'Russ Is an Upgrade,' but Can He Succeed Where CP3 Failed in Houston?

Ken Berger@@KBergNBAFeatured Columnist IJuly 14, 2019

CHARLOTTE, NC - FEBRUARY 17: James Harden #13 of Team LeBron and Russell Westbrook #0 of Team Giannis are seen before the game 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 Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images)
Juan Ocampo/Getty Images

When Chris Paul requested a trade from the Houston Rockets in June (as a source told B/R at the time), it was clear the James Harden-CP3 experiment was over.

The Rockets' "culture of me," a dynamic that one person with knowledge of the team's inner workings told B/R in June was the team's operating ethos, was irretrievably broken after their playoff loss to the Warriors, and general manager Daryl Morey was going to have his work cut out for him to unload Paul's contract. The deal has three years and $124 million remaining on it, a financial albatross that one rival executive described to B/R on Friday as "miserable."

When I wrote of Houston's dilemma back in June, I cautioned the person who was so down on the Rockets that no NBA contract is untradeable, no matter how burdensome it may seem.

Lo and behold, a series of bizarre, unforeseen circumstances emerged in the past week to trigger the pairing of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George on the Clippers, as well as the soon-to-be swap of Russell Westbrook to the Rockets and Paul to the Thunder.

The most incredible part, perhaps, is that Paul's supposedly untradeable contract might soon be traded again, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski.

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Among the many questions now at hand is whether swapping Paul for Westbrook will fix the Rockets' culture. Or does Westbrook merely represent a younger, more athletic, equally headstrong version of the same problem?

"The problem is they both need the ball in their hands, so it's the same problem they had before," a Western Conference executive told B/R. "But to me, Russ is an upgrade over Chris. You have a triple-double guy who's younger and who can rebound better. The only difference is Chris shoots the three-ball better.

"They're two alpha guys who want to win," the exec said. "But Russ is an upgrade, no question."

Westbrook, 30, was nearing the end of the road in Oklahoma City after 11 seasons, five 50-win campaigns, four trips to the Western Conference Finals, one trip to the Finals and one league MVP. (B/R's Howard Beck reported Thunder officials were already pondering a team "reset" next summer before the last two weeks of transactions.) Leonard's recruitment of George—and George's ensuing trade request—sealed the deal. It was time for a fresh start, and Westbrook needed a "shot in the arm" to make the adjustments required in his game—adjustments that would've been difficult for him to make in the only NBA system he'd ever known, one person in the league who knows him well said.

"I expect him to have his best season since the MVP season [2016-17]," another rival exec told B/R.

But can two ball-dominant guards who are both perennially at the top of the league in usage rate (and dribbling) fit in the same backcourt? There was no better retort to that Debbie Downer perspective than an Instagram post by Morey that asked the question that has become Westbrook's catchphrase: "Why not?"

It was clear that Harden and Paul, after two tumultuous seasons that ended with losses to the Warriors in the conference finals and semifinals, could no longer coexist. But that problem could have been solved if Morey had traded for Russell Wilson instead of Russell Westbrook (don't put it past him).

It was clear after two seasons together, James Harden and Chris Paul did not share the same vision for how to guide the Rockets offense.
It was clear after two seasons together, James Harden and Chris Paul did not share the same vision for how to guide the Rockets offense.Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press/Associated Press

Morey did what he always strives to do: acquire talent and let the coach figure out the rest. So now the job of taming this two-headed monster (at least for next season) falls on Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni, an offensive genius who, if nothing else, will have fun trying, even if it doesn't earn him a new contract.

The Harden-CP3 version of the Rockets looked nothing like the D'Antoni system of ball movement and player movement that revolutionized the NBA. (Paul's frustration that Harden's excessive dribbling bogged down the offense was one of the factors that chafed their relationship.)

"This trade is about talent at the end of the day," one of the rival executives said. "It's not an analytics move. Plus, Mike wants to play faster, and he can do that with Westbrook."

But sacrifices will have to be made. Harden and Westbrook both can't have 90 touches per game; Westbrook was second in the league last season with 91.2 per game, while Harden was fourth with 87.2. They both can't have usage rates in the 40s; Harden had the second-highest usage rate in NBA history last season (40.5), trailing only Westbrook's 41.7 during his MVP season.

If Westbrook—a sublime athlete and finisher—can commit to becoming an elite cutter off the ball, he could feast off a steady diet of dunks and layups created by Harden's gravitational pull. When it's Westbrook's turn to drive the ball, he'll have multiple open three-point shooters to choose from, including Harden.

One Western Conference scout told B/R that D'Antoni would be wise to manipulate his substitution patterns so Harden and Westbrook each gets a couple of spurts per game with the other on the bench.

"Then in crunch time," the scout said, "you have both of them on, and you rock and roll."

But an Eastern Conference scout wasn't as bullish on the pairing.

"I don't see how this functions in the playoffs," the scout said. "They may be fun to watch, but they both have evolved into high-volume, high-usage, high-turnover, super inefficient players. Together, they might have the most turnovers and dribbles in NBA history."

At least they don't hate each other. Harden and Westbrook have remained close friends since their first few years in the league together in Oklahoma City.

"They're both from L.A., both Pac-10 guys, and they know each other and respect each other," one of the rival execs said.

While the Rockets are having their fun, the little franchise that could in Oklahoma City will come to grips with rebuilding. And as you might expect from one of the most innovative executives in the league, Thunder GM Sam Presti will go about it in a unique way.

Rather than tanking in pursuit of high draft picks—a process that can take years and doesn't always bear fruit—the Thunder have cashed in their chips and loaded up with picks. Now, they have options. After the trades of George, Westbrook and Jerami Grant, Oklahoma City is flush with eight additional first-round picks spread over seven years, plus its own picks and four pick swaps.

Despite the possibility that Paul will be flipped in another deal—incentivized, perhaps, with a couple of those first-round picks—the Thunder aren't averse to keeping him and his contract on board if he's willing to stay, two league sources told B/R. As expensive as the deal is, it's a year shorter than Westbrook's. And if Paul does stay, the Thunder will have been compensated handsomely for their trouble.

Harden and Russell Westbrook each have won MVP awards since they last played together for the Thunder, but some in the NBA question whether they can blend their individual greatness to propel the Rockets to the Finals.
Harden and Russell Westbrook each have won MVP awards since they last played together for the Thunder, but some in the NBA question whether they can blend their individual greatness to propel the Rockets to the Finals.Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

One of the rival executives told B/R that if George hadn't made his trade demand and the Thunder had kept the band together for one more season and then tried to deal George and Westbrook next summer, they might have gotten 15 percent of that return. The massive amount of leverage that came with George being attached to Leonard's hip on the latter's way to the Clippers resulted in a windfall for the Thunder.

So Leonard's power play and Paul's desire to extricate himself from Harden's shadow resulted in two of the most fascinating circumstances in league history. And the best part is this confluence of factors will at once satisfy our long-term curiosity about whether a contender can be rebuilt in one of the league's smallest markets and our need for instant gratification (will Westbrook and Harden be a juggernaut or a train wreck?).

"I think the way the Rockets look at it is, if it doesn't work, they can move [Westbrook] at the trade deadline," one of the rival execs said. "The owner has already shown the fans how bad he wants to win, and if it doesn't work, you move on."

Which, as we've learned, is the name of the game in today's NBA.


Ken Berger covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KBergNBA.

Minnesota's new president of basketball operations, Gersson Rosas, joins Howard Beck to discuss his vision for the Timberwolves, Karl-Anthony Towns' future and some of his most memorable deals while working in the Rockets' front office. All that and more on The Full 48.

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