Rockets Out of Touch in Westbrook Trade

The Houston Rockets entered this summer hoping to score a major trade deal, but with little cap flexibility, the odds of success were slim. While everyone else went a little crazy in the early days of free agency, it seemed all the Rockets were going to be able to do was retain the same roster they had last season. Then General Manager Daryl Morey was able to swing another blockbuster trade, acquiring Russell Westbrook in exchange for Chris Paul, two first-round picks, and pick swaps in 2021 and 2025. While Rockets fans have every right to be excited, diving into the trade a little bit more should be a cause to pump the brakes. Let’s check out why this deal may not be so rosy for the Rockets.

The Negatives

1. Westbrook isn’t a great shooter. The Rockets’ offensive philosophy is threes and free throws. In Head Coach Mike D’Antoni’s three seasons as Houston’s head coach (2016–present), the Rockets are first in the NBA in three-point attempts, averaging at least 40 attempts per night (2016–17; 2017–18; 2018–19).

Not trying to be negative here, but in a system so dependent on the three ball, how does Westbrook, who is not a three-point threat, fit with D’Antoni’s system? Westbrook really isn’t a great shooter regardless of distance, so how will he fit with the Rockets’ philosophy, and how will he coexist with James Harden?

2. Harden and Westbrook are both ball-dominant. Sure, Harden and Westbrook spent three years together with the Thunder. Harden and Westbrook have been best friends since they were 10 and have been seen hanging out together off the court on occasion. In fact, Harden and Westbrook’s desire to play together was a big reason this trade came to fruition.

That is the sunny side of life for right now, but here comes the cloudy part. They are both ball-dominant players; they both need the ball in their hands to really be effective. Since they have been apart, Harden’s game has evolved from instant offense off the bench to becoming a great playmaker and a very capable facilitator of the entire offense, as he showed prior to Chris Paul’s arrival in Houston.

Westbrook’s game, on the other hand, really has not changed at all. Because he is not a great shooter, he relies heavily on his athleticism to overpower his opposition. Also, since Durant left the Thunder, the alarming trend I noticed when watching Westbrook is his tendency to not consistently trust his teammates. That means resorting to hero ball, where Westbrook decides to do everything himself. That habit played a part in why the Thunder have not won 50 games, been higher than a fourth seed in the playoffs, and most importantly, have not been beyond the first round since Durant left in 2016.

Going back to Houston’s offensive philosophy, besides shooting threes and trying to get to the free throw line, Houston’s offense has a tendency to become iso-heavy. Harden and Westbrook are going to have to find a balance with each other and develop a more integrated team offense that makes the most of their other teammates. If Harden and Westbrook don’t integrate the rest of their teammates, everyone else will just be standing and watching those two. It may be exciting, and it may result in 50-plus wins. But in a playoff series, the iso-heavy offense becomes easier to stop, because it is such a predictable way to run things.

3. One bad contract for another, without real leadership: It is very unfortunate that Chris Paul physically declined as quickly as he did after the Rockets came within a hamstring injury of eliminating the Warriors in 2018. Given the severity of Paul’s injury coupled with his age, there seemed no real reason to shell out a max contract — but that’s what Morey did.

Yes, there was someone willing to take Chris Paul’s contract, but instead of gaining some financial flexibility from the deal, they traded one bad contract for another. It’s true that Westbrook is four years younger and still at peak physical performance compared to Paul. But could Westbrook decline as quickly as Paul did? The Rockets risk paying a guy who (despite his incredible athleticism) is not great fundamentally nearly 40 million dollars the next three summers; four, if Westbrook opts into his 46-million-dollar player option in 2022.

Leadership wise, Fertitta and Morey have yet to give coach D’Antoni a new contract. Houston’s brass has given their coach only one year to figure out how to integrate Westbrook and Harden while guiding the team to the NBA finals, which is a recipe for disaster. Unless the Rockets reach the finals or hoist a championship trophy, D’Antoni won’t be the Rockets’ head coach after next season.

Then there is James Harden himself, who has played with Dwight Howard and Chris Paul. In the beginning, things seem rosy, but over time the relationships soured to the point that Morey let both Howard and Paul go. Essentially, Harden has found a way to kick his sidekicks to the curb. Though in Chris Paul’s case, why would Harden want him out? In their first year together, they came so close to reaching the finals. Harden may have to make adjustments to how he plays with others, or else two or three years from now, despite what good friends he and Westbrook are, we could be discussing the Rockets moving on from Westbrook.

The Positives

There are positives in this deal, but sadly, they are hard to find. For one, the Rockets get younger and keep the window to win open. The Thunder truly begin the rebuild they should have started when Durant bolted for Golden State. After dealing Westbrook, Paul George, and Jerami Grant, the Thunder have 21 draft choices through 2026 (13 first-rounders, and 8 second-rounders). GM Sam Presti certainly has the draft capital to rebuild the Thunder back to the top, but whether he will be able to keep his new young core together remains to be determined.

Final Word

Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy watching Russell Westbrook and love his mentality and his passion. It is great that the Rockets want to continue to be contenders; however, adding a player who doesn’t fit into the Rockets’ system doesn’t make sense. In June I discussed Morey and Fertitta needing a plan to get the organization to a title. Trading for a star that does not fit their system and their coach feels more of a grasping-at-straws type of deal.

The Harden-Westbrook duo could work, but unlike the recently-formed duos in LA (both Lakers and Clippers), Portland, Utah, Golden State (when Klay returns), and even Brooklyn (when Durant returns), the Rockets’ duo comes with far more fundamental questions than just health. If Harden and Westbrook end up gelling, the deal will look like a work of genius; if not, things could be ugly.

Overall, this whole summer has left the impression that Fertitta and Morey are out of touch with who the Rockets are as an organization.   

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