By the end of the 2018-2019 NBA season, Russell Westbrook and the Houston Rockets both found themselves at a crossroads in their respective journeys towards a championship.
Westbrook and the OKC Thunder were eliminated from the first round for the second straight year. The Rockets, on the other hand, fell against the Golden State Warriors once again, this time in six games with Kevin Durant sidelined for the latter part of the series.
Disappointing endings for two sides expected to do great things. Westbrook was left humbled, left only with one word answers after getting kicked out. Harden, on the other hand, had a cryptic message to say in his postgame press conference: “I know what we need to do. I know exactly what we need to do. We’ll figure it out this summer.”
After weeks of speculation, the Rockets made a move to trade Chris Paul, two first-round picks, and two pick swaps, to the Thunder. The return was Westbrook, another player that needed to figure things out. There was no sugarcoating it; this was a big and shape-shifting move for both Russ and Houston.
There are two types of big moves. One is the type that blows up an aging foundation of a franchise in the hopes of starting over again. High risk, high reward, but you know and accept the losing results in the short-term. The other type is one done when the championship window of a team is starting to close.
A move like this is done as an act of defiance, an attempt to extend whatever is left of a group’s title hopes. Also a high risk, high reward move. The difference, however, is you’re banking on one type of result: a championship. Getting to there, however, is a lot tougher than one may think.
This move by the Rockets falls under the latter category. If not for a dynasty like the Warriors (And Paul’s fragile hamstrings), they probably would have won at least one out of the last two NBA championships. They were that good. They could have easily ran it back this season with their same core players and they would have been one of the favorites in a loaded Western Conference.
But maybe that’s how tenuous the Harden-Paul dynamic already was. Despite success on the court the last two seasons, tension had reportedly been brewing between the two players. Whether those reports were true or not, the fact that Daryl Morey felt like he needed to change things up THIS much says a lot. The Rockets not only get Westbrook, but they also gain a fresh start.
Fresh starts and change don’t always lead to desirable results. Just ask the 2012 LA Lakers, who acquired Dwight Howard in the hopes of regaining championship glory. There is the potential of failure, especially when the newly-minted couple don’t compromise with each other’s differences.
It wasn’t surprising to see Rockets fans have their doubts when Westbrook’s acquisition was first reported. In the first place, Russ had emerged as one of the most hated figures in Houston. He was understood to be the player who took away the 2016-2017 MVP from James Harden all because of a triple-double average. That rival they cheered against is now their starting point guard.
If Russ played the way he did in OKC, then there are major problems. From a purely surface-level perspective, the fit between Westbrook and the Rockets is questionable. They’re pairing two of the most high-usage players in NBA history in Westbrook and Harden.
Harden, in particular, has had Houston’s offense built around what he does best. He’s the best isolation player in the NBA today. Morey has since surrounded him with shooters and capable pick and roll threats to create a system that is simple but also frustratingly effective against opposing defenses.
Westbrook is neither of those things. Just like Harden, he likes having the ball in his hands. But unlike Harden, he isn’t a good shooter. There’s already friction just with those two qualities alone. Forcing Harden to turn from creator to shooter just to accommodate Russ wouldn’t make sense. It would be a step away from their established system.
At the same time, to expect Westbrook to become a spot up shooter who can space the floor for the Rockets would be disrespect, well, to the concept of spacing as a whole. Defenses would gladly have Harden kick the ball out to Westbrook. There’s very little adjustment to be done in that scenario. Stay home on Harden and allow Westbrook to build a house out of all his bricks.
There is potential for this to go so wrong for the Rockets. By all accounts is this move a gamble. But Morey wouldn’t have done this if there wasn’t potential for reward. The most obvious upside for Houston is that they’re adding a REALLY good player to pair up with Harden. Top 10 to 15 good. Don’t let all the stats confuse the fact that Westbrook is an elite basketball player.
For all of his flaws, he still does a lot of things really well. His athleticism in itself brings a different dynamic compared to whatever CP3 brought to the table. His sheer explosiveness is capable of attracting attention and can lead to production when used correctly. He didn’t just average a triple-double by dominating the ball. He needed to do things successfully for him to achieve those numbers. In the past three seasons, his passing has taken a leap. Even his mere ability to control an offense has improved, as Paul George’s arrival pushed him to embrace the point guard position even more. There are things to work with here with Westbrook.
That’s the thing with fresh starts; they aren’t supposed to be mere rehashes of the same thing at a different setting. At the very least, they’re opportunities for beings to truly start anew. To learn from their mistakes and apply to the new situation
The Rockets give Westbrook such a chance. Unlike in OKC, Westbrook isn’t THE guy anymore. He’ll be forced to be a back-up to Harden, which is ironic considering it was the other way around seven years ago in OKC. It isn’t just with how things are done on the court. Off the court, it’s Harden who is the face of the Houston Rockets franchise. Harden has the power among the players. Westbrook doesn’t.
This is new territory for him, but maybe taking him out of that role as expected championship-level point guard is what’s best for him. He’s a dynamic athlete as it is. Imagining him cutting off the ball, or even being the roll man in a pick and roll with Harden is very realistic. The question remains: will Westbrook take that chance and swallow his pride?
Westbrook also gives the Rockets such a chance. Unlike CP3 who already had injury issues due to age, Russ is one of the most durable players in the league. With the possibility of him staying on the floor for longer stretches, Mike D’Antoni has the opportunity to manage Harden’s minutes better with a deep playoff run in mind.
This is new territory for the Rockets, to try and keep Harden in a cocoon during the regular season. But maybe this is what’s best for them as a franchise. Imagine the Rockets coasting through the regular season with managed minutes, only for them to exert maximum overdrive come the playoffs. The question now is: will the Rockets take that chance swallow their pride as a franchise?
Come the start of the 2019-2020 season, Westbrook and the Rockets will both have fresh start on their journey to the crown. Not separate. Now together. There is uncertainty and paired with it, is hope and promise. Both sides have things to figure out, but they need to hurry up. The clock is ticking at a shot for an NBA championship.
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