Why the Russell Westbrook trade was a mistake for the Rockets

  • I’ve actually since come around on the trade but just wanted to make a catchy title. I’m going to write later this week, perhaps tomorrow, about why I think it was a good trade.
  • Every thought piece I’ve read or podcast I’ve listened to delving into the pros and cons of this deal qualifies arguments as to why it can work with a disclaimer about both guys needing to change. “If James and Russ start moving off the ball, this can work.” “If James and Russ start being more engaged defensively, this can work.” But what indication do we have at all of either of these guys being willing to change, particularly regarding the former? All we have are their words, which means next to nothing. I don’t think there will be conflict, due to their friendship. But if I had to predict, what’s going to happen is that they’ll take turns playing iso or as the ball handler in the pick and roll while the other guy rests and takes a break at the three point line, not making any attempt to get open or set back screens or do anything to engage the defense. It will work to the tune of at least 50 wins, because both guys are so incredibly gifted, and there will be tons of highlights of the pair carving up defenses. Russ will get a ton of points in transition. But they’ll go up against the Clippers in the Conference Finals, and Paul George will be on Harden, and Patrick Beverley will be on Russ, while Kawhi is playing free safety covering the other three guys. And that’s when the lack of movement is going to kill the Rockets. One might retort that they moved plenty without the ball back when they were together with the Thunder, particularly Harden, but that was a completely different era before both players became who they are today. With stature comes a diminished willingness to do the other little things that contribute to winning.
  • I can’t get over the fact that the Rockets gave up basically two unprotected first round picks in this deal. You can say that it’s so far away that it doesn’t matter but I know I’ll still be a fan and I’ll still have this blog in 2024, so it matters. 2022-2023 is the last year in which Harden will be under contract and he’ll be 33. Russ has a player option that year and will be 34. If both guys walk at the end of that year, which is a possibility (for a clean rebuild), you’re looking at having lost both of your superstars heading into 2023-2024, the last regular season before the 2024 NBA Draft. You might argue that there’s no reason to worry since the pick is protected, but given Daryl’s ability to find cheap supporting talent, its unlikely the team completely bottoms out. That means the top-4 protection won’t come into play. You’d be looking at a situation where the roster features guys good enough to keep the team completely out of the cellar and finishing mid-lottery. In fact, thats what happened before the Harden trade, after the McGrady/Yao era where the team just was completely unable to bottom out because the talent Daryl kept finding lifted it to mediocrity. The same analysis goes for the pick owed in 2026.
  • Why the overpay? Who were the Rockets bidding against that they needed to trade two lightly protected future picks? I know Miami and Detroit had interest, but what were their offers? Couldn’t Westbrook have applied more pressure to get this deal done without crippling his future franchise? I guess it matters little to him or Harden considering both players will be gone by 2024. The same goes for Daryl.
  • What makes anyone think Westbrook will suddenly become even an average shooter? 29% on high volume isn’t just bad; its atrocious. Sure he’ll make more due to being more open but his main problem is his mechanics. Like other athletes of his caliber, he relies too much on his leaping ability during his shot. You’ll notice that good to great shooters all barely jump on their release and have lower set points. This leads to less variability in their mechanics. Westbrook on the other hand releases at the apex of his jump, a lot like Gerald Green, and tries to jump out of his shoes on his jumpshot. That’s largely why he’s so streaky. I’m not holding my breath on a soon-to-be 31 year old superstar changing his mechanics anytime soon.
  • I think I’m the sole major personality on Rockets Twitter who subscribes to the nationally held belief regarding Harden’s late-series playoff failures. You can pull up as many aggregate statistics as you want–bloated by empty calories–but when the series is on the line, there’s something internal to James Harden that causes him to melt. I think Russ can help him with this, either by empowering him to overcome whatever is hampering him psychologically or by completely seizing the reins himself. We know Russ has no problem going down in a blaze of glory because he does it every year. The problem is that James Harden is a much better player than Russell Westbrook, in pretty much every aspect of the game. He’s a better playmaker, a better passer, a better shooter, and just a better overall scorer. So if Westbrook is gladly taking those shots, it just means an inferior option is determining the Rockets’ fate.

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

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