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How James Harden and Russell Westbrook Can Make It Work in Houston

The Rockets now boast two paradigm-shifting MVPs on their roster, but it won’t be enough for Russ and Harden to merely coexist as ball-dominant stars. To win a ring, they’ll have to make each other better. Are they up to the task?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

James Harden and Russell Westbrook are getting a second chance to make a first impression. The two former MVPs were reunited on Thursday after the Thunder and Rockets agreed to swap point guards, with Westbrook going to Houston for Chris Paul and a package of future first-round picks. It won’t be an easy relationship. Russ and Harden are longtime friends who spent their first few seasons in the NBA together in Oklahoma City, but their games don’t mesh nearly as well as Paul and Harden, who lasted two seasons before breaking up. It will take a lot of sacrifice for this star pairing to end any differently. Each has to change the way they play to make the other comfortable.

It’s hard enough for an NBA team to have one guard as ball-dominant as Harden or Westbrook—there is no way to have two. Harden had the second-highest usage rate (40.5) in NBA history last season, behind only Westbrook (41.7) in his 2016-17 MVP season. Both players have had their best seasons dribbling the ball into the ground from the top of the key. It hasn’t mattered who they’ve played with. They are each on their third star pairing. Westbrook played with Kevin Durant and then Paul George; Harden played with Dwight Howard and then Chris Paul. The other four players on the floor have always been the ones to sacrifice when playing with Russ and Harden.

Just look at the numbers from last season. Westbrook was no. 2 in the league in touches per game (91.2), and Harden was right behind him at no. 4 (87.2). Paul was no. 32 (70.3), and George was all the way down at no. 58 (59.7).

The good news for Houston head coach Mike D’Antoni is that he doesn’t have to define the pecking order between Harden and Westbrook. Russ, who hasn’t made it out of the first round in three seasons without Durant, has had far less success than Harden as a primary option, plus he was the one who was traded to Harden’s team. He will be the second option this coming season. But there are limits to how much Westbrook can defer and still be effective. Harden can’t expect him to accept as small a role as Paul did.

Paul had two advantages over Westbrook when it came to playing with Harden. The first is outside shooting: CP3 is a career 37.0 percent 3-point shooter who shot 35.8 percent on 6.1 attempts per game last season. Russ, in contrast, is a career 30.8 percent 3-point shooter who shot 29.0 percent on 5.6 attempts per game last season. Defenses had to respect Paul when he was playing off the ball, creating room for Harden to attack the rim. They will gladly leave Westbrook open.

The second is playing style. While Paul was a fairly ball-dominant point guard in his own right before coming to Houston, he was also a more traditional floor general who preferred to set up his teammates rather than hunt for his own shot. Paul has averaged more than 20 points and 16 field goal attempts per game only twice in his NBA career. Westbrook is the exact opposite: He has averaged fewer than 20 points and 16 field goal attempts per game only twice. Westbrook will have to learn how to impact the game without scoring, something that came naturally to Paul.

The key will be improving as an off-ball player. While Westbrook does have to become a better 3-point shooter in Houston, it’s unreasonable to expect him to make too big a jump in one season. But there is no reason that he couldn’t become a phenomenal cutter. He’s a smart player with the ability to read the defense and make quick decisions on the fly. He just has to be willing to expend the energy. Oklahoma City hoped that the addition of Dennis Schrӧder would force Westbrook to embrace that aspect of his game. That didn’t happen. Only 1.5 percent of his total offensive possessions last season came from off-ball cuts. He needs to follow the example set by Dwyane Wade, another inconsistent outside shooter, when he played next to LeBron James in Miami.

It will be easier for Westbrook to make that change in Houston because of all the extra 3-point shooting around him. It’s much harder to cut into a crowded lane with multiple defenders playing help-side D than when all four are spread out around the 3-point line. Houston has been first in the NBA in the number of 3-point attempts per game in four of the past five seasons. Oklahoma City has finished in an average of 14th in that time, never higher than no. 10. Thunder GM Sam Presti has always prioritized length and athleticism at the expense of shooting, while Rockets GM Daryl Morey has done the reverse.

The additional spacing is one of the biggest reasons for optimism about Westbrook’s transition. The downside of spending his career in an organization with Presti’s defense-first philosophy is that Russ has always had to bully his way through multiple defenders to get to the rim. He has never had the same type of wide-open driving lanes as Harden has had in Houston. Going from the Thunder to the Rockets is like toggling the difficulty level on a video game from hard to easy. It’s not just the number of 3s that Westbrook’s new team takes—it’s the number of players who take them. George was the only knockdown 3-point shooter in Oklahoma City last season. Everyone in the Houston rotation, with the exception of its centers, is a good 3-point shooter. The strength of Westbrook’s game is his ability to get to the rim and pick apart the defense, and he has never had as many shooters as he will have with the Rockets.

Harden is the most important of those shooters. Just like Russ, he has to commit to playing off the ball, which is not something he has done much since coming to Houston. Harden didn’t have to make too many adjustments to play with CP3. His usage rate increased in each of their two seasons together, and he spent most of his time on the floor running pick-and-rolls to create isolations for himself. One of the biggest reported issues of contention between Paul and Harden was that the latter wasn’t even trying to threaten the defense when Paul had the ball. Harden, a career 36.5 percent 3-point shooter, can be extremely dangerous in those situations. He just has to stay engaged when the offense isn’t running through him.

Both Harden and Westbrook have the same underlying issue: They spend so much energy dribbling that they don’t have much left for anything else. Neither can (or should) turn into a strictly off-ball player overnight. They have to meet somewhere in the middle when it comes to usage, and become more well-rounded players in the process.

The most obvious way for each to improve their game is on defense, which neither has played much of in their careers. Their teams hid them as much as they could over the past few seasons. Westbrook’s primary defensive assignment against Houston last season was Eric Gordon, not Harden or Paul; Harden’s primary defensive assignment against Oklahoma City was Jerami Grant, not Westbrook or George. The math doesn’t work for that to continue. There are only so many spots in a lineup to hide a bad defender, especially against an elite team with multiple shot creators on the perimeter.

The bigger issue might not even be guarding the ball. Both Westbrook and Harden have been known to fall asleep on the help side, watching the ball instead of their man and giving up easy shots in the process. D’Antoni will have to convince both of his stars to buy in on that end of the floor, which will be harder without longtime defensive assistant Jeff Bzdelik, who was let go this offseason.

The problem is not lack of ability. Westbrook should be one of the best defenders in the NBA. Even if he isn’t at the athletic peak he was at in his MVP season, he still has elite size (6-foot-3 and 200 pounds) and speed for his position. He just has to play with more energy and discipline instead of gambling for steals, dying on screens, and taking plays off. Harden, at 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, is built like a tank. His ability to bang with bigger players in the post was an underrated key to Houston’s ability to switch almost every screen, the backbone of the team’s defensive philosophy two seasons ago. He just needs to commit to playing defense like that in every scenario. The division of responsibilities on that side of the ball should be pretty simple. Westbrook has to defend more explosive guards who run around screens and shoot 3s off the dribble; Harden has to handle bigger forwards who live in the paint.

They will both still have opportunities to relax on defense. D’Antoni can ease the transition process by splitting them up in the same way he did with Harden and Paul. He always kept one of his two stars on the floor, ensuring the offense wouldn’t drop when he went to his second unit and giving each the chance to dominate the ball. Here’s how it worked in last season’s playoffs: Harden and Paul averaged 27.0 minutes per game together, Harden averaged 11.5 without Paul, and Paul averaged 9.5 without Harden. But they still played the most important minutes at the end of the game together.

The other starters will likely stay the same, with Eric Gordon at the 2, P.J. Tucker at the 4, and Clint Capela at the 5. There will be less spacing with Westbrook in place of Paul at the 1, but that should be balanced out by a dramatic increase in size and athleticism at the position. Paul, who played only 58 games last season after missing time with a hamstring injury, is an undersized guard who had clearly lost a step as he moved into his mid-30s. He was far less effective at beating his own defender off the dribble than he ever had been before. Westbrook is still an all-world athlete in his early 30s. Even if defenses don’t close out hard on him, he can turn on the jets and blow past stationary defenders. The pace and ferocity that he plays with will create more openings for his teammates, although they will have to adjust to playing with someone who doesn’t take care of the ball nearly as well as Paul.

The most interesting question for D’Antoni is how he will close games. Houston was at its best in the playoffs when it went super small with Austin Rivers in place of Capela, moving Harden to the 4 and Tucker to the 5. The benefit of that move for the Rockets went beyond the usual gains in 3-point shooting and perimeter defense that come with small ball. One of the biggest issues in the Harden era has been the lack of playmaking in the Houston frontcourt. Playing Harden next to three smaller guards (Paul, Rivers, and Gordon) essentially turned him into the frontcourt playmaker that he has always needed. Going smaller will be even more important with Westbrook because of his lack of 3-point shooting.

It won’t be as easy for the Rockets to downsize in next season’s playoffs, now that the Warriors are no longer their biggest threat. There are two new superstar pairings in the Western Conference: LeBron James and Anthony Davis on the Lakers, and Kawhi Leonard and Paul George on the Clippers. Houston may have to go through both just to reach the NBA Finals. The size difference between Harden and Westbrook and the other four is massive, making the matchups difficult. Going super small against the Lakers would leave Tucker on AD and Harden on LeBron. Doing it against the Clippers would leave one of Harden and Westbrook on one of Kawhi or George. D’Antoni may need to find a middle ground where he leans on bigger wings like Danuel House Jr. (6-foot-7 and 220 pounds) and Gary Clark (6-foot-8 and 225 pounds) to keep some size on the perimeter.

But everything ultimately comes back to his two star point guards. Both players would be Hall of Famers if they retired tomorrow. There is nothing more that either can do to prove himself as an individual. The missing piece for both is team success. Westbrook and Harden have been to the Finals only once in their careers, when they were in their final season together in Oklahoma City. The difference is there is no Kevin Durant this time around.

Harden and Westbrook are at the stage of their careers when they should be willing to sacrifice their individual stats for the good of the team. The former turns 30 in August and the latter turns 31 in November. Both are in the sweet spot where they have gained a ton of experience without a corresponding drop-off in their athletic ability. They each pushed the limits of basketball in their 20s. Now to move forward they have to take a step back, if for no other reason than to stay healthy as they move deeper into their 30s. A decline like the one Paul experienced last season is coming for both. It is now or never for Harden, Westbrook, and the entire Rockets organization. They gave up a lot of future picks in the trade on Thursday.

There are plenty of reasons the pairing might not work. The only way that it will is if both Westbrook and Harden grow as all-around, complementary players. Coexisting, like Harden and Paul did over the past two seasons, won’t be enough. They have to make each other better.