The Thunder play the Rockets tonight. It’s a big game, if you care about feelings. These two teams essentially created each other. You’ll often hear it said that a pair of rivals have “become one another,” in the figurative sense of adopting one another’s traits in order to gain a competitive advantage. The Thunder and the Rockets have become one another in the slightly different sense of literally just shipping each other most of their players. When they square off tonight in Houston, there will be a lot of memories out there on the court. Memories of all the times when the exact same people were on the court playing each other, only wearing opposite uniforms.
Russell Westbrook. He’s on the Rockets now. Maybe you’ve heard. He’s joined up with James Harden, who used to be on the Thunder. In their youth, they were teammates in a sprawling, conservative oil town that’s unbearably hot in the summer, and now they are teammates in Houston. By contrast, Chris Paul, who used to be a Rocket, plays for the Thunder. I saw him play in Oklahoma City the year after Hurricane Katrina when the team then known as the New Orleans Hornets took refuge in OKC for part of two strange seasons. Now he’s back, after a multiyear sojourn that most recently took him through Houston. Houston is also now the home of Thabo Sefolosha, who used to play for the Timberwolv—hahaha, just kidding, folks. He used to play for the Thunder.
Let’s talk about The Americans for a second. The Americans was a very good television show that aired on FX between 2013 and 2018. It explored the “rivals becoming one another” theme through the figures of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, two Cold War–era Soviet spies who adopted such a perfect facsimile of American identity that they themselves weren’t sure which were their true selves. The Thunder-Rockets rivalry is exactly like that, only if you took out all the nuance-y spy stuff and just gave the Soviets complete control of the American military. In return, the Americans got one battered World War II–era tugboat and 256,000 draft picks. The tugboat is Chris Paul in this metaphor. The draft picks are not a metaphor; they are draft picks.
The Thunder have a lot of draft picks. Again, maybe you’ve heard. They have, potentially, 16 first-rounders stockpiled between now and 2026. Sixteen is three starting lineups. Plus someone to bring them lattes. The Rockets squad was built to succeed now, or at least to hilariously flame out now in a sort of OTT approximation of chasing success. You don’t give Tyson Chandler a parking space at your practice facility if you aren’t trying to live in the present. The OKC squad was built to succeed in the distant future, possibly on a lunar colony or in some sort of giant ship transporting all of humankind away from a dying earth. The next time you drop your kids off at elementary school, look around the loading zone. At least four or five of the younger children will one day be first-round draft picks for the Thunder. In Oklahoma, we have a term for this sort of policy of extreme building for the future. I can’t tell you what the term is, though—we traded it to the Suns as part of a three-idiom deal that will see the hottest young phrases of the early 2030s launch their careers in the Sooner State.
A popular theory among NBA cognoscenti holds that Oklahoma City actually won the summer, because, for all that they lost Paul George and Russell Westbrook and therefore any chance of being competitive this season, they are absolutely dripping with future potential. They’re Colin Firth emerging shirtless from the pond in Pride and Prejudice, only instead of water, what’s cascading down their torso is fine, glistening droplets of the 2026 NBA draft. As a Thunder fan, I would love to believe this theory. The next five to 30 years might be lean. But when we’re brought out of cryo-sleep for the Western Conference semifinals in the cavernous gym of the starship Salvation, that’s when we’ll really start to grasp what the Sam Presti long game was all about.
It’s the Rockets that are the more intriguing team in 2019, though. Houston’s Harden-driven offense was already weird, celebrated, and vaguely offensive to basketball purists. Then they brought in Russell Westbrook. It’s like, what do you do with a gang of sharks that can’t get over a wall? You buy a shark catapult. The Rockets are renowned for their obsession with efficiency, but this is possibly the most purely hedonistic, drape-me-in-velvet move I’ve ever seen an NBA team make. Daryl Morey can’t tweet about freedom in Hong Kong, but in this country, he’s allowed to be an unrepentant freak.
How is this going to work? I’ve read 1 million words on the construction and possible dispensation of Houston’s offense, and I have no idea. I kind of can’t imagine that it will work. Maybe that’s just because I’ve spent so long imagining that all love for Westbrook is essentially and beautifully doomed.
The crucial question is how Harden and Westbrook fit together. In a way, we already know the answer to this question, because they’ve already played together, back when the world was new. Since then, however, Harden has transformed himself into the basketball equivalent of the Spotify discovery algorithm. TECHNICALLY THIS IS YOUR TASTE, he shouts as he draws yet another foul after taking nine steps, eight of which were of a variety the Supreme Court ruled legal in a contentious 2017 split verdict. TECHNICALLY YOU ASKED FOR THIS. His game is about exploiting the hidden microgaps in the basketball rule book in order to score with as little wasted effort as possible. Westbrook … is not about those things. If Westbrook were a discovery algorithm, he would be a random number generator, only each number would correspond to “Rainbow in the Dark,” by Dio. How does a hyper-inefficient, maximum-energy, snarling troubadour of chaos like Westbrook mesh with the most technocratic offense in the history of the NBA? It’s one thing to say a tsunami and a banker grew up together. It’s another thing to see what happens when a tsunami gets a job in a bank.
On Thursday, the new Rockets lost to the Bucks in their first game of the season, 117-111. They looked like a mess. Westbrook went 7-for-17 and had 24 points and 16 rebounds, which is your basic straight-mouth emoji as Westbrook lines go. Harden went 2-for-13, including 1-for-8 from 3, and didn’t score a field goal in the second half. This didn’t necessarily have anything to do with a struggle to coexist with Westbrook. Milwaukee continued with the defensive strategy it devised for Harden last year, shading his strong hand so aggressively that it looked like his primary defender was guarding him sideways. Apparently, we now have the answer for what it takes to stop Harden’s stepback, and it’s “Tell Wesley Matthews to focus really intensely on his hip.” The Rockets are so innovative that even their superstar’s greatest no-shows are based on novel anatomical concepts. Harden kept trying to do his normal stuff, and then he’d be like, “Oh shit, my hip is right there being focused on,” and he’d miff it.
On Saturday night against the Pelicans, Westbrook put up a triple-double and took over in the fourth quarter to lead Houston to narrow 126-123 win. Harden scored 29 points, but went 2-for-18 from 3. No one was all that focused on his hip. It was just one of those Harden-y games when he can’t hit the stage of the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference but still goes for almost 30. Safe to say, the early results on the viability of this partnership are inconclusive.
I’ve been trying to think of the right comparison for the Rockets. I’m sorry to do this—combine sports and pop culture, something we try to avoid around these parts—but they remind me of one of those late-career celebrities who might be going off the rails, only you can’t really be sure they aren’t reaching some new creative apex. Have you ever noticed that about a fifth of all celebrity profiles have the headline “[Celebrity in Question] Doesn’t Care What You Think”? And then the profile turns out to be about how David Duchovny doesn’t give a god damn whether you make fun of his new album of atonal saxophone music, because he knows who he truly is, i.e., a composer of challenging, avant-garde saxophone music, albeit one whose surprisingly tender turn as a depressed IRA leader in the Coen brothers’ new film In a Dark Country is garnering left-field Oscar buzz? And you’re like, “Wow, I genuinely have no idea whether David Duchovny is cratering or peaking right now, and what’s more, I think I’m about to stream this sax album, even if it is called 14 Seductions in the Key of Yesterday”?
Yeah. That’s the Rockets right now. “The Houston Rockets Don’t Care What You Think, Unless You Think About International Democracy Movements.” Is what they’re doing a good idea, basketball-wise? I wish I had that information. Was it a good idea for Nicolas Cage to buy all those castles? Was it a good idea for Ethan Hawke to read Sophocles? Was it a good idea for Gwyneth Paltrow to discover the molecular balancing powers of sustainably harvested ceramic narwhal paste? All I know is that the celebrity profile of the 2019 Rockets offense definitely opens with them showing up late and in a helicopter, definitely includes an apology that uses the words “my truth,” and definitely features an aside about how they were changed forever by the sudden death of Fiona, their pet lynx. And I know I’m definitely reading all the way to the end.
Well, that’s not all I know. I also know that had things broken slightly differently, it could have been the Thunder in the title conversation this year, while the Rockets waited out the generational shift. But let’s not dwell on that. Monday night’s game isn’t about grief or roads not taken or what might have been in 2019. Monday night’s game is about the single most important thing in basketball: what I’m sure will still certainly happen in 2033.