A Russell Westbrook-James Harden Team Only Works with Major Adjustments

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJuly 12, 2019

CHARLOTTE, NC - FEBRUARY 17:  James Harden #13 of Team LeBron  and Russell Westbrook #0 of Team Giannis  look on during the 2019 NBA All Star Game on February 17, 2019 at Spectrum Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  Mandatory Copyright Notice:  Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

It's been seven seasons since Russell Westbrook and James Harden were teammates. Things have changed a tad since then.

The 2011-12 campaign was Harden's last with the Oklahoma City Thunder. He averaged 31.4 minutes, 16.8 points and 3.7 assists per game. His usage percentage was 21.6, and he only started two regular-season games.

The same year, Westbrook averaged 35.3 minutes, 23.6 points and 5.5 assists per game. He posted a 32.7 usage percentage and started all 66 games.

Post-2012, Harden has averaged 37.1 minutes, 29.0 points and 7.7 assists. In 2018-19 alone, he had the second-highest usage percentage on record. His 40.5 trails only, well, Westbrook's 41.7 in 2016-17.

Both have MVP awards. And both MVPs have had to adjust to varying levels of star teammates. From a macro perspective, both have seen their roles and individual profiles expand significantly over the last seven years.

On Thursday, the NBA world learned that the two would be reunited on the Houston Rockets.

"The Oklahoma City Thunder have agreed to trade Russell Westbrook to the Houston Rockets for Chris Paul, first-round picks in 2024 and 2026, pick swaps in 2021 and 2025," ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted.

Forget for a moment that massive haul of draft picks. Instead, focus on the potential fit (or misfit) of Harden and Westbrook in 2019-20.

This is like the NBA version of Tango & Cash. They're going to clash at times. Their styles are different. Harden has the more dressed-up, business-like offensive attack. Westbrook is more reckless. The only way this is going to work is if they can find a way to coexist.

          

Step 1: Mike D'Antoni May Have to Ditch the Iso-Heavy Offense

Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

Last season, Harden completed 1,280 possessions as isolations. If that were thrown into a team leaderboard, it'd be first. By a mile. Even if you cut Harden's total in half, he'd be in the top 10 among the NBA's teams.

You can't blame Houston for the approach, as Harden scored 1.11 points per iso. Again, if we stack that up against teams, Harden's isos, all by themselves, would've been a borderline top-10 offense.

But can you imagine Westbrook simply standing on the wing or in the corner watching Harden, waiting for a potential last-ditch kick-out?

Westbrook's 353 isos ranked him second in the NBA, but his 0.95 points per possession on spot-ups put him below the 42nd percentile for that play type.

If the Rockets try to jam the same style down opponents' throats that they did the last two seasons, things will go poorly. Like, "Act 1 of Tango & Cash" poorly. The fellas found themselves framed, jailed and targeted by what seemed like the entire prison population.

          

Step 2: Convince Russ to Cede Offense to Harden

Michael Wyke/Associated Press

Even back when they were teammates with the Thunder, there were indications that things might work better if Westbrook had a little less control.

"Just because Westbrook is 6'3" and James Harden is 6'5" doesn't mean Westbrook has to be the point guard and Harden is the shooting guard," Mark Travis wrote for But the Game is On in 2011. "It's not a slight to Westbrook to say that Harden is the better creator—some players are born with passing instincts like Harden, while others are born with a relentless desire to attack the rim like Westbrook."

Even with everything that's changed in the last seven years, that breakdown remains true. Westbrook has averaged double figures in assists over the last three seasons. But those are more like "I constantly have the ball in my hands and will get these dimes by force of will" assists.

"Westbrook is not as innovative a passer as [LeBron] James or Harden," ESPN's Zach Lowe wrote last year. "He has led the league in assists mostly making drive-and-kick passes the defense expects. It is a tribute to Westbrook's greatness that he can break apart defenses so often, and so completely, as to lead the NBA in assists making expected passes."

Taking all of that away from Westbrook doesn't make sense. He should still run plenty of pick-and-rolls (something D'Antoni directed a ton of prior to the last couple of seasons). For the first time in years, his pick-and-rolls will be surrounded by multiple, reliable shooters.

But he can't have control of possession after possession when he's sharing the floor with Harden. Westbrook was barely above the 30th percentile as an iso scorer last season. He was just above the 39th percentile as a scorer out of the pick-and-roll.

Among the 1,785 individual three-point era seasons of at least 1,000 field-goal attempts, Westbrook's 2018-19 true shooting percentage of 50.1 ranks 1,639th. He was nearly six points below the 2018-19 league average.

Replace too much of Harden's above-average offense with Westbrook's below-average offense, and things are going to go south in a hurry. Not doing so means Westbrook has to figure out how to play off the ball, though, and that task may be equally as daunting.

            

Step 3: Teach Both How to Exist off the Ball

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - APRIL 9: Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder plays defense against during the game against James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets on April 9, 2019 at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, OK. NOTE TO USER: User expre
Jeff Haynes/Getty Images

This is a lot to ask of two players who have so thoroughly controlled their teams' offenses for over half a decade. It may be easier for Westbrook, actually. With Paul George, he showed a willingness to do less. His usage in the season immediately before PG's arrival was an NBA-record 41.7. In the two seasons with George, it was 34.1 and 30.9. That 30.9 was his lowest usage since 2010.

It may have to creep down even lower for this partnership to flourish in 2019-20.

Westbrook's inability to shoot should relegate him to mostly attacking disadvantaged defenses. Think transition, trailing Harden's drives, cutting to the rim against off-balanced defenders, etc.

Again, this doesn't mean Houston should eschew Westbrook-run possessions entirely. The Rockets will just have to be judicious with them, and Westbrook will need to be thinking pass first.

Last season, Harden was above the 90th percentile as a spot-up scorer, but those possessions accounted for less than 4 percent of his scoring. He needs to adjust too.

During his time in Houston, Harden has grown so accustomed to controlling everything on offense that it may take some time to reacquaint himself with playing off the ball.

He needs to be willing to move when he's off the ball. Relocate when Westbrook drives, set screens on the weak side, cut back door, etc. He may find that it's kind of fun to shoot open shots.

This can work, yet it will take some concessions from both players. It's a risky proposition, but it's an understandable one.

Westbrook (30) is four years younger than CP3. FiveThirtyEight's CARMELO projection system doesn't think his prime is quite over. It forecasts a significant bounce back from 4.5 wins above replacement in 2019 to 8.5 in 2020. It sees Paul's production continuing to fall, from 8.0 wins above replacement in 2019 to 6.6 in 2020.

Though it's been a while and the league and both individual players have changed drastically, Westbrook and Harden found a way to coexist before. In their final OKC season together, they made the NBA Finals.

Of course, that team had a rising Kevin Durant. There's no third star in Houston, though Clint Capela is a heck of a rim-roller. Eric Gordon can provide some spacing and playmaking. PJ Tucker is a nearly ideal small-ball 4.

After what Harden and Westbrook have grown into over their careers, a third star might have been one too many mouths to feed anyway. In an NBA that suddenly swapped "Big Threes" for "Top Twos," Westbrook, Harden and a good supporting cast may be enough.

The Golden State Warriors' half-decade dynasty is (most likely) over, and around a quarter of the league's teams could reasonably be described as title contenders.

The Rockets are in that bunch, even if it takes them some time to figure out how to coexist. Like so many of the protagonists in buddy-cop movies over the years, they need to set aside their differences, find some common ground and appreciate each other's strengths.

        

Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass.

Andy Bailey covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@AndrewDBailey) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Dan Favale.


Minnesota Timberwolves President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas joins Howard Beck on the Full 48 podcast to discuss his team's star player Karl-Anthony Towns, what the future holds for T-Wolves rookie Jarrett Culver and more. 

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