Of all the new pairings that will emerge after the NBA’s incredibly hectic summer, none figures to draw as much interest as Russell Westbrook joining with James Harden with the Houston Rockets. The two high-powered guards have accounted for four of the last five scoring championships and two of the last three MVP awards and bringing them together is the kind of mad-scientist move that has made Daryl Morey’s name in the Houston front office.
Ah, but will it work? That’s the question Heavy.com took to scouts and assistant coaches last week. While there’s a chance that Houston can match what it did last year—53 wins and a trip to the second round of the postseason—the Rockets have some serious hurdles to clear.
“The rest of the West is better than it was last year, that’s the big problem,” one Western Conference assistant said. “They’re not better than the Lakers or Clippers. They’re not better than Utah or Denver. They’re maybe better than Portland. Who knows how he Warriors will look? So you’re looking at a No. 6 seed, maybe No. 5 at best or seven-eight at worst.”
It’s true that Westbrook will address some concerns for Houston. He will bring more fast-break chances to a team that was very efficient in transition but did not get out and run enough. He will be an excellent rebounder, too, a glaring weakness for last year’s team.
But there are areas of concern that figure to hold the Rockets back.
Westbrook’s 3-Point Shooting Is Awful
This is the most obvious issue for Houston. If you replaced Westbrook for his predecessor in Houston, Chris Paul, the Rockets’ 3-point shooting would go from a respectable 12th in the NBA (35.6 percent) down to 22nd (34.8 percent).
Westbrook struggled from the perimeter in 2017-18 (29.8 percent from the 3-point line) and was worse last season (29.0 percent). For a team that consistently leads the league in 3-point tries, this is especially worrisome, though the hope is that playing off the ball with Harden will boost Westbrook’s accuracy.
“Maybe if you can get Russ to stand in the corner and take 3s from there while Harden works, that could help the situation,” one NBA scout said. “But he does not do that. He is not a bad corner shooter but you can only get those corner shots by standing still and Russ does not stand still on the floor. I understand they think they can get him wide-open looks, but he is not a very good shooter even with wide-open looks.”
Westbrook and Harden Will Clash on Pace
This was a challenge for coach Mike D’Antoni to manage with Harden and Paul and it won’t get easier with Westbrook. He will stagger the minutes of his two star guards so that Harden can pick apart halfcourt defenses and Westbrook can push the pace when Harden is on the bench.
Still, the two could not be more different when it comes to the speed of the game. That was highlighted last year by Harden’s relatively slow pace factor (98.06) and the very fast pace factor posted by Westbrook (104.34). Westbrook’s Thunder played with the sixth-fastest pace in the NBA last year, while Harden and the Rockets ranked 27th.
“Mike handled it as well as he could with Paul and Harden,” an assistant coach said. “But it’s different with Russell because he does not know any other way to play other than all-out all the time. Chris Paul could slow down, he could play pick-and-roll as well as anyone. They’re putting a lot of faith into the fact that Westbrook can adjust and Harden can adjust to Westbrook. But it’s blind faith, you know? It’s not something either guy has proven.”
The Defense Will Suffer
When Houston went 65-17 in 2017-18 and had the Warriors on the ropes in the conference finals before losing the final two games (after Paul was injured), the team was able to string together some decent defense, which had not been a Rockets strong suit. Houston was seventh in defense, at 105.7 points per 100 possessions.
The Rockets returned to form last year and struggled defensively. They were so distressing on the defensive end that Morey called assistant coach and defensive coordinator Jeff Bzdelik out of retirement weeks into the season. Houston was 27th in defensive efficiency at the end of November and Bzdelik’s return did help. Still, the Rockets were just 17th last year and missed the likes of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute.
Bzdelik is in New Orleans now and the Rockets are still thin on quality defensive personnel. Bringing in Tyson Chandler, soon to be 37, won’t much address that issue. Adding Westbrook, a more lax defender than Paul, will make it worse.
“Westbrook does not close out,” the assistant coach said. “He is not going to help and recover. He was not doing that at Oklahoma City and I can’t see him doing it in Houston. He is not bad guarding the ball, but when the defense gets scrambled, you can take advantage of him. That is going to be frustrating for D’Antoni. They’re going to slip defensively and they were not great to begin with.”
How Long Can the Friendship Last?
This must be the big concern for D’Antoni and Morey. They’ve both put their trust in Harden over the years and while Harden has rewarded them with tremendous individual performances, his relationships with fellow stars and other teammates have had a history of dissipating quickly.
Harden’s pairing with Dwight Howard ended with a sputter, tension between the two over style of play leading to a disappointing 41-41 record in 2015-16. With Paul, too, disagreement over ball movement led to a heated exchange in the Rockets’ final playoff game last spring, a loss to the Warriors.
Westbrook and Harden enter the season as friends, former teammates in Oklahoma City who came up together with the Thunder and are now reunited. Can they maintain a positive relationship?
“Harden is a tough guy to play with,” a West scout said. “It wears on players if they think they should be getting the ball more and there isn’t a single player in the league who doesn’t think he should be getting the ball more. Maybe it will all work out and when you have Westbrook and Harden both saying they’re willing to sacrifice, maybe they will. But they’re both hardheaded guys and we know Harden’s history with other players there.”