Ever since the Oklahoma City Thunder traded James Harden in 2012, I’ve spent way too much time considering an alternate universe where the Houston Rockets acquired Russell Westbrook instead.
There are so many questions! How would Daryl Morey build around someone who shouldn’t shoot threes? Would Westbrook and Chris Paul have been a disaster, if even possible? Would someone who’s twice averaged a triple-double put up 30-15-15 every night in Mike D’Antoni’s system? But assuming Morey would plow ahead with the same fundamental philosophy, with one ball-dominant lightning rod in place to post ludicrous numbers in a spread pick-and-roll system supplemented by a small army of three-point shooters, would the Rockets be better or worse off?
Put a dramatically simplified way: who’s better between Westbrook and Harden? If you prefer surgical tick-tock efficiency that neglects the mid-range, lives at the free-throw line, and can sometimes feel more like a loophole than a solution, Harden is your guy. If unapologetic, smash-through-a-cement-wall fury is your thing, here’s Westbrook. (Over the past three years, 79.5 percent of all Harden’s shots either came at the rim or behind the arc. For Westbrook, that number was 61.5 percent.)
Over time, Harden clearly established himself as the superior franchise player. He and Westbrook are about the same age, on contracts that are almost identical. One is an albatross, the other is a gemstone. Now that they’re teammates, who’s better is less important than how they fit by each other’s side.
Yet their union will also will provide clarity in the ongoing Westbrook vs. Harden dilemma. For the first time, Russ in the exact type of system that’s excelled in the exact areas that obstructed his former team.
For the analytically inclined Rockets, Harden was a perfect match. But why couldn’t Westbrook dominate in the same system, surrounded by similar personnel? As a rookie, his Thunder finished with the lowest three-point rate in the league, and according to Cleaning the Glass, only two teams were less accurate from deep. In the 10 seasons since, OKC has finished top 10 in three-point accuracy just twice. In three-point rate? Once – in 2011-12, the same year they went to the NBA Finals.
Minus Westbrook’s rookie year, Oklahoma City’s offense has always been good when he’s on the floor. But when Kevin Durant left, the Thunder decided to zig while everybody zagged. Under Billy Donovan, they bludgeoned the offensive glass and hurtled through 82 games with the NBA’s most aggressive defense. Acquiring physical athletes with long wingspans who were content never touching the ball became a priority over securing dependable spot-up shooters.
The plan worked during the regular season, but fell apart in the playoffs. Even with Paul George in the frame, OKC finished with a below-average offensive rating in 2018-19, largely because it had zero 40-percent three-point marksmen on the roster.
If this sounds like a justification for Westbrook’s erratic shot selection or pigheaded grace, it’s not. Hideous pull ups like the one seen below must disappear if he’s ever going to salvage his prime and re-establish himself as someone who impacts meaningful games in a positive way.
But until now, the guy never enjoyed the type of space Harden has in Houston. Since joining the Rockets in 2012, he’s played for a team that ranked either first or second in three-point rate. They finished above average in accuracy only four times, but compared to Westbrook’s Thunder, there’s no comparison for which team better spaced the floor. Harden has been able to play with Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza, Patrick Beverley, Chandler Parsons, Gerald Green, Jason Terry, P.J. Tucker, Paul, and several other players who had to be respected on the perimeter. While Harden was blessed with a cast that accentuated his strengths, Westbrook battled through one structural compromise after another.
At the same time, thanks to a combustible first step and the determination of a jackhammer, Westbrook still finished the past three years with more shots at the rim than every player in the league except Andre Drummond and Giannis Antetokounmpo. A vast majority of them were unassisted, too, as he crashed through driving lanes that were more like the Marrakech Medina than an open freeway.
Now we get to see what Westbrook can do when afforded the space his former teammate had this entire time. If Houston maintains the same iso-heavy offense that bred so much success with Paul onboard, it’s fair to wonder which All-Star will have a higher usage rate next year.
But the Thunder have finished last or second to last in passes per game in each of the past three years, so that stylistic similarity should be a seamless transition for Westbrook.
The 2017 MVP was wildly inefficient last year, and he’s been a bad three-point shooter for his entire career. But he also remains one of the three most explosive players alive. If he’s able and willing to locate open three-point shooters and exterminate his own barftastic long twos for the sake of maintaining Houston’s well-oiled machine, this offense may be even more difficult to stop than the two that nearly pushed Golden State to the brink.
Here’s an example from OKC’s most recent first-round flameout against the Portland Trail Blazers. Squared up against Zach Collins on a switch, Westbrook is forced to shoot a long two (which went in!) because Meyers Leonard is standing beneath the basket, completely ignoring Nerlens Noel. Meanwhile, Seth Curry couldn’t care less about Dennis Schroder.
The Rockets would never allow this sort of spatial organization, so Russ would not have to settle for that shot.
Harden and Paul hardly ever passed each other the ball, so it will be interesting to see if and how D’Antoni involves his two best players in the same action. The fit isn’t perfect. It’s also not a nightmare. Westbrook can’t space the floor as a spot-up threat on the opposite side, but he has the capability to dive for offensive rebounds, slice by closeouts, and run secondary pick-and-rolls that, in space, should yield quality looks. With Harden by his side, perhaps those elements of his game can return.
Does this mean the Rockets can win a championship, with Harden, Westbrook, Gordon, Clint Capela, Tucker, and a restless general manager who won’t call off the search for a third star? Of course they can. The NBA is a total free for all, and if Houston’s deep-rooted anatomy elevates Westbrook in ways the Oklahoma City Thunder could not, its ceiling will rise as high as anybody else.