Why the Rockets had to make the Russell Westbrook trade

I felt sick initially when seeing news of the trade that brought Russell Westbrook to Houston. I had never despised a player so much in my 24 years of watching professional basketball. He represented flash over substance and the Rockets traded away the player I consider the smartest in modern basketball history to get him. But I’ve since calmed down and warmed up to the trade. I’m certainly excited because Westbrook is no doubt entertaining to watch. But in the now five days which have elapsed since the deal, in reading and hearing all of the different opinions, I think I’ve come around. I understand why the Rockets felt they had to make the trade and I see how it improves the franchise’s hopes of winning a title. Yesterday, I wrote about why I hated the deal. I promised I’d give the positives today.

  • Looking past all the gymnastics about the fit, the simplest way to boil down the trade is that the Rockets gave up assets to get a younger player, and that James Harden wanted it to be done. Everything else, while still worthy of being debated, is a moot point.
  • In this era of self determination, with stars deciding to relocate on a whim, Houston secures a close friend of Harden’s and follows his directive. What choice at all did the Rockets have? Harden, for his many flaws, is possibly the greatest individual scorer to ever live. You keep him happy, contend, and hope to one day break through with a title. Bringing Westbrook diminishes the possibility that Harden ever gets a wandering eye in one of these remaining four years of his deal and demands a trade. Who knows if the load he carried last year finally would have been enough to break him in a coming year, particularly as Chris Paul aged further.
  • We’ve all stipulated that at full health, the 2017-2018 version of Paul is not only a better fit next to Harden than Westbrook, but an overall superior player. (I personally think its not even close.) But that Chris Paul now is gone and a distant memory only to be remembered in highlight clips from that season. As he aged further, it was likely Paul would continue to miss at least 20 games per season and need to have his minutes even further reduced. This trade was about getting a player who, while imperfect, will simply be available. Regardless of how he does it, Westbrook is a workhorse who can play heavy minutes, maintain a high usage, and suit up for the majority of the team’s games. In fact, in the last four seasons, Westbrook has only missed 14 games, a stunning figure considering his knee injuries. At a certain point, it can be said that you just need someone to be around, even if they are not the ideal. I personally need to let go of the ideal of Paul because at 34 and counting, it just wasn’t going to happen anymore, no matter what I thought of his game.
  • And to that end, Westbrook is Harden insurance as the latter settles into his 30’s. He can carry the offense on the nights when James just doesn’t have it. The Rockets can run their offense through him for long periods of time without the worry of him wearing down the way they had to with Paul. Westbrook, however imperfect, is a way to protect the team’s investment in Harden.
  • And so in adding a star player who is similar in age as the resident superstar, the Rockets now have effectively extended their window to align with the remainder of James Harden’s prime. They can give themselves at the least three more legitimate shots to win the title as both players head towards their mid 30’s.
  • Its interesting to note that of the super-duos now created in the West, the Rockets actually have the most long-term stability. Lebron James is 35 years old and Anthony Davis is a free agent next summer. Both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George can opt out of their current contracts in two years. Meanwhile, both James Harden and Russell Westbrook are locked in for three more years with player options in the fourth year.
  • And further to that, the Rockets’ duo has the best health. As noted above, Westbrook has missed only 14 games in the last four years while Harden has missed only 16 games in the last five seasons. Lebron James missed 27 games last year and will be 35 while Anthony Davis has played more than 70 games only twice in his seven year career. Paul George is expected to miss the first few weeks of the season due to shoulder surgery and Kawhi Leonard figures to be on load management again due to the quad injury which has hindered him for the last two seasons. This is all to say that the Rockets’ two guys are absolute iron men comparatively speaking and that should bode well in the marathon that is the race to win the top seed in the West.
  • Is it possible that we’re all prematurely assuming an imminent drop-off in Westbrook’s athleticism? It seems like this characteristic is talked about as if he could be walking around with a cane any day now, but what evidence is there that the maturity date is near? He’s declined, of course, but is still at least 85% of what he was, which is still more awe-inspiring than 98% of the league. What if he has two more seasons at this level of physicality and learns to adjust his game in the meantime before season three? It’s actually amazing to consider that Westbrook will just be 34 in the last year of his contract which is the same age Paul is now.
  • I like that the trade increases the team’s variance. I’ve mentioned before that I think with Westbrook in and Paul out, I expect the Rockets to win games they would not have otherwise been able to win while possibly losing a few they would have won under Paul’s steady hand. It’s Westbrook’s size and physicality that increases the team’s variance allowing them to compete in instances they would not have just simply due to physical disadvantages. I keep thinking back to the late-season Bucks game when the length of that Bucks team completely stymied the Rockets. Harden was bottled up by their unorthodox scheme and Paul didn’t have the physical tools to take over the way the team needed him to. A player with Russ’ gifts can never be overmatched physically and will always have the capability to dominate a game no matter who the opponent is. One cannot say the same for Paul. And its in the playoffs when these sorts of matchups become the norm. Russ might lose the Rockets a December game against Chicago by going 5 for 26 with 6 turnovers where Paul would have dominated the second unit to the tune of like a +18 with no turnovers. But I think against these long defenses in the postseason where Paul can’t even get a shot off anymore, Russ gives the team a chance to compete. He might shoot them out of the game, but he might also completely take it over.
  • Everyone else is already writing about how the system will benefit Russ and how this will be the most shooting with which he’s ever been surrounded. But I just like how much he’ll change the team. Paul, in a lot of ways, was almost just a poor man’s Harden, which is to say he was freaking amazing and methodical back in 2017-2018. Maybe the Rockets just need a complete shock to their system? I’ve written repeatedly that Harden’s floor is 50 wins – that’s the starting point from which you’re building. Maybe adding in a complete wild card is what the team needs? You now have Harden coming down and devouring a defense by lulling it to sleep added with the total jolt of Westbrook grabbing defensive boards and going coast to coast at frantic speeds. Its complete unpredictability. I noted last year against Golden State that I felt like Paul was trying to keep Golden State guessing defensively and so to provide a contrast to Harden isos, he tried to play fast, and his version of that was just hurrying the team into quick Eric Gordon 3’s. Russ can now just careen down the lane and dunk all over everyone and generate quick offense by himself.
  • And here’s the last and maybe most controversial reason I’m excited about this trade. I’m the only major Rockets personality who’s openly subscribed to the narrative regarding Harden’s playoff failures. As I wrote in the other Westbrook piece, I think its clear that something psychological causes James Harden to freeze up in season-ending moments. We saw it against San Antonio and then saw it again this past season against Golden State. I think if anyone can help James Harden through this its Russell Westbrook, his childhood friend. Russ, in his willingness to be everything, can alleviate the pressure off of Harden. And if that doesn’t happen, we know Russ will have no qualms with taking all of the last shots, for better or worse. Chris Paul was no longer capable of doing that. So, at the least, the Rockets will go down with an elite player deciding their fate.

About the author: Rahat Huq is a lawyer in real life and the founder and editor-in-chief of Red94.net.

2
Leave a Reply

avatar
2 Comment threads
0 Thread replies
0 Followers
 
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
2 Comment authors
Rahat HuqJZ13 Recent comment authors
  Subscribe  
Notify of
JZ13
Guest
JZ13

I think the seeds of this trade were planted when Paul insisted on being paid more than he was worth. I don’t at all blame him for doing it, but it doesn’t change that it happened. He’s a smart guy who knew that he wouldn’t be worth that contract more than a year or two out. As it turned out, he didn’t play up to it for even a single year. It’s not his fault he lost a step and couldn’t stay on the court, but again, it is what happened. Remember that Paul hasn’t even been an All Star… Read more »

Follow Red94 for occasional rants, musings, and all new post updates