Will one ball be enough for Rockets star duo?
No team in the NBA has a two-star combo that has people questioning exactly how they will fit together more than the Houston Rockets. Yet, the James Harden and Russell Westbrook duo has fans in Texas dreaming of finally getting back to the NBA Finals for the first time since winning the title in 1995.
Rewind a couple of months to the end of last season’s playoffs when the Rockets saw their title dreams dashed once again by the Golden State Warriors. Houston’s nemesis won the last two games of their Western Conference semi-finals series for a 4-2 win, eliminating Houston for the fourth time in the last five years.
It was a step back for the Texans after they had missed a golden chance to knock out the Warriors in the 2018 Conference Finals. Chris Paul’s injury and the legendary brick festival in Game 7 are still ever-present in Rockets’ fans memories.
The last exit at the hands of the Warriors ended an amazing season by Harden, who took the team on his shoulders after an embarrassing 11-14 start to the season. For three months he averaged more than 40 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists in powering Houston back up the standings and into the playoffs. ‘The Beard’ was unstoppable with more than 50 points nine times and twice he finished with 61 points. In the end, Harden averaged 36.1 points, 6.6 rebounds, 7.5 assists and 2.0 steals – numbers that only Michael Jordan had ever achieved.
The Rockets’ problem was their defense, which tumbled from sixth best in 2017-18 to 17th last season.
The off-season saw the team’s dirty laundry aired, especially the dispute between head coach Mike D’Antoni and owner Tilman Fertitta, who didn’t want to extend the coach’s contract past this up-coming season. There was also the controversy between Harden and Paul about the former MVP’s playing style. That led general manager Daryl Morey to making the most spectacular trade of the summer, sending Paul to Oklahoma City in exchange for Russell Westbrook.
That re-united Harden and Westbrook, who are good friends after growing up at the same time in Los Angeles. They began their NBA careers with the Thunder, where they played together for three years and helped the club reach the 2012 NBA Finals. Since then, both have won the MVP trophy, both twice led the league in scoring, both led the league in assists and achieved statistical milestones. But both are still waiting for an NBA ring.
The question is how they will play with one another – something Harden reportedly told Morey would work out before the move was made. Harden’s shooting ability makes him the more logical off-the-ball option but both stars will learn how to play without the ball to remain dangerous without checking out mentally.
The rest of the Houston rotation meanwhile will remain the same. Clint Capela is there to set picks and block shots while Eric Gordon is a strong combo guard and Gerald Green, Austin Rivers and Danuel House will give the big two stars shooters waiting for passes out to the wings. And P.J. Tucker is an elite defender and the center for when Houston goes small-ball.
One off-the-court issue which arose just before the start of the season was the tweet that Morey posted regarding the protests in Hong Kong, which caused major uproar in the NBA due to China’s reaction. It remains unclear how long the China problem might linger, but all eyes will be fixed on Houston to see how the combo of Harden and Westbrook will work.
by FIVE Magazine #162 – NBA Preview 2019/20