Can the Russell Westbrook-James Harden pairing work in Houston?
The Houston Rockets were one of the quietest teams in the NBA this offseason up until Thursday night, when they swung a trade to land Russell Westbrook, sending Chris Paul and some draft picks back to the Oklahoma City Thunder in return.
Westbrook will now be reunited with James Harden, his teammate of three years in Oklahoma City from the 2009-10 campaign through the 2011-12 campaign.
Of course, a whole lot has changed over the last seven years.
Both Westbrook and Harden have won MVP awards, and Harden is obviously no longer a sixth man. In addition, both players have been the subject of massive criticism over the last several years, as their ball-dominant ways have grated on NBA fans everywhere.
Now, the two All-Stars are linking up in Houston, a collision of destinies that may as well have joined the same path.
But can this really work?
Before anyone says “it worked with the Thunder,” that was an entirely different scenario, and if OKC didn’t trade Harden to the Rockets ahead of the 2012-13 campaign, it’s possible—if not likely—that the two players would have eventually ended up clashing.
What we have now is a pair of players who dominate the ball more than just anyone else in the league, as Harden led the NBA in usage percentage this past season while Westbrook ranked 10th. That’s actually a low number for Westbrook, who has topped the league in that category twice and has done so as recently as 2017.
The question is, who is going to play off the ball? Westbrook is hardly an off-the-ball player, as he is not a good perimeter shooter whatsoever. As for Harden? He looks somewhat lost offensively when the ball isn’t in his hands, as he has never really had to play off the ball on a consistent basis. Not in high school, not in college, not in the pros.
That’s why the Harden-Chris Paul experiment had its issues, as the playstyles of both players simply did not mix.
Now, the Rockets are bringing in an even more ball-dominant guard than Paul in Westbrook. Not only that, but unlike Paul, who is a reliable 3-point shooter, Westbrook is not exactly a floor spacer.
Because Harden can hit the 3 with regularity, what will probably end up happening is that Westbrook will serve as the primary ball handler while Harden plays shooting guard, a trial which almost surely spells disaster.
Both Harden and Westbrook require a very specific set of players around them to be successful, and neither would project to be all that successful with the other as a teammate.
Harden couldn’t make it fly with Paul, and Westbrook couldn’t get it to work with Paul George. Why, then, does Daryl Morey think Harden and Westbrook are somehow going to be this dynamic duo that is going to legitimately threaten the two Los Angeles teams in the West?
I honestly could not imagine a more awkward pairing, and the fact that Morey made this deal speaks to a.) how bad things were in the locker room between Harden and Paul, and b.) just how desperate Morey is.
Morey is almost always analytically inclined, which is why his decision to acquire Westbrook is so bewildering. Westbrook is the exact opposite of what a general manager focused on analytics would desire, owning a career true shooting percentage of 52.9 percent and an effective field goal percentage of 46.5 percent.
Previously, Morey had built his Rockets teams around Harden’s strengths, opting to surround him with 3-point marksmen and versatile defenders. But Morey seems to have ditched that plan for something entirely different, and it’s hard to grasp what his current plan is.
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