Russell Westbrook and James Harden united at the Houston Rockets in an attempt to finally win an NBA title. They came close when they were on the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the Golden State Warriors stood in Houston’s way for the last few years.
With the Warriors injured and scattered around the United States, the Rockets were one of several teams looking to seize the moment. Chris Paul and Harden had seen their relationship stretched. Daryl Morey loves star-hunting. Once Paul George had left for sunny Los Angeles to team up with Kawhi Leonard, a Westbrook trade was inevitable.
Paul’s contract was almost unmovable, as was Westbrook’s. The match made sense. Harden wanted Westbrook and he wasn’t too keen on Paul.
The injuries to Paul derailed playoff runs. Westbrook was averaging a triple-double year after year. The lure of a trade for Harden, Morey and the Rockets as a whole was understandable, though concerns about their fit were also inevitable. Westbrook’s shooting numbers have plummeted since his MVP form of a few years ago, and uniting two of the highest usage players in NBA history wasn’t going to be straight forward.
Westbrook’s decline has been stark. Since posting a 30.6 PER in 2016/17, Westbrook’s PER has dropped each season. The 30.6 mark was unlikely to be sustainable (it was the 16th greatest season in NBA history at the time), but the decline to 21.1 last season and well under 20 this campaign is alarming. Westbrook’s PER is around Spencer Dinwiddie and Jordan Clarkson in 2019/20. For reference, Paul is above 20 at the time of writing.
Paul’s durability is, of course, still a concern. He is unlikely to be forced to play deep into the postseason with the Thunder, and Westbrook has been available for most of the season so far. Workload is an issue in Houston, though, and not for the first time.
Only Kyle Lowry is playing more minutes per game than Harden, and Westbrook is around the 35 minute mark. Mike D’Antoni is renowned for his short rotations, but with Houston’s supposed title aspirations, the workload on Harden and Westbrook seems unnecessary. Paul’s injuries might have motivated them to move him and scuppered their chances in the past – the Rockets are risking a similar situation with Westbrook and Harden either through fatigue or injury.
Westbrook’s downturn, and continued shooting woes, leave this trade looking strange. His fit alongside Harden was never great compared to Paul. While Paul’s contract makes him overpaid and almost impossible to move, he’s a more productive player than Westbrook at the moment. The performances of the Thunder are a reminder of just how good a basketball player Chris Paul is. His game was always going to age more gracefully than Westbrook’s.
Houston’s effectiveness in the regular season isn’t in question. Home court advantage in the first round seems probable. The playoffs will be a challenge for this new duo. Paul might not have brought the Larry O’Brien trophy back for the Rockets, but he set the bar high for Westbrook’s time in Texas. Nothing from the Rockets so far suggests their title chances are better with Westbrook than they were with Paul.
If either of the veteran point guards is going to be an All-Star in 2020, it should be the one in a Thunder uniform.
Broken relationships might have forced this trade through. The Rockets probably don’t regret the move just yet, and maybe things with Paul really were beyond repair, but with how the two players are performing, one can’t help but wonder what people in the organisation are thinking as they reflect on that trade.