Confronted by their stars’ major personality conflict and the shifting title landscape, the Rockets agreed to trade Paul to the Oklahoma City Thunder, along with two first-round picks and two pick swaps, for all-star guard Russell Westbrook. The blockbuster deal reunites Harden, who was traded by the Thunder to the Rockets in 2012, with his former teammate, close friend and fellow Los Angeles native.
While Westbrook is younger and more explosive than Paul, his arrival represents a major philosophical test for the Rockets. General Manager Daryl Morey, who has long expressed a desire to acquire top talent first and figure out how to make things work later, now has a star partnership with the most glaring fit questions in the NBA.
The cause for concern about the Harden and Westbrook pairing is their redundant strengths and weaknesses. Both have ranked among the NBA’s most ball-dominant, high-usage players for years. Both are accustomed to racking up record-setting stats and having the entire offense made in their mold. Both enter a near-meditative state when they don’t have the ball. And both are better suited to secondary defensive assignments given the amount of energy they expend on offense.
This is, in short, a union of alpha dogs.
Given that Harden is both Houston’s incumbent superstar and the superior player at this point in their respective careers, the burden to adjust falls to Westbrook. There were some signs of progress on that front last season, when the hard-nosed guard took a half-step back to accommodate Paul George’s rise to MVP candidate. Even so, he remained actively involved and averaged a triple-double for the third straight season. He wasn’t, like many of Harden’s teammates, a prop whose sole responsibility was to make standstill three-pointers.
Houston can alleviate some of this tension by staggering the minutes played by Harden and Westbrook. That strategy worked well throughout Harden’s two-year partnership with Paul; it meant Coach Mike D’Antoni always had an experienced hand running the offense. Ultimately, though, Houston’s path to a title will be determined by whether Harden and Westbrook can consistently play together at a high level and make each other better.
It’s difficult to envision how exactly that might play out. When Harden goes to his preferred isolation plays, Westbrook’s unreliable three-point shooting and lack of movement will cramp the court in a way that Paul’s presence didn’t. If Westbrook operates in isolation like Paul did, his shot selection and fading efficiency are sure to eat away at the success of Houston’s attack.
Defensively, Houston has found success stashing Harden against post players, in part because Paul remained a diligent and reliable perimeter defender. Westbrook, though, is a gambler by nature, and his consistency and impact on that end have slipped. Can any contender really hope to hide its two best players on defense and win it all?
The Rockets had their justifications for pulling the trigger on the deal. At 34, Paul has shown age-related decline and dealt with repeated injury issues, and he is owed $124 million over the next three years. Harden needed a locker room reset. Westbrook, 30, can collapse defenses, get to the free throw line and inject pace to an incredibly deliberate attack.
Yet clear counterarguments exist on all fronts. Westbrook has his own health concerns, given his multiple knee surgeries, and his $168 million contract over the next four years is among the league’s most onerous. His track record of successful star partnerships is tenuous at best, given three straight first-round exits following Kevin Durant’s 2016 departure and George’s recent trade request. And his breakneck, often risky style would seem to stand in direct contradiction to Harden, who prefers a controlled and subtle approach.
For the Thunder, the trade is a no-brainer and a clear win. After dealing George, GM Sam Presti added another round of incoming draft assets and saved himself the final year of Westbrook’s contract. Now he can try to field a respectable team with Paul or attempt to flip him in another deal. There is real anguish in parting with Westbrook, a franchise icon and local hero for 11 seasons, but their future together was bleak at best. Westbrook was standing in the way of a rebuild that he didn’t ask for or have any reason to embrace.
Perhaps that’s the scariest element to this deal from the Rockets’ perspective. Oklahoma City departs with a clear direction, greater flexibility and a brighter future. Houston emerges with a superstar pairing that is different but not clearly better than its previous version.
The question must be asked: Did Morey solve any problems, aside from the reported rift between Harden and Paul, or did he simply exchange his old batch for new ones?