Will Russell Westbrook, James Harden 2.0 Fit?

There is much to be made of the asset play the Houston Rockets just made in the trading for Russell Westbrook.

But once the games actually start in the fall, very little will matter outside of what he can bring to the table for his new team and the strengths and weaknesses of the new-look Rockets as a whole.

The trade is a massive risk for Houston, who overpaid wildly from a value perspective to ever so slightly improve their overall talent on the roster. Westbrook’s fit with James Harden is dubious, but the Rockets are betting on the same sort of idea they’ve bet on throughout Daryl Morey’s tenure: Get as much talent on the roster as possible and figure out everything else later.

A lot will be made about the fact Harden and Westbrook played together from 2009-12 in Oklahoma City. Many will look back on those days (when Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka were also in the mix) and use it as a litmus test for how well the 2.0 version will or won’t work in Houston.

But that was nearly a decade ago. Both the two stars and the game have changed quite a bit since then. It’s better to look at what each has done separately as “alphas” than what they accomplished as youngsters under very different circumstances (when Durant was OKC’s lead dog anyway).

There are going to be significant questions and challenges for Houston to overcome while integrating Westbrook into its scheme and culture. Offensively, the Rockets have built themselves around Harden’s methodical pace and hyper-efficient shot selection.

Westbrook embodies the precise opposite of those traits.

Apr 23, 2019; Portland, OR, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) drives on Portland Trail Blazers forward Zach Collins (33) in the first half of game five of the first round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Instead, he’s usually operating at 100 miles per hour at all times and jacking up whatever shot feels good in the moment with no regard to modern math or his actual ability to hit those shots.

When he has it going, he’s nearly unstoppable, but as he’s aged through his career, the nights he’s impossible to defend have become fewer and further between. How Westbrook adjusts to no longer being on “his team” will go a long way toward governing his shot selection.

Defensively, Westbrook adds to some of the issues the Rockets have. Despite his college pedigree and overwhelming athleticism, he has a tendency to either fall asleep or gamble so heavily for steals and other big plays that it leaves his teammates with a lot of slack to pick up.

There are no non-competitive excuses for Westbrook, either. Star-level players will often use defense as a rest stop between offensive possessions, particularly on bad teams, but Westbrook has been on winners throughout most of his career and still has his defensive issues.

A Westbrook-Harden backcourt is a particularly poor fit defensively in this regard, as the latter has also often displayed the exact same bad habits.

On the other hand, there are significant positives that come with this deal.

Westbrook (30) is a better player than Paul (34) at this respective point in their careers, with the youthful advantage over the elder floor general. Westbrook was always a better athlete; he’s larger physically and has more years to produce at a high level than Paul, who had already shown significant slippage this past season.

The Rockets offense had grown somewhat stale over the last two years as well. There weren’t many surprises left, and much of their offensive strategy boiled down to spacing the floor and letting Harden be one of the best offensive players to ever pick up a ball.

Apr 7, 2018; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) shoots the ball over Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) during the second quarter at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Westbrook will inject some unpredictability and creativity back into the Houston offense, for better or worse.

Houston has gone about as far as a team can go in eschewing midrange jumpers and hunting the best shots possible. But when the defense knows exactly what they do and don’t want to do, it becomes easier to defend, even with the immense talent the Rockets have had over the last few years. If nothing else, Westbrook will keep defenses on their toes and create a more varied attack.

Houston head coach Mike D’Antoni made his name as the architect of the Seven Seconds or Less offense in Phoenix during the mid-2000s, but these Rockets teams have been anything but that over the last two years.

Houston ranked No. 22 in the league in average time used off the shot clock and spent just 14.2 percent of their possessions in transition, a below-average mark leaguewide. Oklahoma City, with Westbrook at the helm, ranked No. 1 in time used per possession and No.2 in transition frequency at 19.4 percent.

How much the Rockets run next year with Westbrook will be immensely interesting, as well as how those possessions affect Harden’s ability to remain fresh throughout the season. There will be plenty of offensive possessions in which he doesn’t even cross halfcourt because Westbrook has already beaten everybody down the floor for a dunk.

Apr 2, 2019; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) dunks the ball as Los Angeles Lakers guard Reggie Bullock (35) looks on during the second half at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Oklahoma City won 119-103. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

The Rockets clearly wanted to swing for the fences, even though it’s very likely that swing will come up short again in a loaded Western Conference. After all, this trade does nothing to clear up the well-known defensive or creeping space issues that a slowly eroding Rockets roster has been wrestling with for more than a year.

There are flat-out deeper teams all over the West, and many of them also now feature star duos who are younger and/or more well-rounded. We’ll see what the fits look like since so much is new elsewhere too.

Then again, Westbrook fits what Chris Paul was always intended to be: an elite secondary ball handler who can run the team when Harden needs a break (whether on the court or off). CP3 didn’t have enough left in the tank to pull that off anymore, but Westbrook should for at least another couple years, provided he buys into the role and the much better shot selection it requires.

If it works, then Morey will be hailed as a genius for striking while the iron was hot, even if he overpaid in the moment to get his guy. No amount of success is guaranteed for the Rockets, and while they improved from an overall talent perspective, there are major fit concerns with Westbrook’s skill set and mentality as he arrives in a new city.