LeBron-Davis, Kawhi-George lead NBA's top duos

NBC Sports

LeBron-Davis, Kawhi-George lead NBA's top duos

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said it best in his recent blog post that declared the NBA to be a player-driven league: “Movement made and broke a super team.  It took us from having one team with arguably 4 superstars to no team with obviously more than 2.”

The key word there: “obviously.” When Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Kemba Walker and Paul George switched teams this summer (look at those names!), the whirlwind of transactions created a flattened NBA landscape. Super teams turned into squads with super duos.

So, which tandem is the best? And which tandems have the best chance of becoming a starry trio? Oh, and what about the duos that have the best chance to crash the party in years to come? All are questions worthy of an answer, so I got to it. Below are the five best duos of today, followed by the five to bet on for the future, with both members being 25 years or younger.

Let’s get to it.

Top Five Duos of Today

1. LeBron James and Anthony Davis (Los Angeles Lakers)

This duo features the greatest player of his generation and perhaps the best big man of his generation. As I pointed out in the BIG Number last season, Davis promises to be the best player James has ever played with during his career (apologies to Dwyane Wade!). Even with the trade controversy engulfing New Orleans last season, Davis posted career-high marks in rebounds per possession, assists per possession and 3-pointers per possession, certifying himself as one of the most talented players on the planet.

A groin injury hampered James in 2018-19, but the upside is that he should be refreshed after logging 2,011 fewer minutes than he did in the previous season (Finals run included). Unlike other duos on this list, I’m not worried about a positional overlap that could cannibalize their talents on the court. These two will shine together or apart.

Most likely big three candidate: DeMarcus Cousins. Have you seen this guy recently? Cousins losing weight is great news for the Lakers. Studies show that weight loss is a strong predictor of successful post-Achilles recovery. If Cousins can stay fit in a contract year, this could be a big three before we know it.

2. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George (L.A. Clippers)

Good luck scoring against these two. If healthy, these two super-wings will terrify the rest of the league on both ends of the floor. Despite Paul George’s tweet late last month, I’m worried about his health after undergoing rotator cuff surgery to repair torn labrums in both shoulders this summer. A 2016 meta-analysis study found that only half of professional athletes return to the same level of play after undergoing treatment for one rotator cuff repair, let alone two. 

But even if George isn’t 100 percent next season, he should still be a two-way force that draws the envy of every team outside Los Angeles. After all, George was an MVP candidate with two bum shoulders last season. Leonard and George do have injury risks, but their talents are undeniable. With a formidable supporting cast, this is my team to beat in 2018-19. But I can’t put them No. 1 with George’s health concerns.

Most likely big three candidate: Montrezl Harrell. You could slot reigning Sixth Man of the Year award-winner Lou Williams here and I wouldn’t mind. But Williams is 32 years old and Harrell is just entering his prime, turning 26 in January. Harrell’s pick-and-roll and glass-cleaning skills make him a snug fit next to Leonard and George. And he has room to grow.

3. Stephen Curry and Draymond Green (Golden State Warriors)

This ranking might surprise some folks, but it shouldn’t. No other team can flaunt an MVP winner and a Defensive Player of the Year in their primes. Putting accolades aside, Curry and Green complement each other’s games in seamless fashion, solidifying their spot on this list.

Don’t think they should rank this high? In the 868 minutes that Curry and Green have played without the aid of Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson or Andre Iguodala on the floor, the Warriors have still outscored opponents by 172 points, or 9.5 points every 48 minutes, per pbpstats.com. Curry and Green are still an elite duo. (For more on that, catch this BIG Number).

Most likely third candidate: D’Angelo Russell. Some might argue that this is a big three already with either Thompson or Russell representing that third slot. I’m not there yet. I’m taking the wait-and-see approach with Thompson’s recovery from an ACL tear. Yes, Russell was an All-Star last season at 23 years old, but only as a fill-in for Victor Oladipo in a weaker conference. I don’t like the fit next to Curry, but the Warriors have won championships and I have not. 

4. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons (Philadelphia 76ers)

This is not an overreaction to those Simmons pickup game videos that went around this week. Even if Simmons doesn’t add a 3-point shot next season, I have no qualms about keeping the Philly duo on the list. The Embiid and Simmons duo posted a plus-262 plus-minus last season, a strong mark for any pairing, much less one that featured a 22-year-old.

It’s true that Embiid and Simmons don’t fit together like Curry and Green -- far from it -- but Embiid and Simmons are great already and have more upside than anybody on this list. Embiid is just entering his prime years and Simmons is only scratching the surface of what he can become. 

Most likely big three candidate: Tobias Harris. I love Al Horford as a player but at 33 years old, his best days are behind him. Harris just turned 27 and is in line for a breakout season in the East. As a tall sharp-shooter who can put the ball on the floor, Harris can be the Sixers’ version of prime Rashard Lewis. Like Lewis in Orlando, Harris has a big contract to live up to and I think he’ll get there soon, if not right away.

5. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton (Milwaukee Bucks)

The two best players on the NBA’s best team in the regular season. Really, Antetokounmpo and insert-NBA-player-here could arguably make this list based on the Greek Freak’s talent alone. But Middleton made his first All-Star Game last year and signed a five-year, $177 million contract this summer. He’s a worthy member of the duo, even if he struggled to assert himself in the Eastern Conference finals against Toronto. 

With Malcolm Brogdon gone to Indiana, Middleton can stretch out a bit more and show he’s one of the premier wing scorers in the game. Last season, Middleton scored 24.5 points per 36 minutes with Brogdon off the floor, per NBA.com/stats. If he can do that next season and ease the burden on Antetokounmpo’s broad shoulders, they’ll jump higher on this list.

Most likely big three candidate: Eric Bledsoe. I’m not high on Bledsoe’s chances of ascending and making this a star trio, but the Bucks are obviously believers. Milwaukee brass signed him to a $70 million contract in March and let Brogdon go this summer, making Bledsoe the team’s point guard for the foreseeable future. If Bledsoe doesn’t bounce back from a disappointing postseason, don’t be surprised if Chris Paul trade rumors surface.

Apologies to (in no particular order): 

James Harden and Russell Westbrook: Hard to imagine two MVPs having a worse fit.

Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum: Another trip to the West finals would solidify their spot.

Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert: Love Utah, but shockingly, they have zero All-Star appearances among them.

DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge: Elite scorers, but still not top five.

Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant: Check back in 2020-21.

Top Five Duos of Tomorrow

1. Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis (Dallas Mavericks)

Nothing from Doncic’s rookie season could dissuade me from thinking he’s a future MVP in this league. Playing most of his first NBA season as a teenager, Doncic averaged an astounding 21.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6.0 assists for the Mavericks and joined James in some rarified air.

Porzingis’ future is a little fuzzier. His Mavericks debut in October will come about 20 months after his ACL tear. An All-Star at 22 years old, the 7-foot-3 do-it-all big man had future MVP candidate written all over him before the injury. Porzingis might be rusty this season, but no duo collectively has higher ceilings than these two youngsters.

2. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray (Denver Nuggets)

Nikola Jokic is already a top-ten player, no doubt. Murray is making his way there. You can point to the Nuggets’ No. 2 seed in the Western Conference as justification for putting Jokic and Murray atop this list, but I still need to see more from Murray before I tab him as one of the league’s elite up-and-coming talents (he finished just inside the top 100 in real plus-minus (RPM) last season).

With that said, Murray is 22 years old and really, really good. An elite shooter and capable distributor, he can be a Brandon Roy/Bradley Beal-type player for the Nuggets. If Murray gets to that level, the Nuggets will be title contenders immediately. Jokic may be good enough that they’re title contenders no matter what.

3. Trae Young and John Collins (Atlanta Hawks)

Neither of these guys are even 22 years old yet and they’re near-locks for 20-and-10 every night. Young tallied at least 30 points and 10 assists in seven games in his rookie season, including a 49-point, 16-assist supernova against Chicago in March. Collins finished his sophomore season averaging 19.5 points and 9.8 rebounds, with a grand finale of 20 points, 25 rebounds and six assists in the team’s final game. 

Next season will help determine whether those eye-popping stat-lines will turn into wins. Young and Collins need some defensive stalwarts around them long-term (hello, De’Andre Hunter), but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if this duo became All-Stars next season. They have the makings of the next generation’s Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire.

4. Zion Williamson and Lonzo Ball (New Orleans Pelicans)

I don’t know who will become Zion Williamson’s co-pilot in New Orleans, but Ball has the best chance of any of the youngsters. I always saw him as a Jrue Holiday prototype but with better vision. And now the 21-year-old will join Holiday in New Orleans. 

With Holiday, JJ Redick and Derrick Favors setting the tone in the locker room, I love the youth movement that executive VP of basketball operations David Griffin is overseeing in the Big Easy. Nickeil Alexander-Walker, freshly off being named to 2019 NBA Summer League First Team, also deserves to be mentioned along with Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and No. 8 overall pick Jaxson Hayes. Williamson’s upside alone puts New Orleans on this list, but I’m still a big believer in Ball.

5. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown (Boston Celtics)

Amazing what a difference a year makes. Boston’s young duo may have ranked No. 1 on the Summer 2018 version of this list, but both players struggled to take a big step forward last season. Brown is entering a contract year, as he’ll be a restricted free agent this summer in what promises to be a weak free agency class. I still see Tatum reaching All-Star status, but I’m a little less bullish on Brown, who turns 23 years old in October.

Remember, these two were the leading scorers on an Eastern Conference finals team two years ago. One disappointing season doesn’t remove them from consideration, but an uneven 2019-20 campaign will surely sour their once-golden status around the league.

Apologies to (in no particular order): 

Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins: I’ve lost patience on Wiggins, who turns 25 in February.

Zach Lavine and Lauri Markkanen: Stay healthy, please?

Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner: If Indiana doesn’t think they’re a duo, should I?

Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton: Let’s see what Monty Williams, Booker’s fourth head coach, can do.

De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley III: Sacramento has a bright future if Bagley commits to defense.

Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr.: Both teenagers still, and don’t sleep on rookie Brandon Clarke.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

Sixers' Ben Simmons is worth the max

NBC Sports

Sixers' Ben Simmons is worth the max

The Philadelphia 76ers aren’t messing around. On Tuesday, Ben Simmons signed a full maximum extension, worth $170 million over five years, to remain with the team that drafted him No.1 overall in 2017. With Joel Embiid already under contract through 2022-23, Philly GM Elton Brand locks in one of the best young duos in the NBA for at least the next four seasons.

Simmons’ extension isn’t a total surprise, but it’s still an enormous commitment from the Sixers once you account for the rest of the core’s price tag. The 22-year-old’s salary will jump from $8.1 million in 2019-20 to $29.3 million in 2020-21 and escalate gradually to $38.6 million in 2024-25. 

Haberstroh: Sixers smart to reload with Harris, Horford

With the re-signing of Tobias Harris and the additions of Al Horford and Josh Richardson, the Sixers will be paying $131.5 million to just five players in 2020-21. To illustrate how steep that outlay is, consider that the salary cap is projected to be $116 million. (CBA 101: teams can go over the cap to re-sign its own players, generally speaking). According to ESPN, all five years are guaranteed with significant bonuses tied to All-NBA honors in 2019-20. 

Is paying all that guaranteed money to Simmons a wise investment? 

I wouldn’t think twice about it. He deserves it. Simmons is an elite NBA player, even at age 22 (he turns 23 next week). He averaged 16.9 points, 8.8 rebounds and 7.7 assists on 56 percent shooting in his second season in the league, becoming the youngest player in this past season’s All-Star Game in Charlotte.

Still, Simmons remains a basketball riddle. Consider that his top statistical comparables in FiveThirtyEight’s model include names like James Worthy, Grant Hill, Bernard King, Brad Daugherty, Blake Griffin and Andrew Bogut. All over the place. If you asked a Magic 8 Ball about Simmons’ future, it’d probably read, “Cannot Predict Now.”

Who is Ben Simmons? The irony is he’s himself, to a T. Simmons’ first two seasons in the league were just about carbon copies of one another. To wit:

In 2017-18, he played 2,732 minutes. 
In 2018-19, he played 2,700 minutes.

In 2017-18, he took 12.3 shots per game and made 6.8.
In 2018-19, he took 12.2 shots per game and made 6.7. 

In 2017-18, he averaged 8.2 assists and 3.5 turnovers.
In 2018-19, he averaged 7.7 assists and 3.6 turnovers.

In 2017-18, his player efficiency rating was 20.0.
In 2018-19, his player efficiency rating was 20.0.

And his other advanced metrics were eerily similar, too. 

Some might call that uncanny consistency. Others might call it a red flag. But criticizing Simmons’ plateau in Year 2 ignores the fact that most of the players on the All-Rookie teams had either even or down years. Most everyone expected huge things from Simmons, Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum and Lonzo Ball in 2018-19. None of them took a huge step forward. (Mitchell came on strong late in the regular season, but struggled mightily in the playoffs against the Houston Rockets.)

Simmons’ postseason saw wild swings from clear superstar to critically flawed. The best game of his young career notably came in a playoff setting, one in which Embiid sat out with a sore knee. Entering Game 3 tied 1-1 in the series against the Brooklyn Nets, Simmons erupted for 31 points and nine assists on the road without his co-star. That virtuoso performance came on the heels of Jared Dudley saying Simmons was “average” in the halfcourt. Simmons responded in a big way.

That’s the Simmons that Philly fans want to see every night. But over the next nine games, Simmons averaged just 12.1 points, including four straight games without making a free throw.

Look, he’s 22. We want Simmons to be a finished product who dominates every playoff game he’s in, but he’s years away from his prime, and the Sixers just locked in his age 24 to age 28 seasons.

The most tantalizing aspect of Simmons’ game is his defense. Thanks to his versatility, it’s possible Simmons will win a Defensive Player of the Year award by the time this contract is done. At 6-foot-10 with point guard speed and instincts, Simmons has the ability to thwart just about any player in the game. According to research by Nylon Calculus’ Krishna Narsu, Simmons was one of nine starters who guarded all five positions at least 10 percent of the time on the floor last season. None of them were as young as Simmons.

It’s rare for a player to show a knack for defense at Simmons’ age. It was Simmons, not Jimmy Butler, that took on the Kawhi Leonard assignment in critical moments of the playoffs. There were lapses, to be sure, but he was 22 freaking years old going against the best player in the world. Getting young players to commit defensively in the NBA is like pulling teeth. Simmons wants to be a Defensive Player of the Year one day, which is a huge win in and of itself.

Simmons’ lack of a jumper has many folks howling about how Embiid and Simmons are horrible fits next to each other. The numbers don’t agree. With the two young stars on the floor this postseason, the Sixers outscored opponents by 19.5 points per 100 possessions. Here are some postseason net ratings for star duos (net rating is points ahead/behind every 100 possessions while on the floor): Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, minus-1.3; Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, plus-3.0; Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, plus-7.8; Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, plus-9.6. Again: Simmons and Embiid, plus-19.5.

Some of that juggernaut rating is a reflection of JJ Redick, Harris and Butler often being on the floor as well, but it’s undeniable that the Sixers have thrived with Simmons and Embiid on the court. The fit isn’t perfect, but Simmons and Embiid complement each other in other ways. 

While Embiid lumbers up the floor, Simmons blitzes past defenders in the open court. Simmons’ ability to execute high-level passes in tight spaces has resulted in Embiid shooting 45.5 percent on 2-pointers off of Simmons’ passes compared to 41.5 percent on 2-pointers from all other teammates, per NBA.com tracking. Simmons assisted more of Embiid’s buckets than Butler and T.J. McConnell combined. (Side note: the Sixers are going to miss Redick’s playmaking next season).

Would a reliable jumper help Simmons’ impact? Of course it would. But you could say that about a lot of players -- most valuable ones, too.

The reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo has shot 26.5 percent from downtown over the last five seasons. Russell Westbrook, another MVP, has shot above 30 percent on 3-pointers once in the last five seasons. Westbrook has made 216 more 3-pointers than Simmons has over the last two seasons, but he’s also missed 504 more 3-pointers than Simmons over the last two seasons. Those misses matter, too.

Taking more 3-pointers would probably be good both for Simmons’ development and the Sixers’ spacing. But excessive 3-point shooting from bad shooters can be just as hurtful to NBA offense. Yes, the offense can become clogged when it slows to the halfcourt and playoff teams can exploit that. But even with the iffy shot and fit with Embiid, the Sixers were the eighth-best offense in the NBA. Not historic, but pretty darn good. And they were a bounce or two from the Eastern Conference Finals.

Simmons’ lack of range has generated some polarizing opinions on the player. Some think Simmons is another Michael Carter-Williams (there are a lot of blue check marks here). But that’s incredibly unfair to an elite finisher like Simmons, who owns a 57.0 true-shooting percentage in his career compared to Carter-Williams’ 47.1 percent over his first two seasons -- not even in the same sphere. Simmons is much closer to Magic than MCW.

While I think many go overboard on Simmons’ lack of a jumper, I am not holding my breath that he’ll add one. Brook Lopez famously didn’t make a 3-pointer until his seventh year in the league and he’s now one of the NBA’s most prolific 3-point shooters. But Lopez was an excellent free throw shooter (81 percent in his first two seasons) and regularly exhibited a knockdown mid-range shot. 

Simmons’ lack of a single made 3-pointer in his two seasons grabs headlines, but it’s his poor free throw shooting (58.3 percent) and lack of mid-range game that make me skeptical it’ll ever become a go-to weapon. Since 2000, there are 25 players who have zero 3-pointers in at least 3,000 minutes over their first two seasons. The list is almost exclusively centers. The ones that eventually added a 3-point shot -- Lopez, Marc Gasol and Horford -- all shot at least 70 percent from the line. 

Simmons, however, owns a free-throw shooting percentage that ranks 23rd of 25 players, just ahead of Mason Plumlee and Bismack Biyombo and just behind fellow Klutch client and workout buddy Tristan Thompson. I probably don’t have to tell you that Plumlee, Biyombo and Thompson have yet to add any semblance of a 3-point shot. 

But Simmons does outrank all of those non-shooting centers in one category: total win shares. Again, just because Simmons doesn’t have a jump shot doesn’t mean he can’t be a dominant player. 

It all boils down to this: Simmons instantly vaults into the MVP conversation if he adds a jumper to his game. Players that are one skill away from MVP talk absolutely deserve the max. Players in that realm are almost never 22 years old. Simmons is already there.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

Rockets' Russell Westbrook gamble won't end well

USA Today Images

Rockets' Russell Westbrook gamble won't end well

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.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.