Why the Russell Westbrook-James Harden pairing is a match made of desperation

LAS VEGAS — The pressure was mounting for the Houston Rockets, and Russell Westbrook’s frustration was simmering, thus creating this alliance between old teammates and current friends, a marriage of desperation.

No contract is untradable in the NBA — not even Chris Paul’s — and with James Harden using his influence to force dramatic change, this seemed somewhat inevitable even if it doesn’t make the most basketball sense for the Houston Rockets.

“James made this [expletive] happen,” a league source told Yahoo Sports. “He wanted Chris up out of there.”

Rockets GM Daryl Morey is the most analytically driven executive in the game, a pioneer of sorts. This deal would seem counter to his sensibilities, at least with Westbrook’s game and the risks that come with it.

If it’s desperation on all parties then the damage of failure could be devastating and the carnage far-reaching if the results don’t yield a deep run into June.

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The Harden-Paul relationship had run its course, a slight but sure window that couldn’t lead the Rockets to the apex. Westbrook’s time in Oklahoma City didn’t crash and burn, but a third straight first-round exit had him recalibrating his future as the clock on his prime ticked louder and louder.

He appears to be the direct opposite to Paul in some ways. Paul’s game meshed better with Harden’s than Westbrook’s likely will but their personalities didn’t. Westbrook’s personality and connection to Harden are unassailable, but the questions begin at the fit on the court.

The triple-double machine won an MVP in 2017 but little else tangibly, and he went to the place he felt it could work best. And the friendship he shares with Harden — dating back to their years as Los Angeles youths and strengthened in Oklahoma City when they were the dynasty that should’ve been — made Houston the perfect place for a last-chance run at something substantial in an NBA that has changed rapidly over the last two months.

Westbrook wanted out and his connection to Oklahoma City — his willingness to stay with the franchise when others wouldn’t — dictated the Thunder do right by him. He’s not going kicking and screaming, but presumably with eyes wide open at what’s ahead and what must change.

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) and Houston Rockets guard James Harden, right, talk after their NBA basketball game in Oklahoma City, Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012. Oklahoma City won 120-98. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
Russell Westbrook and James Harden are teaming up. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

It doesn’t look like it can work, at least not in the way that one would think of two recent MVP’s joining forces. Taking on Westbrook requires a lot of maintenance, and you can’t wait until he gets there to get your house in order.

The steel beams had better be reinforced because a Texas tornado is coming. Ball-dominant James Harden. Game-dominant Russell Westbrook.

What they have in common is a willingness to make it work, which isn’t always a given in these circumstances.

“I love everything [Westbrook] stands for from a competitive standpoint,” a league executive told Yahoo Sports. “He never cheats the game. He gives you a shot each and every night. I have great respect for that and that’s made him the player he is today.”

He still carries the mindset of a low-level recruit who did the daily chores of his best friend after he passed away in high school, the determined and undeterred collegian who was looked over at UCLA before becoming one of the league’s fiercest competitors.

“He plays so hard, almost violently, you’ll have some concern [about whether he can] stay at that level for the amount [he makes]. I think he’s good this year and the next year, where he’ll be 32,” the executive said. “Then when he’s making $44 [million] and $47 million [in 2021-22 and ’22-23, respectively], there’s concern. Can he play at that level? He doesn’t have the kind of game that ages well. He’s not a jump shooter. So much of what he does depends on athleticism. He still has that fire in his belly, but does he have the necessary skills to fall back on? I don’t think you want to gut your team to get him because he’ll be alone and he’ll be frustrated. You’ll need pieces around him for the things he doesn’t do.”

The good news is the Rockets didn’t gut their team for Westbrook, aside from trading future assets to a Thunder team that seemingly controls the draft for the next half-decade. The Rockets still have the shell of a championship contender, but whether Westbrook is an upgrade over Paul is an uneasy discussion, even with Paul’s inconsistent health.

And how much can coach Mike D’Antoni withstand? How long will Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta give him considering things didn’t look so well after the second-round loss to the Golden State Warriors?

Chemistry takes time and time is not on D’Antoni’s side, especially because he’ll be tasked with harnessing Westbrook to presumably take a backseat to Harden. Not that he’ll need to be tough on Westbrook, but the best thing former coaches Scott Brooks and Billy Donovan did with Westbrook was “letting Russ be Russ.”

That can’t be the strategy this time, or it’ll hasten the likelihood for disaster.

“The issue is he’s never had real coaching since he’s been in the league,” the executive told Yahoo Sports. “So how far gone is he? He probably would [buy] in, but you have to be willing to clash with him off the rip. Whether it’s front office or coach or player, you have to be willing to hold him accountable, to have that conversation. He’d respect you.”

Most league executives believed Miami was the best fit for Westbrook because it had three tenets of excellence: a strong front office led by Pat Riley, a battle-tested, a championship coach in Erik Spoelstra, and a locker room with an incoming player in Jimmy Butler who doesn’t back down from anybody.

Houston has successful figures at those spots, but is it stable?

“You better have some competitive guys, that’s for sure,” the executive said. “The guys that struggle to play with him, they don’t possess that. You need like-minded spirits who aren’t afraid to stand up to him when he’s wrong. He respects fighters, he respects toughness.

“That was the core of his rift with Durant: He knew he was more of an alpha male than KD.”

Rekindling the “woulda, coulda, shoulda” conversations should be the least of Westbrook’s and Harden’s focus. Maximizing this minute window that seems pried open with a plastic crowbar is all they can focus on.

It’ll require Westbrook to reverse a career trend that saw his shooting fall off a cliff, perhaps due to recovering from his third major knee surgery. The bull-in-a-china-shop approach that made him the people’s champ must be replaced by veteran savvy, the ability to pick his spots and a mature career perspective.

“He has the physical and mental makeup, I’m not sure he has the savvy for it. He’s got everything else,” another executive told Yahoo Sports. “But savvy leads championship teams. That’s why I think you need someone who knows time and score, etc., that he can defer to. Russ has never had to defer to anyone because his will was stronger than everybody. And he’s right. There’s not too many guys around.

“Dwyane Wade, in his prime. Paul George was never challenging the throne. Giannis [Antetokounmpo] is pretty headstrong. Kawhi Leonard, he ain't running from Russ. You have to be willing to fight him.”

Harden doesn’t seem to be the type, but the key is he doesn’t have to be. Their collective sweat equity, connection and downright desperation will have to be enough to keep this afloat because the present, the future and their legacies are riding on it.

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