There’s an old Robin Williams bit where he talks about the two kinds of dreams you have for your children. In the first, they get the best of both parents’ traits and grow up to be rich and successful doctors or lawyers. In the second, they get the worst of everything and grow up asking, “Would you like fries with that order?”
And so go the new-look Houston Rockets with Russell Westbrook and James Harden both on the team. It’s one of the rare times in NBA history two former MVPs have linked up while still in their prime.
Most recently, Kevin Durant joined Stephen Curry with the Golden State Warriors. They won two championships together, of course. The Philadelphia 76ers acquired Moses Malone via trade in 1982, pairing him up with Julius Erving, then the “Fo, fo, fo” Sixers went on to win the NBA title that year.
There are far more numerous instances where past-their-prime MVPs joined up with another MVP: Karl Malone with Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant’s L.A. Lakers for instance, or Shaq with Steve Nash’s Suns, or Shaq with LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers, or Shaq with Kevin Garnett’s Boston Celtics… You get the picture.
Yes, two MVPs in their primes is more of a rarity.
Can the Harden-Westbrook Rockets lead the next great franchise? It’s possible, but only if the Rockets get the best of what they both bring to the table and not the worst.
Speeding Up the Offense
One thing Westbrook always brings to the table is tenacious speed, and that’s something the Rockets can absolutely use.
While head coach Mike D’Antoni’s offense is grounded in the philosophy of “seven seconds or less,” the Rockets have been recently operating under a paradigm that’s more like “eight seconds or more”
Last season, they were 27th in pace, according to NBA.com. They took the fewest shots within the first two seconds of the shot clock and averaged 13.5 shots with seven or fewer seconds on the clock, which was only 21st.
Russ’ Thunder were sixth in pace and second in early or very early shots (16.9).
The Rockets’ offense was 4.67 possessions faster without Harden than with him, while the Thunder’s was 1.74 possessions faster with Westbrook than without him. And the Thunder’s pace with Westbook on was 104.97 compared with the Rockets’ and Harden at 98.07.
Early offense is typically the most efficient because it’s in transition and the defense doesn’t have a chance to set itself up. The Thunder were fifth in fast-break points while the Rockets were 19th. Furthermore, the Rockets had just 12.3 per 100 possessions with the Beard on the court (compared to 12.1 overall), and the Thunder averaged 20.7 with Russ (compared with 17.5 overall).
To be their most effective, Harden is going to have let Westbrook run, whether that means getting the rebound and pushing it up the court, or snaring the board and looking for Westbrook on the outlet pass—something Harden is quite good at, by the way.
But either way, Harden cannot over-constantly bring the ball up himself and gradually initiate the offense. Get it to Russ and let him do his thing early, with the ball coming back Harden’s way after a few seconds if needed.
When Westbrook Has the Ball
Last year, when Chris Paul had the ball, Harden would just kind of hang back behind the offense and let Paul run the show while he took a play off. While that was still suboptimal, it was workable since Paul also has a respectable pull-up shot (50.1 effective field-goal percentage).
Unfortunately, Westbrook doesn’t (36.0 percent).
Westbrook is a good passer, though, having a total of 1,604 assists over the last two seasons. That’s over 25 percent more than any other player in the league, according to Basketball Reference. While you can argue there’s some stat-padding involved there, you can’t argue there’s that much stat-padding, especially considering he hasn’t exactly been surrounded by shooters in Oklahoma City.
Last year, Westbrook drove the ball 18.4 times per game (third-most in the league) and passed out of those drives a league-high 9.7 times. Those passes resulted in 2.8 assists per game. And while he wasn’t scoring with world-beating efficiency, he did shoot 50.2 percent on drives.
The Rockets have plenty of shooters, and they do lots and lots of shooting. Over the last two seasons, they have attempted 1,302 more threes than any team in the league.
Put all these things together, and two things are empirically true:
- Westbrook is very good at drive-and-kick basketball.
- The Rockets are the best shooting team he’s ever played with.
That combination could be lethal if Harden can overcome his tendency to take plays off when he’s not getting the ball.
There’s a myth out there that he can’t play off the ball. However, looking at his tracking numbers, since 2013-14 he has made 431 catch-and-shoot 3s at a 39.7 percent clip. That’s far from the majority of his threes, but it’s also a significant enough sample size to prove he can do it. The problem is that the last couple of years, he just became disparaged when Chris Paul was running the offense. During his two years in Houston, Paul had 930 assists.
But only 68 of those were to James Harden.
If Harden becomes engaged in the offense when he doesn’t have the ball, runs through screens and makes defenders chase him, it’ll get him more open looks, create more lanes for Westbrook to drive, and perpetually pressure protectors to partake of their personally-preferred poison.
As well, Westbrook is just awful on pull-ups, with an effective field-goal percentage of just 36.0. And he has a terrible habit of settling for such shots. To put the difference between rim-running (good) Westbrook and shot-settling (bad) Westbrook, he took nearly the identical number of shots on pull-ups (611) as he did within 10 feet of the basket (613). Yet he scored only 440 points on the former and 716 on the latter.
In short: Aggressive Westbrook = good. Settling Westbrook = bad.
You can see where Westbrook and Harden could be exceptionally brilliant together or exceptionally vomit-inducing if they both fall into their worst habits.
When Harden has the ball
While Harden is going to have to play off the ball more, that doesn’t mean arguably the greatest isolation player in NBA history needs to just become middle-class-man’s Kyle Korver.
Harden should still initiate a significant percentage of the offense. Last year, he scored 18.1 points per game in isolation at a 1.11 point per possession clip. No one who averaged more than a point per game was more efficient in iso. And the most mind-numbing stat? The only team that scored half as many iso points last year was the Milwaukee Bucks (9.4).
In terms of volume and efficiency, Harden had easily the most productive season in NBA history.
Harden is brilliant in isolation, and not just in scoring the ball. He can kick to a shooter or throw up a lob to Clint Capela with equal ease. Putting in Westbrook—who could trail Harden on his drives and deliver his own thunderous dunks off passes if someone picks up or stops Capela, take the ball if Harden passes it back to him or cut to the basket—could add a wrinkle to the Rockets’ eventually oft predictable offense.
The danger here is Harden holding the ball while the shot clock runs forever.
Westbrook becomes less of an asset if he’s just sitting there outside waiting for Harden to pass him the ball for a 3-point shot. And the more the defense settles in, the less room there is for him to cut.
The bad dream has Harden trying to hypnotize the defender and then attack when he feels he can draw the foul. While he’s exceptional at that, when he depends on it, the rest of the team gets lulled to sleep too. And that’s the kind of thing that could draw the worst out of Westbrook.
You just can’t have him camping out behind the 3-point line where he was just 31.9 percent on catch-and-shoots last year.
Westbrook can fall into a stat-stuffing mode, and if Harden is just shot-hunting, it’ll exacerbate that problem. Westbrook will gravitate towards throwing the ball at the rim (shooting is too generous a word) every time he touches it if he feels shut out of the offense.
Again, you can see the two working together in perfect harmony, or harmonizing like two failed American Idol contestants who were awful enough to get on TV.
If you’re a Rockets fan, you’re hoping for the first kind of dream.
If you’re a hater, you’re pulling for the second.
If you’re a realist, you’re seeing both possible outcomes.
Kelly is a TBW co-Founder and frequent contributor. He spent 4.5 years in the USAF before attending University of Minnesota, Bible college in Anaheim and 15 years in youth ministry. Basketball blogger-turned-NBA Featured Columnist with Bleacher Report, BBallBreakdown, Fansided, The Step Back, Hoops Habit, SportsNet, Vantage Sports, Dime and FanRag, among others, his work has been read over 25 million times. The former NBA Assistant Editor at FanRag (2016-18), he is an NBA Twitter staple who is well-connected and respected among today’s finest basketball writers.