To maximize their talents together, James Harden and Russell Westbrook must evolve in Houston.
Just two years ago, the Houston Rockets traded for Chris Paul and launched into a full-scale championship pursuit. They came incredibly close in 2018 before Paul’s right hamstring gave out in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals, leaving James Harden a win short of defeating the defending NBA champions. After a second failed playoff run, Russell Westbrook has replaced Paul, forming a partnership with Harden that can only be maximized through compromise and evolution.
Harden and Westbrook are the two most ball-dominant superstars of all-time. They’re the only players in NBA history to record a usage rate above 40 percent for a season. They own four of the top-10 highest seasonal usage rates in NBA history. Their offensive styles are contrasting — one relies on shooting and guile, the other on turbocharged firepower — but still command the lion’s share of touches. It’s similar to Harden and Paul yet distinct in a crucial way.
Paul and Harden each preferred the ball in their hands but Paul’s shooting prowess allowed that duo to function well together (plus-7.4 net rating in 2018-19, plus-13.1 in 2017-18). Head coach Mike D’Antoni’s offensive system emphasizes shooting around its ball-handlers, primarily Harden; Paul filled that niche well (45.1 percent on spot-up 3s since 2016-17).
Westbrook, meanwhile, consistently fails to produce efficiency on catch-and-shoot attempts. Over the past three years, he’s only converted 33.5 percent of his spot-up triples. To replicate the success Harden and Paul enjoyed together, a different formula is needed. Simply stationing Westbrook off the ball and expecting him to space the floor for Harden’s pick-and-rolls or isolations won’t work. Defenses won’t respect Westbrook as a credible release valve. They’ll shade on drives, tag rollers or ignore him altogether by trapping Harden out top.
It seems transparent and reductive but the most realistic way for Westbrook to coexist offensively next to Harden is harnessing his explosiveness as a cutter. He’s one of the league’s most dangerous athletes in space but he’s often looking to catch his breath away from the ball rather than seeking out avenues to pierce the defense.
This same refrain was echoed when the Oklahoma City Thunder acquired Paul George two summers ago. But over the last two seasons, Westbrook only registered 57 cuts, though ranked in the 80th percentile (2018-19) and 58th percentile (2017-18). If he truly commits himself to becoming a lively cutter, which seems unlikely based upon recent history, one of the primary concerns of the Harden-Westbrook tandem is quieted.
Evolution was required to make the pairing with George work and ultimately, Westbrook opted for idleness over off-ball activity. When you’re a poor spot-up shooter, you have to get creative to keep defenders engaged. Next to Harden, cutting and off-ball screening — Westbrook’s 6-foot-3, 200-pound seems sneakily useful for flare screens or hammer actions — are the smartest ways to remain relevant without the rock in his hands.
This doesn’t mean Westbrook’s fit with the Rockets is entirely incongruous. Oklahoma City’s lack of credible shooters mitigated his dribble-drive ability whereas a cornerstone of Houston’s offense is surrounding its primary ball-handlers with willing and able marksmen. He’s never played on a team with spacing like this.
When Westbrook is directing traffic, he’ll be flanked by guys like Harden, PJ Tucker, Eric Gordon and Austin Rivers. Defenses have to respect Clint Capela as a lob threat; that’ll open up driving lanes, too. Westbrook shot 63 percent at the rim last season (86th percentile, per Cleaning the Glass). I’d imagine that efficiency rises next season, assuming he avoids any precipitous athletic declines.
Because Westbrook is more capable of putting pressure on the rim than Paul, it should lead to better looks for shooters. Defenders have to be conscious of his dynamic finishing, meaning they’re more likely to rotate off shooters to help on drives or protect the rim. Paul primarily relied on his pull-up game; sending help wasn’t necessary all that often.
Last season, 40 percent of Westbrook’s field goal attempts came at the bucket while just 11 percent of Paul’s did. Westbrook ranked in the 81st percentile in rim frequency; Paul was in the first. Harden isn’t elite at getting to the basket — he’s merely good, though partially by design, given his 3-point volume. But the Rockets now boast two ball-handlers who defenses have to account for as interior play finishers.
Paul doesn’t operate like that. His mounting athletic limitations make him a predictable scorer who’s increasingly dependent on jump shots. Even if it’s effective, it lacks diversity and is easy to game plan for. At least in that regard, Westbrook is an upgrade, adding diversity and the possibility of higher-quality 3-point attempts.
For all the ways in which Westbrook must adapt his game, so too must Harden in some respects. Paul was moderately comfortable without the ball in his hands because of his shooting skills. Westbrook’s approach demands more on-ball usage than Paul, even if he embraces off-ball duties like cutting and screening. The lack of shooting can be schemed around to a degree but it still handicaps the offense at times. He shouldn’t play off the ball as regularly as Paul did next to Harden.
As such, Harden can’t stand four feet away from the arc, unprepared to fire catch-and-shoot 3s. In theory, he’s a very good floor-spacer; in practice, he tends to either remove himself from the play or simply searches for ways to get the ball back in his hands. Moving forward, Harden has to commit himself to engaging off the ball and the baseline threshold is low: just consistently be a ready and willing shooter on the wing.
That’s a rather simple bar to meet. The real potential exists with Harden developing into a shooter who curls around screens from time to time. It’s hardly been part of his game in recent years (just 98 off-screen possessions over the past three seasons, per Synergy) and asking it to become a staple is far-fetched. Yet much like every other suggestion, it makes the fit with Westbrook more palatable and dangerous. Harden doesn’t need to be a high-volume off-screen shooter. He just needs to adopt it as a more prominent feature of his scoring package.
Doing so would be a noteworthy adjustment and would drain some of his energy for dazzling on-ball displays. But it’d also mean he’s a legit off-ball threat, which he’s hardly been with the Rockets. And if Westbrook assumes a significant chunk of the usage, Harden can be more discretionary in his devotion to those taxing isolation possessions. Once again, it echoes the theme of this MVP crossover: compromise.
Beyond asking Harden to be more attentive as a spot-up player, Houston should uniquely involve him in Spain pick-and-rolls. It’s a set that D’Antoni has primarily used when Harden is the ball-handler but there’s an opportunity to make him a screener.
Generally, the screeners are off-ball players like Capela and Eric Gordon. Capela rolls to the rim and Gordon flares to the top of the key for 3. Harden, though, could replace Gordon while Westbrook assumes Harden’s position as the conductor. With the defense forced to honor Capela’s vertical spacing, Westbrook’s downhill driving and Harden’s 3-point shooting, Spain pick-and-rolls are bound to create mismatches while also linking Houston’s two best players.
Embedding that into the offense demands a schematic tweak from Harden and D’Antoni. Paul is nowhere near as punishing on drives as Westbrook but he’s still a very capable ball-handler and a better pull-up shooter. His presence didn’t usher in that type of wrinkle in Harden’s usage. It’s time the Rockets embraced some flexibility.
Since the Thunder’s run to the NBA Finals in 2012, Harden and Westbrook have experienced seven seasons end in disappointment. Back then, with their primes on the horizon, the future — collectively and individually — seemed full of promise. The clock that slowly rotates, tracking the rise and fall of every career, was hardly audible. Now, they’ll enter the 2019-20 season as two 30-year-olds in search of their first title, strikingly aware of that clock. Compromise and evolution are the keys to quieting its tick.