The Houston Rockets’ season is a victim of circumstance.
Only 46 games into the year, Houston has already dealt with rumors of coach firings and of trade, cold streaks from both supporting cast and stars, injuries, illness, and, of course, the ever-lingering load management issues. No one getting rest may be the biggest concern, and arguably the cause of this epidemic, but it takes a backseat to the fact that the Rockets’ duo of superstars aren’t getting it right at the right time.
James Harden and Russell Westbrook finally teamed up together once again on the Rockets, far removed from the young, promising duo they were in Oklahoma City, now proven generational players and each at least 11 years into their career. Even with all that experience between the two, they’re still suffering from growing pains.
A little over three months into the NBA season, we’re still waiting for both players to play at an MVP level at the same time.
In the first three games of the season, in a very small sample size, Westbrook showed some true value while Harden slumped out of the gate. In his first three games, Westbrook averaged 24 points on 50% shooting from the field to go along with 12.7 rebounds and 9.7 assists. Those three games, Harden shot an abysmal 28.6% from the field and 15% from downtown.
Then, as expected, everything regressed to the mean over the next month+ of games. And, also expected, Westbrook struggled to find his place.
From Oct. 30 to Dec. 9, James Harden scored an incredible 39.3 points a game, averaged his usual 45% from the field, 36.5% from three to go along with 7.3 assists and 6.3 rebounds. Westbrook on the other hand, having played two fewer games than Harden over that span due to rest, averaged only 22.1 points on 41% from the field and 21% from three, but still grabbed 7.3 rebounds a game and dished out 7.1 assists.
If that wasn’t enough of an MVP performance from Harden, from Dec. 11 to Jan. 3, The Beard still put up 39.3 points a game, but he did it on a mind-melting 52.7% from the field and 49.6% from deep, while shooting 12.8 three-pointers a game and taking only 8.1 free-throws a game.
This period might also have been the most balanced stretch from both players.
During that stint, Westbrook averaged 27.6 points a game on 43.6% shooting from the field to go along with 7.6 rebounds a game and 6 assists. In the 10 games that both former MVPs played during that span, the Rockets were 9-1.
Things then flipped for the worse. As it looked like Westbrook was finally getting into his rhythm and ready to take the leap, Harden fell into the abyss.
After four days of rest, Harden and the gang returned to action, just for him to average only (only?) 27.3 points a game on a wretched 33% from the field and 22% from three over his previous nine games played.
Westbrook, on the other hand, has made this team all his. Over his past eight games, he’s averaged 33.4 points a game, 8.9 assists, and 8.5 rebounds on a stellar 53.8% shooting from the field, nabbing two triple-doubles along the way. This also includes a 16-rebound game wherein coach Mike D’Antoni mentioned beforehand that the Rockets were 30th in boards, to which Westbrook simply said, “I’ll just go get them.”
The biggest key to Westbrook’s success this month has been his discipline. According to Basketball-Reference, Russ has taken 221 field goal attempts this month, with only 20 of them being three-pointers, and 104 being shots at the rim. For perspective, during his MVP season, Westbrook never averaged greater than 45.3% percent in a month (three games in October), 44% in months with at least six or more games played. He also never averaged less than 5.2 three-point attempts in a game. This month, he’s shooting 52.5% from the field and taking only 2.2 threes attempts a game.
While it’d be nice to say that we only have to wait for James Harden to bounce back, there does lie the fact that, as we’ve always known, the Rockets do need Harden to be good to win. In the Westbrook eight-game takeover, they’ve won only three games. That’s not to say that he’s putting up empty stats, but he’s playing a game that Rockets are not built for. Is it really possible for James Harden to be great, Westbrook to take a bunch of backdowns and shots at the rim, and for the Rockets to win all at the same time?
That’s the point of the article: this is merely a question of what-if.
We truly won’t know how they’ll be successful at the same time, or what that will even look like, because we haven’t seen it yet. Yes, the Rockets aren’t winning with MVPBrook, but there is the simple fact that Harden is still on the floor, playing 34.8 minutes a game in January, missing over 14 shots a game, and giving up the rock over four times. Unfortunately, he’s been a detriment.
There’s also still questions about when P.J. Tucker and Danuel House Jr. will get a consistent shot back. What does it look like to have a healthy Eric Gordon this year? (50 points, anyone?) Can Clint Capela stay healthy? Can and will Isaiah Hartenstein be someone who is utilized by D’Antoni? And, most importantly, will the Rockets ever get sufficient rest beyond that of days off?
We really won’t know the answers until everyone is healthy and normal, and that may take some time. Until then, there’s not much to panic over just yet. They’re only 29-17 at this point in time, 3.5 games back of the two seed, with plenty of time left in the season to go. Plus, we all know what happened after the All-Star break the last two seasons (20-5 record post-break in 2019, 22-4 in 2018).