After trading for Russell Westbrook, the Houston Rockets and James Harden are going to have their work cut out for them on defense.
In the wake of the shocking, seismic trade that saw the Oklahoma City Thunder send Russell Westbrook to the Houston Rockets in exchange for Chris Paul, two first-round picks, and two pick swaps, much of the immediate online discussion centered around how Houston’s latest star duo will fit together on offense.
Westbrook and James Harden are two of the highest usage players in the NBA, and also two of the most ball-dominant. One of Westbrook or Harden has led the NBA in usage rate in four of the past five seasons. According to Second Spectrum tracking data on NBA.com, Harden led the NBA in time of possession last season, holding the ball in his hands for 9.3 minutes per game. Westbrook ranked fourth at 7.7 minutes per game. Westbrook led the NBA in the same stat in 2017-18, while Harden ranked second. In 2016-17, Harden ranked second and Westbrook ranked third.
In other words, both of these guys are used to having the ball in their hands all. the. time. And while Mike D’Antoni will surely stagger their minutes so that one of the two is always on the floor and they each get the chance to run the show, they will obviously spend a good amount of time on the floor together as well. Harden and Paul shared the floor for an average of 20.4 minutes per game the last two seasons, and it’s reasonable to expect Harden and Westbrook to play together about as often.
That reality means Westbrook, Harden, or both will have to make some adjustments. But just as was the case when Harden and Paul came together, those adjustments may not be quite as dramatic as you’d think. Westbrook had the ball in his hands 21.4 percent of the time he was on the floor last season, per an analysis of the Second Spectrum data. Paul had the ball in his hands 20.6 percent of the time, even though he played on Harden’s team and Harden had the ball 25.3 percent of the time. By way of comparison, Paul possessed the ball 26.0 percent of the time during his final season with the Clippers. He was adjusting from a far higher starting point than Westbrook will be, and he did just fine.
The obvious difference is that Paul is a plus shooter and an asset away from the ball, while Westbrook is neither of those things. He tends to stand around and watch the action elsewhere when he’s not the one controlling it. The design of the Rockets’ offense reduced non-Harden players to bystanders at times over the past couple seasons, but those players were not as skilled on-ball as Westbrook and more often than not they brought shooting ability to the table. Still, the combination of Harden and Westbrook running pick-and-rolls with Clint Capela while Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker and Danuel House and Austin Rivers and Gerald Green space the floor — and Mike D’Antoni at the controls — all but guarantees the Rockets will score, and score efficiently.
Westbrook will not suddenly become Harden, but it’s reasonable to expect his shot profile to shift in a slightly more desirable direction. Harden will not suddenly become strictly an off-ball player again, but it’s reasonable to expect that he’ll have a bit more energy with the Rockets able to shift so much responsibility to Westbrook. Given Houston’s ruthless pursuit of the most efficient possible shots at the cost of nearly all else, plus Harden’s own absurd efficiency, offense is simply not going to be a problem for this team.
Instead, the issues will likely arise on the less glamorous side of the floor. For much of the past two seasons, the Rockets have used a switch-heavy system that both mitigated Harden’s weaknesses (off-ball defense) and maximized his strengths (guarding one-on-one, particularly in the post). They basically had to use that system due to his shortcomings, but it also worked incredibly well for them. Part of the reason it worked so well, though, was because Paul brought the same strengths as Harden, but without any of the same weaknesses, and he also had the ability to defend the league’s best point guards on a nightly basis.
Things will be far different with Westbrook. If anything, Russ is even spacier off the ball than Harden. He zones out a lot and may get beat by back cuts more often than any player in the league. He frequently loses shooters off the ball while he is paying attention to action elsewhere. He is not the most attentive defender of screens, which makes him a poor fit in a switch-heavy defense where communication and timing are essential. When he is truly locked in he can be a terror on the ball (especially when applying full-court pressure, as we’ve seen on Team USA) and he’s long been an expert at jumping passing lanes for steals; but on the minutiae of NBA defense, he largely comes up short.
Accounting for one subpar defender in the backcourt necessitated contortions from the Rockets’ defense these past couple years. In 2017-18, they were on-point the entire season and everything worked smoothly. It wasn’t ultimately enough because Paul got injured in the conference finals, but until that point, things went about as well as possible. Defensive coordinator Jeff Bzdelik left the team prior to last season, though, and the Rockets struggled badly to implement the same system. Things got so bad at one point that they largely abandoned it for a bit until Bzdelik returned to the fold and got things back on track. Bzdelik is now gone again, though, and on his way to the Pelicans, which means he’s not coming back to fix whatever goes awry this time around.
With Houston now potentially having to contort itself to account for two subpar defenders and no longer having Paul to sic on primary ball-handlers, there’s going to be a whole lot more pressure on Capela and Tucker and Gordon and House and Rivers and Green and everybody else. How that plays out could well determine whether this version of the Rockets can finally get over the hump.