Rockets: Would a first-round loss be excused if Westbrook is out?

Houston Rockets Russell Westbrook (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Houston Rockets Russell Westbrook (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) /

Will the Houston Rockets get a pass if they lose in the first round of the playoffs without Russell Westbrook?

The Houston Rockets have found themselves in a tricky situation going into the 2020 playoffs, as Russell Westbrook will miss a few games at best, and the entire first round at worst. But should anyone give them a pass if they lose the series to OKC without Russ?

One way to look at it would be to analyze how the Rockets compare to the Thunder across the board on the season. They are sort of mirror images to each other in some ways, as the Rockets are ranked sixth offensively and 14th defensively, while the Thunder are 16th offensively and seventh defensively.

Without Russell Westbrook, the defense may not suffer significantly, as he is not known for his defensive prowess. However, the offense will definitely be diminished, as his ability to score and generate open looks for others will both be surely missed by the Rockets in the first round.

Houston’s explosive offense is one of the driving factors of their success and is one of the biggest advantages they hold over OKC when Russ is healthy. Without him, offensive talents such as Eric Gordon, Ben McLemore, and Austin Rivers will need to step up in order to suitably fill the void in offensive production left by Westbrook’s absence.

The Rockets and the Thunder are not just similar, but they’re identical to each other in terms of record. At the fourth and fifth seeds respectively, Houston and OKC both have records of 44-28 for win percentages of 61.1 percent.

The catch is that, for the Rockets, these numbers mostly include Russell Westbrook. Thus without him, the Rockets obviously would not have seen the same success and would have placed lower in the standings than OKC.

When Harden plays and Westbrook does not, the team is 7-6 on the season and is 3-4 since the trade for Robert Covington. Though this sample size is relatively small, it is clear that Westbrook is quite important to Houston’s ability to win, especially since the team’s decision to fully buy into micro-ball.

If it were any other team, the Houston Rockets might have a case to make for a pass if they lose this series. But the fact that it is the Thunder specifically is what makes this discussion what it is.

The Houston Rockets must prevent a first-round exit to OKC.

Not only is OKC led by Chris Paul, who did not want to be traded from the Rockets in the first place, but one of the largest reasons the Rockets made the Westbrook-Paul trade is durability. Yet here they are, about to go into the playoffs, and Russ is hurt while CP3 will be on the floor.

Westbrook being injured going into this series along with the fact that Chris Paul has had a great season makes this a really bad look for the Rockets. They will certainly receive no pity from anyone outside of their own fanbase if they lose the series.

The drama of the Westbrook-Paul trade is not the only thing that will keep the Rockets from getting a pass from NBA audiences. Two other names will also be in the spotlight if they lose this series: James Harden and Mike D’Antoni.

James Harden’s playoff reputation is not that of his regular-season reputation. He is often viewed as a player who has been unable to get it done when his team needs him the most in the postseason.

Harden is also the best player in this series and will have the opportunity to alter the narrative surrounding him if he can lead the Rockets past the Thunder without Russ. If he is unable to do so, the trade will not be the only part of Houston’s criticism for a first-round exit.

Mike D’Antoni is another name that will be in the spotlight this series. As it stands now, he is largely viewed as a great coach, but not one that can lead a team to a championship.

Maneuvering the team to a first-round victory against the Thunder without Westbrook will be one of the biggest challenges in his postseason coaching career. His inability to advance the team beyond the Western Conference Finals during his time in Houston will keep him from earning a pass if he loses this series.

If the Rockets were matched up with a team like the Lakers or the Clippers in the first round, they would have an excuse for losing without Russell Westbrook playing. Even if they were matched up with a different team with the same record as them, they may get a pass for losing without Russ.

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However, even with statistical justifications for a potential loss, the nature of the Westbrook-Paul trade along with Harden and D’Antoni’s playoff reputations will not earn them a pass if they lose against OKC in the first round. The Rockets must win this series with or without Russ in order to avoid humiliation on a national level.