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Point Taken: Why We’re Not Sold on the Westbrook-Beal Pairing in DC

By: Taylor Bechtold

The next domino has fallen as the Houston Rockets continue to undergo a renovation of multiple levels throughout the organization.

The first dropped when head coach Mike D’Antoni made the decision not to seek a new contract during a flight back to Houston after the Rockets were eliminated by the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference semifinals. The second was when innovative general manager Daryl Morey stepped down in October after leading Houston to the second-best record in the NBA over a 13-year run.

The writing was on the wall for bigger pieces to crash down last month when superstars Russell Westbrook and James Harden reportedly requested to be traded. In the meantime, Robert Covington was shipped to the Portland Trail Blazers for Trevor Ariza, who was flipped as part of a sign-and-trade for Christian Wood. And in another move that signaled the end of small ball in Houston, former All-Star DeMarcus Cousins – who has played a total of 78 games the past three years – was signed to a one-year deal.

Russell Westbrook is headed to D.C. (Kim Klement/Pool Photo via AP)

On Wednesday, the Rockets pulled off their biggest blockbuster yet, sending Westbrook to the Washington Wizards in exchange for former All-Star John Wall and a protected first-round pick in an exchange of point guards with two years and a player option left on their super-max extensions. So the move begs the question: Is Harden next?

It’s been said that the three-time scoring champion still wants out of Houston despite Westbrook’s departure, though ESPN reported Wednesday night that the Rockets are committed to keeping Harden for the 2020-21 season. Then again, team owner Tilman Fertitta had initially responded to the trade requests by declaring the club wouldn’t move either and that “we’re not blowing up anything” in an interview with CNBC.

Similarly, Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard said the club had no plans to trade Wall or fellow star guard Bradley Beal after it was reported late last month that Wall was looking to get out of Washington. Instead, Wall will be reunited with Cousins – his former teammate at Kentucky – in Houston, and Westbrook will re-join Scott Brooks – who coached him for seven years with the Oklahoma City Thunder – in the nation’s capital.

But where does that leave both clubs?

Using our lineup data, we can take a look at Westbrook’s time with Harden – another ball-dominant shooting guard – to get a better idea about how a pairing with Beal might look. Likewise, we’re able to break down Wall’s performance when he was healthy and playing alongside Beal to get a glimpse of how he might mesh with Harden.

Here’s what we learned:

WESTBROOK, BEAL AND THE WIZARDS

Bradley Beal has a new running mate in D.C. (AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez)

On a Wizards team that featured Davis Bertans as its second-leading scorer, Beal carried the load on the way to career highs in points (30.5), assists (6.1), field-goal attempts per game (22.9) and 3-point attempts per game (8.4).

The two-time All-Star is likely happy to be getting some help after Washington went 1-7 in the Orlando bubble and missed out of the postseason, but a pairing with Westbrook doesn’t exactly instill confidence in a turnaround.

We mentioned earlier the Wizards’ net rating with Beal on the floor despite the gaudy numbers that the elite scorer produced. That number improved substantially when Beal and Wall were on the court together over that span, but the Thunder and Rockets had net ratings that didn’t change much whether Harden was playing alongside Westbrook or not.

And when Westbrook was on the floor without Harden, both teams saw their net ratings drop dramatically.

TeamSeason(s)LineupOff Team RatingDef Team RatingNet
Rockets19-20Harden & Westbrook1161115
Rockets19-20Harden, no Westbrook121.9115.96
Rockets19-20Westbrook, no Harden116.4119.7-3.3
Thunder09-10 to 11-12Westbrook & Harden118.7111.47.3
Thunder09-10 to 11-12Westbrook, no Harden111.5108.43.1
Thunder09-10 to 11-12Harden, no Westbrook114.9108.16.8

Westbrook’s recent drop in performance was evident in the playoffs, where he shot just 24.2% from 3-point range and 53.1% from the free-throw line. He was the first player in league history to shoot under 25.0% from 3 and under 60.0% from the line in a single postseason (minimum 30 attempts in both categories).

While the Rockets have obliged in giving a disgruntled star a new home and the Wizards parted ways with one that hadn’t been helping them anyway, we’d temper expectations that this move will propel either team to new heights.

WALL, HARDEN AND THE ROCKETS

New Rockets point guard John Wall (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

It’s difficult to get a read on just how effective Wall might be considering he’s played a total of 72 games over the past three years and his last was on December 26, 2018 due to multiple injuries. However, Wall said in October that he’s “110% healthy” and itching to play again.

Assuming he’s close to his previous form, Wall could benefit from playing alongside Harden and vice-versa in Houston. With Wall and Beal on the court, the Wizards put up a plus-3.5 net rating between the 2012-13 season and 2018-19.

But that number dropped to minus-0.1 when Wall played without Beal and minus-2.4 when Beal was on the court without his backcourt mate. And with Wall out for all of last season, the Wizards ended up with a minus-5.3 net rating with Beal on the floor.

TeamSeason(s)LineupOff Team RatingDef Team RatingNet
Wizards12-13 to 18-19Wall & Beal113.9110.33.5
Wizards12-13 to 18-19Wall, no Beal110.1110.1-0.1
Wizards12-13 to 18-19Beal, no Wall111.8114.2-2.4
Wizards19-20Beal118.2123.5-5.3

At the same time, we expect Harden to continue doing what he’s been doing. Even though Westbrook was tied for fifth (with Beal) in usage percentage (34.6) last season, Harden generated 52.4 points per game off either his own scoring or on his assists after averaging 53.9 in 2018-19, 51.3 in 2017-18 and 56.0 in 2016-17.

The four consecutive seasons with 50-plus points per game created tied Oscar Robertson (1963-64 to 1966-67) for the longest streak in league history.

And though Wall isn’t the best 3-point shooter at 32.4% for his career, he has to be considered an upgrade for the Rockets in that area. Westbrook shot just 25.8% over 3.7 attempts from beyond the arc last season and he hasn’t hit at least 30.0% from 3 in five of his last six seasons.

Will it be the last domino to fall in Houston? Not likely.

 

Data modeling provided by Matt Scott.

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