The Houston Rockets did not need to make too many moves this offseason. While their chemistry was clearly breaking down after a rocky 2018-19 season, their position was still enviable after the Golden State Warriors lost Kevin Durant. The West opened up, and the Rockets’ experienced core had to have as much as a chance to pick up the mantle as any other teams, even after both Los Angeles teams acquired multiple superstars. All they had to do was work through the clubhouse issues with the way star James Harden was used, at least enough to please a clearly frustrated Chris Paul, and their chemistry and knowledge of how to play together should give them a huge advantage over the rest of the competition. Instead, they chose to panic and trade for the absolute last player James Harden should ever be playing with.
Russell Westbrook is one of the greatest point-guards in the history of basketball. His athleticism and court vision give him the complete package on the offensive end, and the ferocity he plays with should give the opposing teams goosebumps every time they’re unfortunate enough to play him. His game is so complete that he managed three consecutive seasons of averaging a triple-double, a feat nobody had even done once since Oscar Robertson. There is one huge side affect to his unique skillset, however. He needs the ball to be in his hands every single possession. The reason he played fairly well with Paul George in Oklahoma City last year was that George was able to play well without the ball, playing good defense and setting himself up in a solid shooting position consistently. When paired with James Harden, however, the scheme does not work quite the same.
James Harden has proven himself to be the best isolation scorer in the NBA, and possibly the greatest of all time. Last year, due to the Rockets’ series of injuries that plagued them all year, we saw this part of his game in full effect. He took the ball every possession, in isolation, and either shot it or passed to an open teammate essentially every time. While this increased shooting rate caused his efficiency to tank a bit, it also allowed him to set a record for consecutive games scoring 30 points as well as carry the Rockets back near the level they were the season before, an impressive feat considering how infrequently they hd their whole starting lineup healthy.
Both Harden and Westbrook are game-changing, generational talents. Their abilities to perform with the ball are about as good as it gets. The only issue is they can’t both take every shot. They have the two highest usage rates in the NBA over the past two seasons. They both are coming from game plans that let them have total control of the game, giving them the ball whenever they wanted, and they both wanted it a lot. There simply is not enough time in an NBA game for both players to be given the usage that they are accustomed to, and this will undoubtedly cause problems.
Admittedly, Paul and Harden’s relationship did not deteriorate just because of Paul’s usage, but rather a difference in offensive philosophies. It was still a factor, though. What’s more, Westbrook has shown that he is not really wiling to accept a smaller role, something that feels inevitable. What’s more, Houston is unequivocally Harden’s team, a situation Russell has not found himself in since Durant left OKC. His ego is going to take a hit here, and there’s no telling how Westbrook will respond.
There is a good chance that the Rockets were not gong to survive the influx of westward talent that occurred this offseason. While they were still certainly a playoff team, the issues between Paul and Harden would have had to disappear for them to have a realistic chance at a championship. Still, the odds of settling that dispute seem much more likely than the odds that this move goes smoothly. Maybe the Rockets have a plan, and maybe they don’t actually plan on keep Westbrook, but, if they do, they may have doubled the issues in the clubhouse rather than solving them. Big personalities regularly clash poorly in the NBA, and this move may well have set up one of the biggest disagreements of all time. This combination feels like a time bomb, and it seems inevitable that it will blow up in the Rockets face.