Houston Rockets Experiment: Can Harden & Westbrook Figure It Out?

Stephen Rodriguez takes an in-depth look into the current dynamic between James Harden and Russel Westbrook
Stephen Rodriguez
Mon, January 6, 10:54 AM

The NBA community was left shocked this past offseason when the Houston Rockets completed a blockbuster trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder to partner up two of the last three NBA MVPs.

Houston traded OKC point guard Chris Paul, first-round picks in 2024 and 2026 and pick swaps in 2021 and 2025 to acquire Russell Westbrook, and mark just the fourth time in NBA history a duo with two of last three MVP awards would be teammates.

Westbrook joined back up with reigning NBA scoring champion James Harden, whom he was teammates with on the Thunder from 2009-2012 and reached the 2012 NBA Finals.

Currently, Houston sits in fourth place in the Western Conference standings - yet there is speculation the Rockets’ recent hiccups are a cause for concern and perhaps the duo should be split up.

Is it Working? - Past vs. Present

To say the pairing of both MVP teammates has been a complete failure so far would be a bit too much, although things definitely haven’t gone according to plan.

Westbrook’s statistics were in a league of their own in Oklahoma City from 2016-2019 as he did something only one player had done before (Oscar Robertson, 1961-62) - average a triple-double in a single season.

Not only did Westbrook average a triple-double, but he did it in three consecutive seasons.

In terms of Westbrook’s numbers, of course his historic streak would eventually come to an end. However, it was unclear how drastic his game would change because of it.

As of 30 games into the season, Westbrook is averaging (24.2 ppg), (8.0 rpg) and (7.1 apg).

During their time spent in OKC, Harden came off the bench and won the 2012 sixth man of the year while Westbrook ran the show at point guard.

Over a decade later, clearly going back to the way things were isn’t exactly possible. However, the style of play from the OKC days could be a point of reference on how to find success.

This season, Westbrook has been trying to adapt to the Rockets’ isolation/three-point shooting style offense and has struggled at a career-worst rate.

Westbrook is shooting 23.1 percent from three-point range, which is the worst since his sophomore NBA season in 2009-10, and is averaging 3.6 more three-point attempts per game since then.

Another concerning number is Westbrook is averaging his fourth fewest assists per game in his career (7.1) after totaling four straight seasons with at least 10.3 apg from 2015-19.

If the Rockets want to fix their issues, head coach Mike D’Antoni has to change Houston’s style of offense from iso/three-point shooting to something more along the lines of ball movement and actual set offensive plays. 

Should Westbrook be traded?

I’m pumping the brakes on the idea that Westbrook should be traded this season from a team that sits in fourth place of the tough Western Conference.

Despite his numbers not reflecting what is expected from the former MVP, Westbrook has yet damaged his team’s success.

However, sometimes it’s not all about winning. The major issue with Westbrook is his contract and the money he is due for the next three seasons which could cripple Houston moving forward if this experiment doesn’t work out.

Westbrook has three years and $132.7million remaining on his contract leading into his age 34 season: 2020-21 (owed $41.4 million), 2021-22 (owed $44.2 million), 2022-23 (owed $47.1 million).

Houston can do one of two things - 1) If they’re serious about trading Westbrook, wait until the end of the season to find more potential buyers as well as team’s with future assets to get back. 2) Ride out the pairing and work to add another piece during the trade deadline or offseason.

At this point of the season, it’ll be hard for the Rockets to get back what they put out when trading for Westbrook this offseason.

If Houston truly doesn’t see a future with the duo of Harden/Westbrook, the smart move would be to wait until the offseason before making any drastic decisions.

If they plan on keeping Westbrook, the duo may still prove to not be enough to reach the NBA Finals without depth in a stacked Western Conference.

Houston’s best bet will be to add a third star, or complementary piece, to create a similar triangle dynamic as the Oklahoma City had back in 2012 when reaching the Finals.

By Stephen Rodriguez

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