Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle reported on Wednesday that Houston Rockets guard Russell Westbrook would miss at least the first few games of the postseason. The report indicated that the timetable for Westbrooks return could be even longer.
Thus, the Rockets now face the prospect of life without Westbrook in the postseason just a calendar year after paying a hefty price to acquire him largely due to his durability. In a twist of irony, they will face the Oklahoma City Thunder and guard Chris Paul who was traded from Houston for Westbrook. Paul appeared in 70 out of a possible 71 games this year for the Thunder. He played in just 58 games in each of his two seasons with the Rockets.
Westbrook was spectacular for Houston this season, averaging 27.2 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 7.0 assists per game, on 47% shooting. That shooting percentage marks the highest accuracy of Westbrooks career. Indeed, Houston went to great lengths to open things up for its new acquisition, trading center Clint Capela at the trade deadline, opening up driving lanes for Westbrook. Westbrooks 18.7 two-point field goal attempts per game were a career high; his 3.7 three-point field goal attempts per game were his lowest since his age-24 season.
But now the Rockets will need to survive at least some portion of the first round of the playoffs without their point guard. Houston is 36-21 in Westbrooks appearances. They are 8-6 in games in which he was not active.
Without Westbrook, head coach Mike DAntoni will rely heavily on Austin Rivers and Eric Gordon, the latter of whom is recovering from injury himself and is in the midst of the worst shooting season of his career.
Per cleaningtheglass.com, in the 648 possessions in which the quartet of Westbrook, James Harden, Robert Covington, and P.J. Tucker have shared the court, the Rockets have a +6.5 net rating, scoring 111.3 points per 100 possessions and giving up 104.8 points per 100 possessions. Add Danuel House Jr. as a fifth, and the quintet produced a +6.3 net rating; Gordon in place of House produced a +10.7 net rating.
However, the Rockets havent necessarily struggled without Westbrook. In 415 possessions without the star point guard, the trio of Harden, Tucker, and Covington have posted a +9.9 net rating. Add Rivers and House to that trio, and its a +11.3 net rating in 97 possessions. Add Ben McLemore and House, and its a +8.4 net rating in 95 possessions. Add Gordon and McLemore and its a whopping +43.7 net rating, but in just 43 possessions.
However, the Rockets will have to find a way to survive the minutes that Harden rests when Westbrook typically leads the second unit. On the year, Houston has a -3.4 net rating with Westbrook on the court, and Harden off. With both Harden and Westbrook off, it dips to just -3.9. However, the teams heaviest minute quintet without Harden, Westbrook/Rivers/Gordon/House/Tucker, in 80 possessions had a +23.8 net rating.
The Rockets will now need to rely heavily on Gordon and Rivers for secondary playmaking, particularly to lead bench units when Harden rests. Rivers had a career high 41 points against Sacramento earlier this week, enjoying an expanded role with both Westbrook and Gordon sidelined. He will get plenty of opportunities now due to the void.
The biggest question appears to be how the Thunder intend to defend Harden. Teams have doubled Harden all season, sometimes even near midcourt. However, this strategy first began due to Westbrooks presence as a non-shooter. There is no one left in the rotation now who does not have range from distance to whom Harden would not readily pass out.
Even if the Rockets are able to survive the first round against the Thunder, Houston traded for Westbrook to raise its ceiling against the leagues heavyweights. Theyll need him healthy and back in the lineup if they hope to have any chance to make a deep run.