Houston Rockets governor Tilman Fertitta is confident that the pairing between James Harden and Russell Westbrook will work. As he told Sam Amick of The Athletic, he expects the Rockets to be an improved team in the 2019-20 season:
"You know, we think we're a much better team. We used to be one of the top transition teams [in the league], and we've slowed down the last few years [they were 27th in pace last season, 13th in 2017-18, and third in the 2016-17 season before Paul arrived]. And James and Russ go back a long ways in California, so they can talk to each other like brothers, you know, instead of one [player] thinking that he's the mentor. I just think it's going to go well. They both want to win."
The Rockets traded Chris Paul, top-four protected first-round picks in 2024 and 2026 and pick swap rights in 2021 and 2025 to land Westbrook, a major trade to shake up the team after losing to the Golden State Warriors in consecutive postseasons.
It was a major move in a summer full of them, with free agency shaking up the landscape of the league. That included Kevin Durant leaving the Golden State Warriors, a move that created a level of parity the league hasn't seen since he first joined the Dubs.
But that level of parity brings its own concerns, as Fertitta told Amick:
"In a way it was nice just to worry about the Warriors. But now we have to worry about the Warriors, the Clippers, the Lakers, the Jazz, the Nuggets and the Trail Blazers [laughs]. ... And it wasn't just the KD deal. It's Kawhi [Leonard] and Paul George—it's the whole thing.
"Kyrie Irving leaving [Boston for Brooklyn], Kemba [Walker] going to Boston, Jimmy [Butler] went to Miami, Mike Conley going to Utah. Let's be honest, this has never happened before. This is going to be the most exciting new season ever, and there's probably one of eight teams that can win the championship this year."
One of the fascinating storylines in Houston will be if two traditionally ball-dominant players in Harden and Westbrook can coexist. Harden led all players last season with a usage rate of 39.6. Westbrook was 10th at 30.1.
Having two players accustomed to having the ball run through them every possession will present a unique challenge.
It presented issues with Paul as well, though CP3 adjusted to playing off the ball. One factor that helped in that regard is that he is a solid perimeter shooter (37 percent from three for his career). Westbrook (30.8 percent from three for his career) is not.
But the main source of issues between Harden and Paul seemed to be a clash of personality types, with a number of reports emerging that the pair lacked chemistry and perhaps didn't even like each other, going two months without speaking.
Fertitta avoided the topic of the team's internal personality dynamics, but the hope will surely be that Westbrook and Harden—former teammates with the Oklahoma City Thunder—will have a more fruitful relationship on and off the court than Harden and Paul managed.