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Getting comfortable with discomfort

Are The Rockets A Metaphor for Our Times?

Houston Rockets v Los Angeles Lakers - Game Five
Back to playing?
Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

The Houston Rockets are willing to “get uncomfortable” with the trade requests made by Russell Westbrook and James Harden. What does that mean exactly?

It shouldn’t be “uncomfortable” to expect a player to show up and do his best for roughly $41 million per season. The player might want to be traded to another team, but another team has to be willing to make such a trade, and the Rockets have to be willing to accept that offer.

In Westbrook’s case, the NBA’s extreme “recency bias” works against him. Westbrook had effectively a three part season in 19-20. One part, in the earlier half of the regular season, was terrible. Almost no one remembers it. After the trade of Clint Capela for Robert Covington, Westbrook was one of the better players in the NBA, as the Rockets could maintain a lineup with four shooters, and him, attacking the basket. Westbrook flourished in a scheme designed to amplify his talents. Finally, there was bubble and playoff Westbrook, who was, honestly, diabolically bad. It’s not necessarily his fault, between the long layoff after play was suspended, catching COVID, and then injuring himself, Westbrook never looked comfortable.

This version of Westbrook, combined with his massive contract, sets his current trade value. It might have been possible to trade Westbrook for real value back in February 2019. It might be possible to do so in 2021. Right now? Right now the sort of offer discussed is an exchange of terrible contracts, John Wall’s in particular. This is madness. John Wall hasn’t played basketball in two years. He’s a speed player who tore his Achilles tendon. Whatever Russell Westbrook may or may not be, he’s a man who generally shows up to play basketball, and whose speed and athleticism seems largely present, if not at peak levels.

If it takes a bit of discomfort to avoid getting a worse player in John Wall (judging by his injury history, long layoff from competitive basketball, general history of achieving not much, virtually equal vast contract, as compared to Westbrook) then the Rockets, and Westbrook, will have to be uncomfortable.

If Westbrook truly wants to go? It would behoove him to play like a guy who might, conceivably, be worth $47 million per year in 2022-23.

James Harden is a different case. He’s clearly valuable. There can’t be many teams that would not, if offered the option, sign him to a max contract immediately, if he was on their team, and they were able. It’s difficult to put Harden’s offensive output into perspective in the league, because many players are considered Harden’s equal or superior in that regard by media, but no one else comes especially close to the number of points created by Harden. Moreover, Harden plays nearly every game, and his style of play is likely to age fairly well. He’s shown little sign of age-related decline, and tends to add new facets to his game every season, despite being past the age where players regularly do so.

The problem with Harden isn’t finding a GM who’d like him on their team. The problem is finding a team that can approach (not equal, it’s not possible without an exchange of one or two specific players) Harden’s value. The trade Milwaukee made for J’rue Holiday sets the bar for the far superior talent of James Harden especially high. Harden might want to play with Kevin Durant (but should he want to play with Kyrie Irving?). That’s nice.

It’s difficult to see how the Nets might afford three maximum contract players, and could also offer value for James Harden. A collection of intriguing players who squeaked into the Eastern Conference playoffs don’t compare with a single player who has taken his team to the Western Conference playoffs every year he’s been on the team.

Harden, moreover, has sent mixed messages. He’s been onboard with the Rockets plans, then signaled he’d like to play (in the home of radiant glory, the Barclays Center) in Brooklyn. If I were him, I’d take a look at how the Nets perform before repeating that demand. They might be fine, but they might be an utter mess. Durant might not recover his prior level of play, and Kyrie will be Kyrie (often injured, and usually contentious) and a crew of hard-working Net players might not be best pleased at being shoved into the background, while being asked to do most of the unglamorous work.

Who else might have the assets to get James Harden? Very few teams. Golden State, maybe, if you want to bank on Klay Thompson’s eventual return to form, and James Wiseman being a star at an unfavored position. Miami? Philadelphia? Phoenix? It’s difficult to trade stars because teams usually don’t have a bunch of interesting stuff to trade. like the Lakers threw at New Orleans.

My prediction (for what little it is worth) is that Harden settles down, and remains a Rocket, and Westbrook doesn’t really settle down, but also remains a Rocket for at least most of this season, but does much to restore his value for the next off-season.


Who goes 20-21?

This poll is closed

  • 37%
    Neither Harden nor Westbrook.
    (220 votes)
  • 31%
    Just Westbrook.
    (182 votes)
  • 3%
    Just Harden.
    (19 votes)
  • 15%
    (88 votes)
  • 12%
    EuroHarden must be with HardenHarden. Dallas trades Luka for Westbrook. Because Dallas is nice like that.
    (75 votes)
584 votes total Vote Now