James Harden and Russell Westbrook are not the same kind of ball-dominant force. Will this pairing of dynamic opposites work for the Houston Rockets?
If you don’t think about it too long, you could be fooled into believing that the recently reunited Russell Westbrook and James Harden play a similar style of basketball. Both have been the hubs, the cornerstones of their respective teams, dominating the ball, dribbling it interminably until they either shoot or create an opportunity for someone else. It all starts and ultimately ends with them.
If you watch them play, though, it becomes clear these two players could hardly be more distinct from one another. Stylistically, they occupy completely separate spheres united only by the gravity they emit, pulling everything happening on the court towards them and their inescapable impact, whether good or bad.
Harden is the personification of detached deliberation, taking his time dribbling between his legs on the perimeter as he sizes up his opponent, looking for something only he seems to be able to see, trying to determine the best moment to make his move.
I do not know what exactly he is looking for as he determines whether or not to drive past his defender, step back for a 3 or pass off to a teammate, but when he sees it, he makes his decision with a measured and unhurried confidence, knowing that, odds are, it will be effective. While he is entrancing to watch, style infused with a subtle elegance, it’s easy to see his game through a more cynical lens.
Harden takes advantage of the rules and the tendencies of referees in a way that no one ever has before and while it may be easy for many to decry this as a subtle, though legal, form of cheating, his ability to draw fouls requires no small amount of skill — however aesthetically displeasing it may be at times. He has weighed the odds and accordingly almost exclusively shoots from the perimeter, the restricted area and the foul line.
Yet he is saved from seeming like a walking algorithm by the flashes of brilliance we see — those unmediated moments where he improvises and finds the roll man through a passing lane that was invisible to all others, or makes a defender look foolish, making them fall backwards, moving in the opposite direction as he steps back for an open, easy 3-pointer.
Westbrook does not calculate or mull over possibilities. He simply acts, unleashing himself and his athleticism upon opponents in ways that confuse, frustrate and amaze in equal measure. He clearly wants to succeed, but on his own terms, preferring to go down fighting than to win by playing in a more measured or constrained way.
It often works, but his failures are so much more outsized and individualized than those of others. In such a moment, not only will he miss the shot or turn the ball over, he’ll do it in such a way that it’s nearly impossible to imagine anyone else doing it. The thing is, you can say the same thing about his triumphs, which is why he’s still an MVP and eight-time All-NBA team member in spite of all his shortcomings.
What Westbrook and Harden do have in common is they are the NBA’s consummate solo artists. In spite of their gaudy assist totals, everything still flows through them. They define the style and temperament of their teams, with none able to fully escape their influence. There’s been a lot of talk about how they will be forced to compromise now that they are teammates again in Houston, but it’s truly difficult to imagine what that could look like or entail considering both play in a way that is so, well, uncompromising.
While they have played together before, things are quite different now. Then, in Oklahoma City, Harden was the sixth man, coming off the bench to provide an extra punch for leading men Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Now, though, this will be Harden’s team. Houston has invested its hopes in him for the past seven seasons and shows no intention of stopping now. Westbrook has been brought in not to take over for Harden, but to play a supporting role alongside him.
If things go awry, it will not be Harden that Rockets management places the blame on, but Westbrook, who would be seen as the one who could not or would not adjust. They will be billed as co-stars — and they are indeed both stars — but there is still a power discrepancy here that could make things awkward.
Also, when they played together on the Thunder, they were a team on the rise, graded on a curve in light of their youth. When they lost in the 2012 NBA Finals to the Miami Heat, no one was too disappointed because surely they would be back in due time and claim the championship that appeared so certain to one day be theirs.
Of course, things didn’t work out that way. Just months after their Finals loss, Harden was traded to Houston and neither Harden nor Westbrook has returned to the championship round in the seven years since. Now, both players are former MVPs whose individual success is marred by a lack of postseason triumphs to match, and this pairing may be their last chance to vindicate themselves by winning a title.
Harden will be 30 in August and Westbrook will be 31 in November. While both are still All-NBA level talents, the end of their primes looms in the near future. If Westbrook or Harden is ever likely to win a title while still a star, it now appears certain they will have to do it together.
Three months away from the season starting, it is unclear how these two distinct players will mesh, how head coach Mike D’Antoni will utilize Westbrook and Harden in the hopes of maximizing their respective strengths and whether it will actually work.
What feels certain, though, is that if they are to find success this year, they will do it in their own, unique way, fighting to overcome traditional ideas of what makes a successful team by virtue of their outlandish abilities. It’s just impossible to say right now whether that willfulness is advisable or will turn out to be self-defeating once April and May roll around.