Just months ago, the dejected Houston Rockets trudged off the floor of the Toyota Center with the exact same bitter taste in their mouths as the year prior. Houston had been bounced out of the playoffs by the powerhouse Golden State Warriors for the second straight season and the fourth time in the past five years. Whatever strategy general manager Daryl Morey was using simply wasn’t working.
Over the past half-decade, Morey has made it his personal mission to dethrone Golden State, stockpiling assets and players who would give them a shot against one of the best dynasties the NBA has ever seen. However, even a historically good offense revolving around perhaps the NBA’s most potent scorer in James Harden still wasn’t enough. Once the Rockets understood that their roster had a firmly capped ceiling, it paved the way for another major overhaul this past summer.
While their changes this past offseason weren’t quite as drastic as 2017, when they gave Harden a legitimate star sidekick in Chris Paul, they did go out and acquire another marquee floor general in Russell Westbrook.
Kawhi Leonard and Paul George heading to the City of Angels dominated headlines this summer, and rightfully so, but the reunion between Westbrook and Harden will be one of the league’s most intriguing dynamics to follow throughout the season. Of course, Harden and Westbrook were teammates on a stacked Oklahoma City Thunder squad for three seasons, advancing to the Conference Finals twice and the NBA Finals once in 2012.
So much has changed since the duo last suited up together for OKC seven years ago. Their usage rates have skyrocketed, and both have established themselves as two of the premier offensive weapons in the NBA after playing secondary roles to Kevin Durant early on in their careers. The accolades have come in bunches, with both earning MVP honors and shattering records en route to establishing themselves as generational talents.
The differentiating factor between this summer’s deal with OKC and their 2017 trade for Chris Paul is what they had to forfeit in return. When they completed their trade with the Clippers two offseasons ago, they were forced to hand over some of their more foundational pieces such as Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams. Comparatively, they were able to acquire Westbrook without coughing up any of their current contributors outside of Paul, though they did shell out a good portion of their future first-rounders. However, it was worth the risk for Morey and this Houston front office. In the end, the Rockets were able to shed Paul’s horrendous contract, and those picks they gave up will almost surely be selected later in the first round.
No matter someone’s opinion on Westbrook, it’s safe to say he gives the Rockets a better chance at making a championship run in 2019 than Chris Paul does. The latter looked like a shell of himself for a good portion of last season and never truly coexisted with James Harden.
Now Harden has a running mate with whom he shares the same agenda and, more importantly, considers a friend off the court. Coming from similar Southern California backgrounds, Harden and Westbrook have maintained a tight bond over the years, and this can only bode well for their production on the hardwood. Not to mention that the two are almost at identical junctures of their respective careers and are focused on one primary goal: securing that elusive NBA championship.
The stream of winning seasons, endless triple-doubles, gaudy assist numbers, multiple scoring titles and MVP awards that Harden and Westbrook share aren’t what validate a player in this league, at least not on an all-time scale. That would be championship wins and elite production in the postseason when the games matter most. With the amount of talent Westbrook and Harden harbor, they remain two of the best players in recent memory to not have some championship hardware on their resume.
Though both players are now 30 years old, there is still ample time for them to make a couple runs at a ring before the conclusion of their primes. In fact, Harden was as dynamic as ever last season, posting the highest points-per-game average (36.1) since Michael Jordan’s 37.1 mark in 1986.
But what drove Morey to ultimately orchestrate a deal for Westbrook was OKC seeking future compensation instead of immediate talent. The Rockets are as deep as ever this season and while they won’t have their full selection of picks down the road, this roster, top to bottom, is as loaded as any other in the NBA.
As stated, they were able to retain all of their pieces outside of Chris Paul, including key reserves such as Gerald Green and Austin Rivers. Of course, they also kept intact vital role players Eric Gordon and Clint Capela along with forwards Danuel House and PJ Tucker. Though Capela was labeled by some as a potential trade chip, Houston didn’t have to give him up in the trade for Westbrook, with Steven Adams already profiling as OKC’s center of the future.
Though Capela’s performance wavered late last season and he was rendered almost useless in their playoff series against Golden State, keeping him around was a vital part of Houston’s summer. His value increased even more when they added Westbrook. Capela poses the ideal complement, thanks to him being an elite threat as a diver to the rim in pick-and-roll situations. Both Harden and Westbrook have made a living feeding their big men out of screen sets and that should continue next season, to an extent.
Fourth-year head coach Mike D’Antoni may have the most daunting challenge of his professional career this upcoming season. With the Warriors no longer the dominant threat of years past and Westbrook a clear upgrade from a 34-year-old Chris Paul, this is a year laden with championship aspirations in Houston yet again. Whether D’Antoni decides to deviate from his perimeter-oriented offensive system to better fit his new personnel remains a major question mark.
But with two top-tier passers running the offense, spreading the floor is still a must, and Houston can do that in spades with Gordon, Green, Rivers and House. Houston also quietly added even more capable shooters this summer in Ryan Anderson, Thabo Sefolosha and Ben McLemore. Talent certainly isn’t a problem with this team. The biggest issue for Houston going into the season is that there’s only one basketball to go around.
Westbrook and Harden are both used to having the ball in their hands and having it a lot. With Harden as the unquestioned focal point and, simply put, the more efficient offensive player, Westbrook will likely be the one forced into a lesser role. Nothing drastic obviously, as Westbrook is just too talented to not be heavily involved, but he will have to cede multiple possessions per game to Harden’s isolation-heavy playstyle. This could hurt the offense, as Westbrook isn’t the best weapon off the ball, shooting sub-30% from 3-point range in consecutive seasons.
Regardless, the offense will still run through Harden, and Westbrook will have to pick his spots when to be aggressive, something he certainly isn’t accustomed to. The Houston Rockets’ entire season will be predicated on how Harden adapts to playing alongside another MVP-level talent and how Westbrook responds to getting a few less opportunities per game. Whether this works like a charm and results in a breakthrough or goes up in flames remains to be seen.