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Friday, July 12, 2019

Rockets Reload, Thunder Hit Reset Button: Houston Acquires Westbrook, Unloads Paul

It did not seem possible that Daryl Morey would find someone who was desperate enough or stupid enough to take on Chris Paul's bloated contract but the Oklahoma City Thunder sent Russell Westbrook to Houston in exchange for Paul and multiple first round picks/pick swaps. It is an axiom in the NBA that the team that receives the best player in a trade wins that trade--no matter what other assets are included--so this trade is a landslide victory for Houston. Paul at his peak was not as good as Westbrook at his peak, and Paul is now a declining, aging, small point guard while Westbrook has accomplished the unprecedented and underappreciated feat of averaging a triple double in each of the past three seasons.

The Houston Rockets are now a legitimate championship contender for the first time since Morey signed Harden, who Morey called a "foundational player" (whatever that means)--but with an important caveat: they will only be a championship contender if they understand that Westbrook is the team's best player and should be the primary ballhandler, with Harden wreaking havoc as a deadly off the ball scorer. If the Rockets are going to run the Harden "dribble, dribble, dribble" offense then they will do no better in the playoffs then they have done since Harden arrived: three first round losses in seven seasons, and annual Harden postseason breakdowns when the Rockets made it past the first round.

Westbrook is not a great shooter; that is his one skill set weakness. Putting him off of the ball takes away his strengths as an explosive athlete/penetrator/scorer and forces him to rely on the weakest part of his game--but if Westbrook is the primary ballhandler then opposing teams face the impossible task of simultaneously packing the paint to deter Westbrook's drives while also extending the defense to contain Houston's armada of three point shooters, including not only Harden but also Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker.

Westbrook and Harden were teammates for three seasons in Oklahoma City. At that time, Westbrook was 1B to Kevin Durant's 1A, while Harden was a bench player. Harden left Oklahoma City because he chafed at being anything less than the number one option. It has been reported that Harden wanted Westbrook to join him in Houston, and that Houston was also Westbrook's top choice after Paul George left Oklahoma City. It is not clear if Harden is more excited about Westbrook arriving or Paul departing, but one would hope that Harden--who is praised for his high basketball IQ and unselfishness, though neither quality is consistently evident when watching him during postseason play--understands that the important thing is not for him to dominate the ball or score the most points but for he and Westbrook to blend their skills together for the benefit of the team.

The psychological dynamics here are fascinating. Mike D'Antoni is not a confrontational coach; he likes to give his players freedom. Russell Westbrook is very unselfish, and has proven that he can be a significant contributor as 1B when he plays alongside another great player, as he did when Kevin Durant played for the Thunder. James Harden ended up in Houston precisely because he could not accept a lesser role behind Durant and Westbrook, even if that would have likely helped the Thunder build a dynasty. So, psychologically, the path of least resistance is for D'Antoni to literally or figuratively say, "You guys figure it out" and then for Westbrook to defer while Harden monopolizes the ball--but that is the worst possible scenario for Houston.

The Rockets need a strong voice on the bench who will put the ball in Westbrook's hands, who will not tolerate Harden pouting on offense or resting on defense and who will define everyone else's roles. There is a reason that a handful of coaches have won most of the championships throughout NBA history; the media can say whatever they want about whose team it is, but the great coaches knew who really was the best player on their teams at any given time. The media may still think that Miami was Dwyane Wade's team and Golden State was Stephen Curry's team, but Erik Spoelstra and Steve Kerr knew better, and when the chips were down they put the ball in the hands of LeBron James and Kevin Durant respectively.

If Harden averages 30-35 ppg next season while Westbrook averages 18-20 ppg then this team will be out of the playoffs no later than the second round. If Westbrook is the primary ballhandler and each star averages around 25-27 ppg, then the Rockets have a chance to make a serious run at a title.

Meanwhile, no one seems to be paying much attention to how the Thunder have collapsed in the past two weeks from being a dark horse Western Conference contender to, essentially, a warehouse for first round draft picks. The NBA office may need to keep an eye on the Thunder, particularly if Oklahoma City buys out Chris Paul so that he can go to a team with elite players and hope to ride the coattails of those players to get the NBA title he never came close to winning as a first or second option. If that happens, the Thunder will essentially be a G-League team in NBA uniforms, blatantly tanking away at least one full season in the hope that all of those draft picks will someday form the basis of a good team.

The NBA is not sustainable as a competitive enterprise if only a few teams are trying to win titles, while many other teams are tanking; the NBA may be able to rebrand itself as "entertainment" a la professional wrestling but it will cease to be a sport. If the Thunder keep Paul, then they can put a serviceable team on the court, at least as long as Paul is healthy--but if this deal was just a smokescreen to get rid of their best player and then get rid of Paul to tank, the NBA is in trouble.

While it may turn out to be fun and exciting to watch Westbrook and Harden on the same team, as a longtime NBA fan and historian I find this outcome to be sad. Westbrook spent the first 11 seasons of his career with the Thunder, and until the past couple weeks it seemed possible that he would become perhaps the last Hall of Fame caliber player to spend his entire career with one team. It is sad that the combination of power plays, tanking and other realities of the modern NBA conspired to destroy that scenario. Maybe Giannis Antetokounmpo will play his entire career with Milwaukee; it would be wonderful if that happens, and if the Bucks are contenders for the next decade or so.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:55 AM