It was quite the interesting day yesterday to be a Houston Rockets fan. From an initial report by ESPN that both James Harden and Russell Westbrook were unhappy with the state of the franchise that later in the day morphed into Russ requesting a trade and The Beard being “locked-in” for the start of the year with the Rockets, it’s just the latest drama in an offseason of major disruption in Houston.
Having hired a new GM in Rafael Stone after 13 seasons of Daryl Morey, and also hiring a first-time head coach in Stephen Silas to replace Mike D’Antoni, I’m not sure anyone expected the offseason to take quite this kind of turn.
But there is a silver lining in all of this. If the rumors of Harden in and Russ out are true — and I say that because there’s already been some chatter the Rockets are, in fact, shopping them both, and I said yesterday that I thought these guys would likely stay or go together and I still think that’s a possibility — then this is the absolute best-case scenario for Houston.
Look, Russ was never a Rocket. Most of us didn’t want him here to begin with, and despite a stretch of ball this past season after the new year that had many of us hopeful for the future, the postseason once again ended the same way for the Rockets — with James Harden the only player who really showed up on any kind of consistent basis.
Many of us have long derided Russ’s inefficient chucker ways, with his 47-win 2017 MVP Award that should have gone to Harden now pretty much the poster-child for the inflated-stats era.
Que some joker — is this guy really defending James Harden by talking about someone else’s empty stats? Well, there’s something to think about here. During Westbrook’s 2008-2019 career with the Oklahoma City Thunder (11 seasons), Russ teams have won 50+ games five times. Do you know how many of those came after Kevin Durant left? If you said ZERO, you’re the winner.
Harden has been with the Rockets since 2012, and his teams have also won 50+ games five times, in three fewer seasons. And it would have been six had they kept up their pace this year and the season wasn’t truncated by Coronavirus. Interestingly enough, that would have been the sixth for both men, now playing together as teammates. Two of Westbrook’s 50-win seasons in Oklahoma City included Harden as well.
But that basically means that the only time Westbrook has been part of 50-win teams, he’s needed to pair with a top five player in the league. Do you know how many times Harden played with a top-five player? Again, another zero for the win.
Dwight Howard was on the start of his slippage and often injured, not to mention on the cusp of a fast-changing game that was quickly making his pick-and-roll averse and rudimentary post-up-centric offensive repertoire a thing of the past.
Chris Paul in 2018 was the closest thing Harden has gotten with a top teammate playing in their prime (and he was certainly not top five), and that team won 65-games and almost downed the Golden State Warriors dynasty at their peak.
The point of all that is Harden > Russ, and it should be obvious.
But back to the idea that many of us never wanted Russ. He never seemed to be a fit for Houston’s analytics and efficiency-heavy ways, but many of us still held out hope that Westbrook’s chaos could provide just enough deviation from Houston’s norm to throw teams off-balance as to whether they were getting hit from the right or from the left.
Not to mention that the organization bent over backward to accommodate him, trading away their starting center Clint Capela in order to open up the offense for Russ. Capela’s injury and an all-in attitude from management also played a role, but the general idea was more floor-spacing for Russ to get to the bucket, since his three-ball is basically broken beyond repair at this point.
The Rockets gave up Chris Paul and a bevy of draft picks to get Russ and re-made the organization to give him a chance to maximize his talents, but he’s bailing after one season for not being catered to more? Yeesh.
He’s now the Scottie Pippen of this decade — a slowly deteriorating superstar not yet ready to admit their own slippage, so they blame everybody but themselves for their situation.
The other half of this is that Harden stays (again, presuming of course that the reports are true). And while I recognize there’s a contingent of fans who want to take the blow-it-all up route, I’m not one of them.
I think if you get a good enough package for Westbrook, you can get some better fits around James Harden, who’s proven time and again that he’s a 50-win team pretty much by himself, pick up some of the draft picks that were lost and maybe get yourself some financial freedom (which could happen dealing with a team that can accept incoming salary.. ahem Charlotte Hornets).
If you can do those things and open yourself up to other avenues of improvement, Harden still has a lot of fantastic years left. His game is not athleticism-dependent, it’s skill dependent. The Beard’s gonna be good for a while yet, and if you can ship Russ out, pick up some current help, add some-much needed draft picks, and give yourself future financial flexibility, you then don’t turn around and trade away one of the best players in the world in the middle of his prime. I’m not yet totally convinced that the Rockets aren’t ready to do just that, but I don’t think it’s necessary.
No, this is the best-case scenario. Russ wants out. Trading him will not ruffle any feathers. Keeping Harden is keeping your best player, and with the ability to add some additional pieces to keep him happy, this can continue to be the career-long relationship between player and team and fanbase that most of us, Harden included, have hoped for.
To those of you who don’t want Harden, I can say this. I’ve been watching Rockets basketball for 35 years, and in that time, I’ve seen just one guy donning Rockets-red that’s ever been better. It was sad enough watching Hakeem in a Toronto uniform, and he was washed. Imagine watching Harden in his prime playing for another team. No, thank you.
Of course, this is the NBA, and things change quickly. Harden could come and out and request a trade also, which was alluded to in the initial ESPN report. The Rockets could be secretly working to trade him anyway, as some have suggested.
But with what we know now, if that’s all true — that Russ wants out and Harden wants in — that’s truly a best-case scenario in my book.