About 30 seconds after people learned of the Russell Westbrook trade to Houston, the question came:
Can Westbrook and James Harden fit together?
This isn’t 2012 anymore, Harden and Westbrook are very different players than they were last time they were teammates. Both are far, far more ball dominant — only two players in NBA history have had a usage rate over 40 percent for one season, and now they are on the same team sharing the same ball. How exactly is that going to work?
Everyone around the Rockets has played down that concern — coach Mike D’Antoni did, Harden did — and at his press conference on Friday Westbrook did the same thing.
“We both understand that we have one common goal and that’s to win a championship. We understand what we have to do. I’m not worried about it, and I know James isn’t worried about it. I can play off the ball. I don’t have to touch the ball to impact the game. That’s the best way for me to come in and impact this team. I can do other things on the floor to make sure we have a better chance to win.”
Westbrook does do things off the ball that impact winning — the man just plays harder than everyone else. He will grab rebounds and push the ball, make a diving save of a ball going out of bounds, or do something else thanks to his insane athleticism that only a few people on the planet can do. The Rockets need that.
Westbrook, however, is not a shooter off the ball — he hit 32.2 percent of his catch-and-shoot attempts last season overall, 31.9 percent from three. Which means when Harden has the ball in isolation teams will help off Westbrook. The counter to that is to put the ball in Westbrook’s hands more because Harden is dangerous off the ball (41.4 percent on catch-and-shoot threes last season), but now you’re taking the ball out of the hands of the best offensive force in the NBA.
Westbrook should have more space to operate in Houston than he did in OKC, there are more shooters to space the floor for D’Antoni, and Westbrook is looking forward to that.
“Floor spread, it gives me the opportunity to attack, penetrate, kick. Defensively, it’ll give me an opportunity to switch and guard and rebound at a high level. Push the break, get us out on the break. A lot of different things. I think the style of play is great, something I’m looking forward to, just getting out in space in the open floor, shooters all around and playing that way.”
While there may be a lot of staggered minutes for Harden and Westbrook, expect the Rockets’ offense to be a force next season. One of the best in the league. They will figure out how to share the ball and make it work.
Can they stop anyone defensively — especially deep in the playoffs against one of the two Los Angeles teams, or Utah, or Denver — will be the real question about how big a threat the Rockets can be next season.