Why the Pairing of Russell Westbrook and James Harden Won’t Be a Simple Fit

Rob Mahoney

There was always a bit of defiance to the Rockets pairing James Harden with Chris Paul, two Hall of Fame guards who play their best basketball by controlling it. To cut the experiment short by trading Paul for Russell Westbrook is somehow even bolder and even stranger. It is not an exaggeration to say that we’ve never seen a superstar tandem of its kind. Harden and Westbrook are the authors of the two highest-usage seasons in NBA history. Just last season, they were the first and second highest-turnover players in the league. Every union between stars has its tradeoffs, but none has ever brought together two players this maximal—for whom their fundamental value has been expressed by dominating every phase of the offense as much as possible—and asked them to share.

The prevailing wisdom in Houston is effectively the same now as it was when the Rockets traded for Paul two years ago: The best way to complement elite talent is with elite talent. Fits are malleable. Chemistry can be fickle. Talent is real and lasting, and thus one of the best qualities for a franchise to stake its future on. Operating through that framework can lead a team to some unexpected places, but this one still seems almost unthinkable. Part of the reason Harden was keen to go to Houston in the first place was to develop into the kind of player he couldn’t alongside Westbrook (and Kevin Durant) in Oklahoma City. Now the two friends will play together again by their own urging, with games that are bigger and louder than ever before. It could work, but not simply.

Westbrook will fundamentally change how the Rockets play. That he isn’t Paul is the reason he’s here; Paul played well enough in the 58 games he was available last season, but also couldn’t help but show his age. No 34-year-old guard plays with the same shake. Paul was no different. He could think the game, he could read a defense, and he could compete. That was enough for Paul to continue working at a high level, just not the same level he had even a season earlier. Houston felt the difference. You couldn’t build an MVP case for Harden, who averaged more points per game last season than any player of the past 33 years, without acknowledging Paul’s regression. If the purpose of having Paul on the roster was to alleviate the pressure—and dependence—on Harden, he seemed no longer able to consistently fulfill it.

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For better or worse, Westbrook should be. There’s plenty of data at this point to support the idea that putting the ball in Harden’s hands is among the easiest paths to 50 wins. The trick is doing so without overburdening him or oversimplifying the offense in the process. A single Harden isolation remains almost shockingly efficient. What has cost the Rockets, at some crucial times, are the pains of bringing that idea to scale when other factors go wrong. If the corner threes aren’t falling, if Clint Capela turns timid, and if Eric Gordon is having any issue breaking down his man off the dribble, Houston needs as many viable options as it can get. Westbrook will provide some by force of will, no matter the collateral damage.

If anything, Harden and Westbrook could wind up assisting one another more often than Harden and Paul did—in part because of the pull of their respective drives. There’s something about the momentum that Westbrook generates that draws a crowd. Maybe defenders are attracted by the frantic way Westbrook moves or the explosion he’s shown throughout his career. Harden reaches a similar result by way of hypnosis: bouncing the ball back and forth, lunging and receding. Help defenders sometimes jump out of place in anticipation of what Harden might do, leaving vital passing lanes exposed. There will be opportunities for possessions to bounce between them, should they so choose. Whether that translates to actual dynamism is another matter entirely, depending very much on the specifics involved. A possession where Harden goes to work off the bounce only to kick the ball to Westbrook for a three might not qualify, considering that Westbrook shot 29% from three last season and has never been even an average shooter from deep. One where that same pass leads to Westbrook driving hard against a leveraged defense, however, has a pep to it that few defenses could contend with.

It seems likely that Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni will stagger Harden and Westbrook’s minutes just as he did Harden and Paul—having one (likely Westbrook, considering the preferences of incumbency) sub out earlier in the first quarter so that they can return to run the second-unit offense. Paul, frankly, made that job look easy. Houston rifled through role players all season in search for some who could fill minutes, and still Paul was able—often with the aid of Gordon, Capela, and P.J. Tucker—to shepherd those lineups to winning margins. Westbrook had no such luck in Oklahoma City last season. In the minutes Westbrook played without Paul George, the Thunder were outscored by over seven points per 100 possessions. Some of that is a function of context. Some of it is a function of Westbrook, who posted 49% true shooting—Iman Shumpert-level stuff—when playing without George and effectively did whatever he wanted on defense.

That side of the ball is admittedly less complicated in all this, for the simple reason that Westbrook has never been a reliable defender. He is an inveterate gambler, more compelled by the prospect of a steal than a stop. He is bigger, quicker, and bouncier than Paul, and that counts for something. Just don’t expect those characteristics to be applied in a way that creates any real defensive traction. Houston found space to relieve Harden because of Paul and Gordon. Next season, there will be less reason to spare Harden that effort with another high-usage creator around, but also less capacity in the event they need to. Doubling up on superstar guards could even spell Gordon’s exit. For a team stacked in such an odd way, a third scoring guard might be the kind of luxury best traded.

What it all comes down to is this: the things that Paul did relatively well for the Rockets last season—staggering minutes with Harden, directing traffic, defending, shooting from three—Westbrook might not. Yet in the areas that Paul came up short, Westbrook will at the very least come with an entirely different approach. Teams can’t guard Westbrook as they did Paul, and maybe that’s enough. There’s an argument to be made for force over fit. Making the logistics work is where it really gets complicated, and where it matters most that Harden and Westbrook reportedly asked for this. Both are invested in the idea. Now it’s on them to find the sense of it.

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