If you’re the Houston Rockets, which star would be the ideal fit with James Harden?
First, the star would have to be OK with not having the ball in his hands. In the best-case scenario, said star is a sharpshooter who can defend multiple positions at a high-level. On top of that, he’d have young legs to ease Harden’s burden as he enters his thirties.
In other words, it’s probably not Russell Westbrook.
On Monday, the Rockets reportedly traded for the 2016-17 MVP, pairing him with James Harden to form one of the most intriguing duos in the NBA at a cost of a combined $340 million over the next four seasons (Westbrook and Harden each have player options for nearly $47 million in 2022-23). As part of the deal, the Rockets traded Chris Paul, first-round picks in 2024 and 2026 and pick swaps in 2021 and 2025.
For the Rockets, it’s a bold move, but it’s tough to ignore the scent of desperation. Houston general manager Daryl Morey valiantly fought off rumors about Paul’s reported trade demand and publicly guaranteed that Paul and Harden would be back next season.
It took less than a month for Morey to reverse course and trade Paul to a Western Conference rival so he could reunite Harden and Westbrook for a championship push. It can’t be overstated that the most 3-point obsessed team in NBA history just traded for the worst high-volume 3-point shooter ever. Westbrook’s career 30.8 percent 3-point field goal percentage is the worst in NBA history among the 110 players with at least 2,750 3-point attempts, per Basketball Reference.com.
One rival general manager called it a “panic move” by Houston, calling the pick-sweetened package “too rich” to send OKC’s way.
Westbrook seems heretical to Morey’s gospel of efficiency. Over the last decade, there’s only been one player who used at least 30 percent of their team’s offenses possessions with worse shot efficiency than Westbrook last season. That was Kobe Bryant during his farewell tour two seasons after a torn Achilles.
Morey doesn’t have his head in the sand when it comes to Westbrook’s inefficiency. Quite the opposite. In April 2017, I interviewed Morey on an ESPN podcast while his player, Harden, was up for the MVP award. Harden had lost steam in the public eye compared to Westbrook, who was averaging a triple-double on the season.
Of course, at the time, Morey was stumping for his guy, Harden, and attempting to delicately discredit the other candidates without formally naming them (Westbrook eventually won the award). Without saying the word “triple-double” Morey made it clear that that was an overly simplistic MVP criteria.
“For me, the argument is pretty straightforward and simple,” said Morey. “Don’t get distracted by the easy catchphrases.”
Morey continued, citing Houston’s No. 3 seed in the West.
“Call me crazy, but historically people who watch the NBA know that (players) can put up numbers on average to below-average teams and that’s why they don’t vote for those candidates. Call me crazy, but if you’re a dominant player and primarily dominant on offense and you’re not even an above-average offense in the NBA, it seems hard to say you’re making an impact.”
“On top of that, the other guy (Harden) who is putting up basically the same dominant numbers is leading the top-10 offense ever, not below average in the NBA this season.”
When Morey was asked more pointedly about Westbrook’s candidacy, the Houston GM again harped on Westbrook’s box-score numbers not translating to team success.
“(Westbrook)’s having one of the greatest seasons ever. He just happens to be doing it with James Harden also having one of the greatest seasons ever -- and on a team that’s winning. There’s really no precedent when two people are having absolutely historic seasons that they give it to the guy who is generating his value on the side of the ball where his team isn’t even above average.”
That was in 2017, but it might as well be right now.
Last season, Westbrook again averaged a triple-double while his team finished 16th in offensive efficiency, sandwiched between the Washington Wizards and Sacramento Kings. And that was while Westbrook’s teammate, Paul George, had an MVP-caliber season. What’s more, the Thunder still couldn’t get out of the first round, losing to the Portland Trail Blazers in five games.
So, what makes the Rockets think they can do better with Westbrook and Harden?
This appears to be a situation where Houston’s new owner Tilman Fertitta may have gotten impatient after a Western Conference semifinals loss to the Golden State Warriors and then went on a rant saying the Rockets should have, uh, cut the Warriors’ throats.
"I can promise you, we're gonna win some championships with James Harden because we're not going to sit here," Fertitta said. "We're going to battle every year. We're going to have a strong offseason, and we're gonna do whatever it takes to be a better team. We're not gonna sit on our hands. I can promise you that."
"I'm a fighter. That's my culture," Fertitta said. "The longer I own this team, they're gonna pick up more of my culture. We had 'em. We should have stepped on their throats the other night and cut their throats. It's step on their throats, and let's take it back to Houston and end it in six."
For what it’s worth, Westbrook certainly fits into that fighter culture. A one-of-a-kind athlete, he’s also three and a half years younger than Paul, and lines up closer with Harden’s career trajectory. Harden turns 30 years old in August and 33 at the end of his deal, while Westbrook turns 31 in November and will be 34 in 2022-23. But there are more than enough reasons to be concerned about Westbrook as he enters the back half of his career.
It starts with his injury history. Beginning with the collision with then-Rockets guard Patrick Beverley in the 2013 playoffs, Westbrook has undergone five procedures on his troublesome right knee, most recently a clean-up in May and arthroscopic surgery last September that wiped out his preseason. For someone who relies on his wheels so much, that has to be a concern.
Most alarming, there are signs his physical decline has already started. In his age-30 season, coming off that September surgery, Westbrook finished with just 33 dunks, 24 fewer than in 2017-18. Just 2.9 percent of his field goal attempts were dunks, tying a career low, per Basketball Reference. He notably had zero dunks in the Thunder’s first-round loss to the Blazers.
Some of that drop may be attributed to an early-season injury to his plant leg, an ankle sprain, that caused him to miss six games in November. But it’s also noteworthy that Westbrook experienced a bizarre drop in his ability to draw fouls during the regular season, taking only 6.2 free throws per game and making just 65.6 percent of them (down from 10.4 attempts and 84.6 percent in his MVP season).
When he is healthy, Westbrook plays like he’s shot out of a cannon, but it backfires far too often. Playing next to George was supposed to free up open shots and help Westbrook become more efficient. Instead, Westbrook became the worst version of himself, hijacking the offense with premature jumpers and getting careless in transition. Westbrook ranked dead-last in transition efficiency among 27 players with at least 250 transition plays, according to Synergy Sports tracking. Only 22-year-old Ben Simmons coughed up the ball more times in these open-court situations, fueling the critique that Westbrook plays with a low basketball IQ even at this stage of his career.
Fastbreak opportunities are normally an integral part of a healthy NBA offense. But in the case of Westbrook, his tendencies have become so hurtful last season that him finishing a transition play was less efficient than OKC’s halfcourt offense (0.87 points per play versus 0.93 points per play).
As the architect of the Seven Seconds Or Less Offense in Phoenix, Mike D’Antoni may be able to wean some of the headaches out of Westbrook’s game, but expecting him to make a wholesale change at this point in his career isn’t a smart bet.
Perhaps D’Antoni tinkers with the iso-heavy offense that defined the Harden-Paul era and tries to step on the gas. Last season, the Rockets were the NBA’s fourth-slowest team in pace factor, a measure of possessions every 48 minutes. And it worked, with the Rockets ranking second in offensive efficiency, mostly thanks to Harden’s one-on-one dominance.
Last season, Harden finished with 1,280 isolations and was the NBA’s most efficient player in those situations, scoring 1.11 points per isolation, according to Synergy tracking. The player that ranked last in isolation efficiency last season? Yup, Westbrook, at just 0.75 points per play.
So, Westbrook is inefficient playing fast and playing slow. D’Antoni certainly has his work cut out for him.
Westbrook should find some easier pathways to the rim with Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker flanking him, but it is impossible to ignore the fact that Harden and Westbrook ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in turnovers last season. Meanwhile, Paul finished with half as many turnovers as Westbrook (152 to 325) and remains one of the most efficient point guards ever.
From a schematic point of view, Westbrook makes little sense next to Harden. With Harden pounding the rock in isolations and pick-and-roll attacks, why guard Westbrook off the ball? Paul shot over 43 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, while Westbrook made just 53-of-166 (31.9 percent).
Maybe that’s the idea, to just have Westbrook not shoot 3-pointers. But at least defenders had to respect Paul as a shooter. With Westbrook off ball, Harden will see more defenders in his way to the rim.
There’s also this: point guards who rely on speed and athleticism don’t age particularly well. Consider that his top comp in FiveThirtyEight’s similarity model, Isiah Thomas, played his last game at the age of 32 after rupturing his Achilles tendon in 1994. Though that injury was a career-ender, Thomas had already planned to retire that season because too many nagging injuries had sapped his effectiveness. In his last two playoff runs, following the 82-game grind, Thomas labored his way to just 13.7 points per game on 38.3 percent shooting from the floor.
The Rockets could look at Westbrook and see Jason Kidd, who is the third-closest comp on the FiveThirtyEight list. The triple-double maestro from Cal famously added a full-throttle 3-point shot in his mid-30s and enjoyed a career renaissance in Dallas that culminated in a championship in 2011. That’s the best-case scenario for Westbrook if everything falls into place, but Kidd was a significantly better shooter even at this stage of his career.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma City continues one of the quickest, and most impressive, teardowns in NBA history. The Thunder were eyeing one of the biggest payrolls the league had ever seen before George reportedly went to GM Sam Presti with a trade request last week. The Thunder could have hung on and tried to tread water, but a Westbrook-centric team weighed down by the four years and $171 million remaining on his supermax extension wasn’t the most prudent decision for a small-market team. Though Paul has three years of max money left, it’s one year shorter than Westbrook’s (if Westbrook picks up his player option in 2022-23).
If the Thunder choose to keep Paul, he could mentor 20-year-old Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and run point alongside Dennis Schroder with Terrence Ferguson, Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams anchoring the frontcourt alongside Nerlens Noel and Andre Roberson, who’s returning from knee surgery. That could be a playoff contender, but it’s more likely that OKC spins Paul to a team with true championship aspirations.
According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Thunder are already working with Paul’s agents to move him to a new team. If Denver sputters to start next season, would it trade Paul Millsap for Paul and accelerate their title contention now that they have former OKC stretch four Jerami Grant? That’s one possibility. According to ESPN, the Miami Heat discussed a possible Westbrook trade with the Thunder and are prominently involved in Paul trade discussions as they try to land a co-pilot for Jimmy Butler.
But OKC is loaded with assets now and can take their time with Paul and with their future. Usually teams have to lure other teams with a first-round pick sweetener to take on money like Westbrook and George, but it’s a testament to Presti’s roster that he was able to turn the tables. Teams gave the Thunder picks to take on their money. Presti brokered a record-setting deal to acquire five first-round picks and two picks swaps with the Los Angeles Clippers for George and his three-year contract (player option on the third season). They received another protected pick from Denver for Grant, giving the Thunder potentially 15 first-round picks over the next seven drafts.
In exchange for those picks and a bright future, Presti ended the OKC Thunder as we know them. I’ll never forget seeing James Harden drape his arms around Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in Miami after the Heat had sealed the 2012 NBA Finals. Despite the five-game loss, OKC looked destined to assemble its own dynasty one day. Seven years later, all three are gone and the Thunder never got back to the Finals.
Now, the Rockets are banking on Harden and Westbrook to rediscover their old magic in Houston. Maybe it works. With Klay Thompson recovering from a torn ACL and Kevin Durant in Brooklyn, the West is as wide open as it’s been in years. Maybe Westbrook’s reckless, driving style pairs perfectly next to the shooting of Harden, Gordon and Tucker. Maybe the old OKC Thunder duo return to their glory together and finally get the Rockets over the postseason hump that’s stalled them for the past three seasons. Vegas sportsbooks actually view this deal as improving the Rockets title odds.
But I don’t see it. Between Westbrook’s injuries, declining play and the bizarre on-court fit, this feels like a reunion that’s doomed to fail.