triple-double last season in OKC, but it’s hard to see how he can maintain it this season playing beside Harden. Let’s take a look at how this monster trade affects each of their fantasy outlooks by examining usage from last year in more detail.
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Can Russell Westbrook and James Harden Coexist?
Harden had easily the biggest usage rate across the NBA last season (41%), while his more efficient backcourt partner Chris Paul came in just 82nd (23%). Westbrook in comparison commanded the 11th highest usage rate across the league (36%), while running with Paul George who finished 19th overall (29%). Unsurprisingly, the combined usage of both dynamic duos was among the highest in the league with Westbrook and George combining for 65% and Paul and Harden combining for 64%. Looking at these numbers it seems impossible that Westbrook and Harden can maintain the usage levels they both enjoyed last season as combined it would be an impossible 77%.
Exactly how much Westbrook and Harden’s respective usages dip therefore becomes the key factor when considering the equation for fantasy basketball. While there can be no doubt that each player is in for a usage hit, it remains to be seen which of them will be forced to take a bigger step back. Speculation on this question is bound to impact each of their average draft positions but may not help you determine if you draft one or both of them into your fantasy basketball team.
It’s been aggressively argued in many basketball circles that Westbrook is the most vulnerable when it comes to next year’s level of usage and production. While explosive, many point out that he struggles to operate off the ball, and that all too often he overlooks the obvious pass or settles for a poorly chosen mid-range two (where he shot just 33% last season) – all qualities that have not been a feature of the Houston system, particularly if your name isn’t James Harden. Carmelo Anthony for example, another inefficient ball-dominant player who the Rockets had high hopes for, lasted only a handful of games in Houston before he was removed from the rotation.
Fantasy Outlook for Russell Westbrook and James Harden
Supposing then, that Westbrook does struggle to fit into the Houston system, what does this mean for his fantasy outlook? Well, even if taking a significant hit offensively, Westbrook should be able to maintain rebounds and steals at current levels (or even ever so slightly improve them). His points and assists, however, could very well take a material hit and be much reduced as he struggles to fit in. While it’s true that Harden may also be affected by the addition of Westbrook, it’s likely the impact is much more marginal as he operates with familiarity in the system he has been playing in since parting ways with Westbrook all those years ago.
If on the other hand, Westbrook manages to defy popular expectations and finds his place in the Houston system faster than expected, a scenario in which both Westbrook and Harden begin to make an increased number of off-ball plays could transpire. In this eventuality, Westbrook would still have the ball in his hands at times, as well as a real opportunity to increase focus on his transition game and improve what he brings defensively. Sound far-fetched?
Well, let’s not forget that Harden and Westbrook have played together before, know what each other brings to the table, and that both have a vested interest in playing winning basketball for the Rockets. It’s not too far beyond the pale therefore, to imagine a world in which the usage of each drops back by only 10% – affording Harden and Westbrook what would still be very healthy usage rates of ~37% and ~32% respectively. Combined this would total only ~69% – a realistic percentage very similar to what was seen in the frontcourts of both ball clubs last season.
Extrapolating this not-out-of-the-question, mere 10% decline in usage for each player; we can’t rule out the distinct possibility that both players counting stat outputs may decline similarly, by only 10%. In Westbrook’s case, this would still see him average almost a triple-double with 20.6 points, 10 rebounds and 9.6 assists per game, while Harden would average a lazy 32.5 points, 6 rebounds, and 6.8 assists – figures that would still have seen him comfortably take out the NBA fantasy MVP last season.
A key reason for Harden’s legendary fantasy success has been his stellar efficiency while shooting at very high volume from the line (88% on 11 attempts per game last season). Conversely, the same factor has been a key reason that Westbrook (66% last season) has fallen so far from grace despite averaging a triple-double across the last two seasons. While there is no reason to suspect that Harden will stop hitting his free throws at such volume and at such a fantastic clip, there should be at least a modicum of hope that Westbrook can turn it around (at least a little) and revert to shooting somewhat closer to 85% from the line, as he did in the 2016-17 season just a few years ago.
Interestingly, it may be more than just Westbrook’s free throw efficiency that increases in Houston. As Harden and Westbrook are expected to take fewer shots, there is a reasonable possibility that the shots they do take will be on balance, slightly better in quality than those they took in previous seasons, resulting in potential increases to one or even both of their field goal percentages over the course of the season.
Harden shot a pedestrian 44% from the field last season and at a high volume, a statistic easily overlooked due to his absolute dominance of several other categories. Westbrook’s similarly pedestrian 43% high-volume shooting however, was a major factor in why he finished the year ranked just 15th overall.
In the case of Harden, any increase in FG% would further cement him as a top-3 lock for the season. In the case of Westbrook, increases to his FG% combined with potential improvements in his FT% could propel him back into the top-10 (so long as the enhancements are anything more than slight).
Now let’s ask ourselves how this deal affects the rest of the Houston roster. The answer? – Not that much. While we can expect Eric Gordon, ranked 152nd last year, to have less of the ball in his hands with Westbrook around, his off-the-bench shooting and defense will remain valuable. He is likely to remain a key piece in the Houston rotation, see 30+ minutes a night, and put up at best, somewhat similar, undraftable-in-most-12-team-league-stats, like he did last year.
Austin Rivers, like Gordon, should continue to provide minutes behind Harden and Westbrook in much the same fashion as he did for Harden and Paul last season. In the event either Westbrook or Harden go down for an extended period, it’s likely Gordon that will find himself once again in prime position to absorb the extra minutes, usage and production. Given Westbrook has been considerably healthier than Chris Paul in recent seasons however, it stands to reason that both Gordon and River’s overall opportunity to contribute will be less than it has been, and that a corresponding dip in their respective values will be forthcoming.
In terms of the Houston frontcourt, Capela may see a minor uptick in output whereas PJ Tucker, while enjoying a similar role to last year, may see his minutes decline slightly as he moves closer to middle-age. With Westbrook on the team, quite probably pushing the ball forward in transition more, we may be fortunate enough to see Capela’s rim running ability translate into more fast-break points, bumping up both his FG% and points totals, and pushing him slightly up in next year’s end of season rankings (Capela finished ranked 28th overall last year).
The addition of Russell Westbrook is unlikely to significantly impact any of the other Houston players, except to take slightly more usage from guys that haven’t been high usage factors in the past anyway.
Heading to Oklahoma now, where many are expecting management to embrace their own version of the “Process” and trade Chris Paul even before the season begins, or at worst case just prior to the trade deadline.
This may not be how things eventuate however and we should hesitate before jumping to conclusions. Paul is owed a whopping $124M over the next three years which is a hard pill to swallow for any franchise given his current age and perceived rate of decline. Keeping these very real facts in mind we should accept that there is a real chance that the Thunder may decide to keep Paul on their roster, at least in the short term, rather than give up one or more of their war chest of future draft assets to move him. Given also, that we have no solid information to the contrary, at this stage we have to assume Paul is healthy and starting for the Thunder at point guard come October.
As outlined, Russell Westbrook and Paul George have left a gaping 65% usage hole in the wake of their departure from OKC, a hole that will need filling by the players remaining on their roster. While it’s true they acquired a stud and point-guard-of-the-future in Shae Gilgeous-Alexander, and that Dennis Schröder also remains in the frontcourt, it’s glaringly obvious that if Paul begins the season with the Thunder there will be a glut of minutes he will need to absorb. A pivotal question, therefore, when evaluating this trade for fantasy, is how Chris Paul will fit into his new squad?
The answer, in news that shouldn’t shock you, is that he’ll fit in absolutely just fine, and perhaps even with renewed vigor! Chris Paul has always been a fiery competitor and is a veritable basketball savant. While it’s true that he has been unable to play a full season for the last four years, his decline thus far has been gradual, and with plenty of usage to go around in OKC, he might just bounce back a little from previous seasons, especially in a new environment.
While we shouldn’t expect Paul to play 82 games this coming season, minutes in the low 30’s are likely, as is efficient shooting, creative passing and a continued world-class feel for the game. As such, don’t be surprised if Paul comes out of the gate hot, and provides value in excess of expectations while he stays healthy. He may be as high as a top-20 player to begin the season, although it is admittedly unlikely that he maintains such a level for its entirety.
Shae Gilgeous-Alexander should also see good minutes right off the bat in his new setting. As an efficient shooter that generates steals, Shae doesn’t need a tonne of usage to return top-70 value-or-better as he proved over the last 18 games of last season. Suffice to say that while there is a chance that Gilgeous-Alexander may take some time to find his feet in Oklahoma, he is still nonetheless poised to be a hyped prospect in fantasy drafts this season, and will probably be overvalued on many fantasy draft-boards, even if Chris Paul stays. If Paul is moved before the season begins however, the expectation will be that Shae will flirt with a top-50 season and he’ll be drafted accordingly.
As for the rest of this Oklahoma team, the losses of both Paul George and Russell Westbrook means there is plenty of usage to go around. Steven Adams and Dennis Schröder will both likely see minor upticks in output, however their statistically deficient stat profiles, while inflating slightly, should maintain a very similar shape.
Roberson is slated to re-join the team for the coming season but is unlikely to factor in most leagues, and while Diallo and Fergasun could see more of the ball, they are highly likely to remain fantasy irrelevant.
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