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Can James Harden and John Wall Thrive Together in Houston?

Mo DakhilFeatured Columnist IDecember 3, 2020

Houston Rockets guard James Harden, center left, and Washington Wizards guard John Wall (2) talk after an NBA basketball game Sunday, March 29, 2015, in Washington. The Rockets won 99-91. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Alex Brandon/Associated Press

The NBA world was shaken up again Wednesday night with the Houston Rockets trading Russell Westbrook to the Washington Wizards for John Wall and a heavily protected 2023 first-round pick. For the second straight season, the Rockets have sent out James Harden's sidekick in search of one who fits.

Oh, and with the signing of DeMarcus Cousins to a one-year, non-guaranteed contract, they've reunited two former Kentucky Wildcats. In their only year together in 2009-10, Cousins and Wall led the Wildcats to a 35-3 recond and an Elite Eight appearance.

But the question of health looms large for both players.

Cousins is coming off a torn ACL in his left knee that cost him the 2019-20 season. That came after he tore his left quad during the 2018-19 playoffs, which was predated by a torn left Achilles.

Wall's injury history is long as well. Besides a left knee injury in 2012 and right knee issues in 2015 and 2016 (and a procedure on both knees in May 2016), he missed a large portion of the 2017-18 season after having another procedure on his left knee. Then his 2018-19 season ended early with surgery on his left heel followed by a ruptured left Achilles tendon after falling at home. The last time Wall played an NBA game was Dec. 26, 2018, though he has been getting rave reviews from players and coaches this offseason.

So assuming all the injury issues are in the past, Cousins and Wall could give new head coach Stephen Silas some valuable pieces to deploy around Harden.

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A Spacing and Scoring Improvement

One thing was clear when the Rockets traded for Westbrook last offseason: his three-point shooting was going to be an issue. Early in the season, it limited the space on the floor for Harden, as Westbrook shot just 25.8 percent from three.

Just by the numbers, Wall does not appear to be much of an upgrade as a three-point threat. He is a career 32.4 percent three-point shooter (Westbrook is at 30.5 percent). But that does not tell the full story on his shooting ability. For his career, Wall has shot 38.5 percent on catch-and-shoot threes, which would make him a threat when Harden goes into his isolation game. Westbrook, meanwhile, is only a 32.8 percent catch-and-shoot three-point shooter.

Adding Cousins to the mix will provide the Rockets with a big man who has a multifaceted offensive game. He is a capable post-up player with the ability to step out to three as a career 33.2 percent three-point shooter. Coming off his Achilles injury, he was still able to put up 16.3 points per game in 25.7 minutes per night on a loaded Golden State Warriors team. Clint Capela—a pick-and-roll partner for Harden without much versatility—was limited offensively last season before getting traded before the deadline. Cousins, conversely, can roll or pop on screens, forcing defenses to deal with both possibilities.

Wall will provide more spacing than Westbrook ever could, and Cousins will bring more versatility to Houston's pick-and-roll game.

         

Play Creation

Harden's ability to draw in defenders and kick the ball out to open shooters has been the basis of the Rockets' offensive attack for the last few seasons. It has decimated defenses and even led him to the MVP in 2018. The last three seasons, he has had the luxury of having a high-level secondary playmaker around in Westbrook and Chris Paul.

The difference this year is he could have two such options, health permitting.

Wall is an elite passer with amazing vision both in transition and in the half court, and he's never averaged fewer than 7.6 assists per game in a season. Cousins, meanwhile, can make the pass off short rolls by finding shooters in the corners or cutters along the baseline. He can also create out of the post—his passes out of the post had a points per possession of 1.3 in Golden State, according to Synergy Sports Technology.

The more playmakers on the floor, the more dynamic the offense can be.

            

Silas' Wrinkles

One of the reasons the Rockets hired Silas was because of his "offensive ingenuity," according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski. As an assistant, he was credited with helping the Dallas Mavericks build a historically good offense around Luka Doncic last season. It is expected he'll work his magic in Houston, and things have gotten easier with Wall replacing Westbrook and Cousins' all-around ability in the frontcourt.

The Rockets will always be able to default to Harden's isolation attack, but adding variety will be key—such as running actions that get him off the ball early in the shot clock.

In this playoff game against the Los Angeles Clippers last season, for instance, Doncic brings the ball up and then hands it off, allowing him to work off the ball and get it back in a different position:

With a combination of Harden, Wall and Cousins, it opens more opportunities for Silas to run actions triggered at the elbow like the old Sacramento Kings used to do, post splits that the Warriors run, or even execute a simple "floppy" action to get Harden the ball in different spots on the floor and stress the defense.

None of this works if Harden is not willing to change his game up. If the Rockets remain an isolation-heavy team, they will not be able to maximize the talents of Wall, Cousins, Eric Gordon, PJ Tucker and newly signed Christian Wood.

Harden and the Rockets won't get away with him standing at half court without the ball while his teammates try to play four-on-four. They've tried this for the past few seasons, and it has not gotten them far.

If Harden allows them to open up the offensive playbook, he'll find a much easier path to wins that do not solely rely on just him. It would require him to work more off the ball, set screens and cut when the opportunities are there.

Wall is on par with Westbrook and Paul if healthy, and Cousins is the most versatile big man Harden has ever played with. But Dwight Howard came and went. Paul came and went. Westbrook, a close friend, was supposed to be different, but he demanded a trade after one year. There are not many other options if it does not work this year.

           

Advanced stats via NBA.com unless otherwise noted.

Mo Dakhil spent six years with the Los Angeles Clippers and two years with the San Antonio Spurs as a video coordinator, as well as three years with the Australian men's national team. Follow him on Twitter, @MoDakhil_NBA.

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