Thursday's blockbuster deal swapping Russell Westbrook for Chris Paul feels, in some ways, like trading one headache for another. Though the Houston Rockets reached impressive heights with the tandem of Paul and James Harden, one can at least guess their rumored falling out began with their ball-dominant playing styles.
Enter Westbrook, another ball-dominant point guard, but one who is a friend of Harden, as well as his former Oklahoma City Thunder teammate.
A major reason the Harden-Paul pairing worked in Houston for two seasons was Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni's staggering of their minutes. While it must be noted that Paul missed 24 games this past season, he and Harden still played only 1,130 minutes together - or 20.9 per contest. By comparison, Portland's stellar backcourt combo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum paired up for an average of 29.7 minutes a game.
The purpose of D'Antoni's strategy, of course, was to address an issue of duplication. Yet he exploited that duplication to great success in 2017-18, as the Rockets won a league-best 65 games by revolutionizing iso-ball with their two stars leading the way.
During the 2018 playoffs, when the Rockets reached the Western Conference finals, Paul - considered one of the greatest point guards of all time - assisted on just four Harden buckets. Conversely, Harden - who led the NBA in assists in 2016-17 - dropped just 14 dimes to Paul this past season.
With all that in mind, one can bet some staggering will continue with Harden and Westbrook. But whereas Paul was a headstrong point guard, Westbrook is a force of nature, a whirling dervish of energy who sometimes makes the wrong decisions. The last time Harden and Westbrook were teammates in Oklahoma City in 2012, they averaged 19.8 minutes together and a two-man offensive rating of 114.4. At the time, however, they were 22 and 23 years old, respectively, and Harden was still a sixth man.
To create an optimal system in Houston, Westbrook must continue to acknowledge his waning explosiveness after multiple knee procedures, and increasingly defer to other shooters. He began doing so this past season, occasionally passing up final shots and registering his lowest usage percentage since 2010.
One thing Westbrook hasn't recently been used to is having shooters around him. That changes for the better in Houston, where the Rockets have led the NBA in 3-point attempts each of the last three seasons. And while Harden has mastered the step-back trey off the dribble, what he's mostly been lacking are catch-and-shoot attempts: only 70 of his league-leading 1,028 3-point attempts this past season came in that manner.
If Harden can stand to have the ball in his hands a little less often, Westbrook will have three snipers among his likely fellow starters - as well as an intriguing pick-and-roll partner in Clint Capela.
|Russell Westbrook||Austin Rivers|
|James Harden||Danuel House Jr.|
|Eric Gordon||Gerald Green|
|P.J. Tucker||Kenneth Faried|
|Clint Capela||Tyson Chandler|
Beyond their starting five, the Rockets have had success going small with their "Tuckwagon" lineup - which slides the 6-foot-6 P.J. Tucker to center and surrounds him with four guards. Austin Rivers had his moments in that unit this past season, filling the role vacated by Trevor Ariza. But Rivers can't be really be called a marksman, and the second unit's theoretical facilitator, Westbrook, is historically bad in that regard.
If they don't add another shooter, the Rockets will be hoping Danuel House Jr. continues to contribute at something close to this past year's level after shooting 41.6 percent from deep in 39 games.
-Stats courtesy NBA.com