A James Harden-Russell Westbrook Pairing In Houston Could Have Serious Growing Pains

Getty Image

Daryl Morey isn’t shy about pulling the trigger on “all-in” moves and, on Thursday evening, the general manager of the Houston Rockets fired away with a swap of Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul. With the Rockets firmly in win-now mode, Morey is betting big on the present over the future, particularly when factoring in the cavalcade of assets heading to Oklahoma City to complete the trade. In acquiring Westbrook, Morey is doubling down on a “get stars now, figure it out later” philosophy but, in this case, the Rockets are taking a significant risk that could implode on arrival.

The last time the duo played together, they were young pups finding their way on a team that made a stunning Finals run and the potential of their partnership was taken from us before it had a chance to reach its peak. How they would’ve played together had they grown in the same lineup over the past seven years is a fascinating “what if,” but separately they both evolved into MVP-caliber, ball-dominant players that are different from the 2013 versions of themselves.

From a production and durability standpoint, Westbrook has been better than Paul in recent years, averaging a triple-double in three consecutive seasons and notching an NBA MVP award for his trouble. However, the 30-year-old guard struggled to maintain efficiency during the 2018-19 season, with his true shooting percentage dipping to 50.1 percent and the evaporation of his perimeter game, including a dismal 29 percent mark from three-point range.

In swapping Paul for Westbrook, the Rockets are seemingly banking on the durability factor, with Paul regularly missing time at this stage in his career, but Houston is also putting together an exceptionally challenging fit. James Harden is perhaps the most ball-dominant superstar in NBA history but, despite having his critics, he has been able to maintain off-the-charts efficiency while carrying an unbelievable workload. Adding Westbrook, who projects to be on the floor early and often, would help take the burden off Harden in a way that Paul perhaps could not, but Westbrook’s game does not fit snugly with Harden’s when deploying the tandem together.

Westbrook has connected on only 30.9 percent of his three-point attempts over the last five seasons and, even with a projected uptick in a lesser role, it would be aggressive to suggest that he fits well at all as an off-ball player. Houston will almost certainly stagger lineups to have one of the Westbrook-Harden duo on the floor at all times but, in the same breath, the Rockets will absolutely have to coalesce with both on the court simultaneously, particularly once the postseason rolls around. While Paul was able, as a knock-down shooter and elite passer, to function alongside Harden, it may not be as seamless with Westbrook.

On the defensive end, going from Paul to Westbrook is also likely a downgrade. Despite Paul’s advanced age, he remains a solid-or-better defender, whereas Westbrook struggles on that end of the floor. Physically, Westbrook is still a game-changing talent but that doesn’t always translate to defensive effectiveness, despite what his raw numbers in the steals department may tell you. Westbrook will certainly produce more “wow” plays on the defensive end than Paul will but, on a possession-by-possession basis, Paul is the more consistent, effective defender and, at the very least, the Rockets can’t expect an upgrade when it comes to deterring the opposition.

Finally, there is the contract issue in play, with Westbrook on the hook for a $47 million player option for the 2022-23 season. Paul’s deal is also challenging (and viewed by many as an overall negative) but his contract expires one year before that of Westbrook’s pact, leaving the Rockets with even more desperation to win in the present while seeing the potential drop-off in the not-so-distant future.

While the on-court fit may be tenuous, there are potential positives in terms of team chemistry and general availability. Whispers have circulated that Paul and Harden are not on the best terms at this stage and, while it is impossible to tell (at least for now) how much of this deal was motivated by a desire to move Paul out of the locker room, it could be a real factor. In addition, Paul’s injury issues, particularly with his hamstrings, in the recent past are genuinely worrisome and the Rockets aren’t necessarily in a position to succeed at the highest levels if the team’s second-best player is unavailable to take the floor.

Westbrook and Harden, by all accounts, remain very good friends despite their respective fan bases having pit them against each other in MVP arguments in recent years. On the court, they still have that connection from their time in OKC and have some experience in the All-Star setting, but as noted previously, they are different players than they were when they shared a backcourt with the Thunder.

Morey, more so than any general manager in the league today, likes to place faith in raw talent and Westbrook, as evidenced by his recent MVP and video-game counting stats, has plenty of it. However, it would be tough to say that a projected pairing of Westbrook and Harden makes coherent sense in a world that isn’t a pure “your turn, my turn” situation for the Rockets offensively.

Time will tell as to how Houston will deploy a loaded roster that still includes Eric Gordon, Clint Capela and P.J. Tucker. For now, though, the Rockets elected to press the button on a full-blown reshuffling, all while kicking the salary cap down the road and inflicting more pain for owner Tilman Fertitta in the future. At the very least, it will be interesting to monitor, both for the potential upside of a two-superstar backcourt and for the real downside if things don’t go according to plan.