When was the last time you saw an NBA Championship winner that didn’t have at least one stud sidekick to its mega-star player? I can think of only two. The 1994 Houston Rockets, led by Hakeem Olajuwon, whose highest-credentialed teammate was one-time All-Star Otis Thorpe. Sam Cassell would make one down the line, but that wasn’t until 10 years later, and he was just a rookie for this squad.
The other would be the 2011 Dallas Mavericks, led by Dirk Nowitzki. That was a well-rounded team, but it’s biggest names other than The Diggler were Jason Kidd and Peja Stojakovic, who were both past their primes and averaged single-digit scoring in both the regular and post seasons. Shawn Marion was there too, doing Shawn Marion things, as was a still-young Tyson Chandler, but not exactly the types of stars I’m referring too. Jason Terry was the second-leading scorer.
That’s why the Rockets’ title hopes lie in the sometimes maddening, but always entertaining Russell Westbrook.
I’d be the first to tell you that I wasn’t a huge fan of the Westbrook deal. He’s long had the skills and reputation of everything anti-Rocket-philosophy, but with his recent improved play, we’re seeing some signs that stepping outside of the norm and adding a touch of Westbrookian chaos to Houston’s (and James Harden’s) measured mathematical precision may just be the complement Daryl Morey has been looking for all these years.
The Rockets have had success with their other superstar pairings alongside Harden. The Beard teamed with Dwight Howard to make the Western Conference Finals in 2015 (losing to Golden State), before the partnership and that version of the team collapsed, mostly due to Howard’s unwillingness or inability to continue doing the things best for the team (rim running, pick-and-roll, forgetting the post-up).
Then, Chris Paul and Harden famously hit the franchise high-water mark of 65 wins in the 2018 season before also losing to the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. Paul’s hamstring gave way with the Rockets up 3-2. CP3 would noticeably lose a step the following season before us winding up where we are today.
But both of those guys were obtained with designs on fitting them into the Rockets’ system. Westbrook, on the other hand, has spent large chunks of his career being the system. Many make the argument that Harden, too, is the system. But his situation feels more like the perfect marriage of player with system. Daryl Morey’s had these philosophies before Harden came aboard (Kevin Martin, anyone?), it’s just that in Harden, he finally found the perfect player that fully embodies his analytical approach. And a coach in Mike D’Antoni that embraces it as well.
Make no mistake, the Rockets have a system, and before the season began, there were many valid questions (including plenty of them from this writer) about what to do with Westbrook and how to make a guy used to being the system fit into an already-established one with his new team.
And after a slow start for Westbrook (possibly exacerbated by dislocated fingers) and an uneven start for the team overall (they stood at 13-7 after the double-overtime loss to the Spurs on December 3), both player and team seem to have turned a corner.
Since then, the Rockets are 7-2, including winning their last three in a row, and Westbrook’s been stellar. Over those last nine games, he’s gone for 28 points, 8.5 rebounds, 7.6 assists, and 1.9 steals per game on 47 percent from the field. Squish that down to the last 7 games, and things look even better: 30.2 points, 6.8 rebounds, 6.5 assist, and 1.7 steals on 50 percent from the field. He’s even shooting over 30 percent from three during that time frame, which is serviceable enough if he’s going to continue limiting himself to just 4 per game, as is his average during that same time.
Look, you’re never going to get rid of all the bad shots with Westbrook. It’s part of what makes him who he is. But the Rockets seem to be finding the delicate balance that maximizes the addition of chaos to Houston’s mathematical equation, while minimizing the mistakes that would throw the whole formula out of whack.
On Thursday, Westbrook became the first non-Harden Rocket to go for 40 points since the aforementioned Kevin Martin in leading the Rockets to a win over the L.A. Clippers. Since then, the Rockets have officially passed the Clips in the standings and now sit at third overall and just a half-game out of second and 3.5 games out of the top seed. As Westbrook’s gotten healthier and more acclimated, the Rockets have looked better and better.
But at the same time, it’s important not to get carried away. Russ is still shooting just 24 percent overall from deep for the season and still gives us a few WTF moments every game. The recent resurgence is still just a small sample size.
But when both Harden and Westbrook are playing well, the Rockets have been nearly impossible to beat. And we know what we’re getting out of Harden. The man continues to be one of the most consistent night-in, night-out performers in the modern NBA. But he can’t win this title by himself. And that’s no knock. It’s something that’s very rarely happened in the NBA — a single superstar doing it by himself.
No, Harden needs Russ, the Rockets need Russ, and we need Russ to be at his best. If he is, the beautiful synergy Harden’s methodical dissection combined with the mayhem Westbrook’s superior athleticism and playing style create is going to be awfully tough to beat.
That’s Houston’s balancing act. Maximize good Russ, minimize bad Russ. After a slow start, we’re starting to see what it might look like in a fully formed state. And it just might have the chance to be beautiful.