“I know exactly what we need to do.”
This sentiment laid down by James Harden following yet another playoff series loss to the Golden State Warriors, was confident yet predictably ambiguous. It was only the Houston Rockets’ second playoff loss to the Warriors in two years with Chris Paul on the team, but it felt like James Harden’s 100th misstep before the playoffs. The answer could not be that simple, nor could it be that easy to attain.
For most teams in NBA history, it hasn’t been. The Utah Jazz from 1984 to 2003 failed to win the championship 19 times. They failed 19 times with a player who is first all-time in assists and another player who is second all-time in points. They lost nine times in the first round, five times in the second round, three times in the Western Conference Finals and two times in the Finals. They had two bonafide superstars who failed again and again and again. All while the organization let them.
For 19 years, the Jazz stood idle as their superstars proved for nearly two decades they were not the right combination of talents to win a championship. NBA teams no longer operate with this kind of patience. After just two years, Chris Paul has been shipped away from the perennially contending Rockets to the asset-piling Oklahoma City Thunder. The Rockets favored an explosive non-shooter with a massive contract to an aged point guard with little blow-by left in his game and far too much money in his contract.
Two years, not two decades. This is how fast and how aggressive teams now must be in hopes of a championship. In some instances – take the Brooklyn Nets, for example – it is a huge mistake to take such a massive and future-crippling swing. In this case, it was the exact right time for a move, albeit for a player with talents that don’t quite fit with what has made the Rockets so successful.
It should be no argument, however, that a neutral team would rather have years 30-33 of Russell Westbrook over years 34-36 of Chris Paul when given the option. That opinion may differ when factoring in the two picks and two pick swaps, which the Rockets also gave up to get Westbrook. However, the Rockets are believing in and utilizing the star power they have. Harden and Westbrook are both under contract for four years, and in an ideal world, Houston will be unappealingly late in the draft for all four.
Westbrook’s fit is the biggest worry across the NBA universe, but there is a player from whom he can take some historical clues. Westbrook will be just two years older than Dwyane Wade was when LeBron James joined him. This is meaningful and relevant in a multitude of ways. Much like Westbrook and Harden, Wade and LeBron were very good friends before joining forces. How important the strength of a relationship is may be irrelevant but can’t be discounted when using Wade as a reference.
Wade’s advanced age and friendship with LeBron allowed him to realize he was the player who needed to take a step back, not LeBron. The hope is, 31-year-old Westbrook has the same realization. If the last two seasons are any indication, Westbrook will take the hint, as his usage rate has dropped by 7.6% and then again by 3.2% in the last two seasons with a much less talented and impactful star next to him.
Wade and Westbrook are also two superstar guards with the inability to consistently shoot from 3-point range. Wade was a career 28.9% 3-point shooter before James’ arrival, and Westbrook is a career 30.8% 3-point shooter right now. Wade positioned himself in the perfect role by being a slashing, defending, fast-breaking secondary weapon who still had plenty of ball-handling opportunities. Westbrook can do many of the same things. He simply has to continue to let his usage rate drop while exchanging fast breaks started with his own rebounds to fast breaks initiated by Harden and emphatically finished by Westbrook.
Aside from defense, there is no reason Westbrook can’t accomplish this. He can make up for some, but definitely not all, of Wade’s team defense with incredibly energetic and athletic defensive plays. If Houston hopes to find success, they need Westbrook to be a powerful version of Dwyane Wade on the Heatles. They do not need him chucking more 3s, but instead making intelligent cuts, staying active and destroying opposing defenses on fast breaks by trusting Harden to get him the ball.
Trading for Russell Westbrook may not give their franchise another world championship. It does not even make them a favorite to win the Western Conference but, put simply, it makes them better. It does what teams in the past were terrified to do; exchange the star they know with whom they know what they can accomplish for the star that is a mystery box of potential. Westbrook may not take as big of a backseat as he needs to, his atrocious shooting may cripple this offense and his apathy on defense may require too much of PJ Tucker and Clint Capela. Or, he may inject enough talent into this team to win a championship.
The risks last about as long as the contracts do, and the Rockets are proving to their 36-points-per-game megastar that they are not settling. In a league that is constantly changing and increasing in difficulty, Russell Westbrook replacing Chris Paul is exactly what the Rockets needed; a higher ceiling, not a more comfortable floor.