Only a few minutes into his introductory news conference, Russell Westbrook said something Friday that would’ve caused a collective spit take around the NBA just a few weeks ago.
“I only care about one team,” Westbrook said, “and that’s the Houston Rockets.”
After spending his first 11 seasons with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Westbrook officially embarked on a new chapter Friday. It was a somewhat surreal image, Westbrook dressed in Rockets colors with general manager Daryl Morey sitting to his right.
“To get something great, you’ve got to give up something great,” Morey said.
“We’ve been friends for many, many years,” Westbrook said of Harden. “Since I was 10, actually. So we’ve played with each other in Oklahoma City, and to be able to win something, you’ve got to be willing to sacrifice some parts of your game, and we both understand that.
“We both understand that we have one common goal, and that’s to win a championship. We understand what we have to do. I’m not worried about it, and I know James isn’t worried about it. I can play off the ball; I don’t have to touch the ball to impact the game. That’s the best way for me to come in and impact this team. I can do other things on the floor to make sure we have a better chance to win.”
Westbrook and Harden played together for three seasons in Oklahoma City, culminating in 2012. Harden, who won the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award that season, was traded to the Rockets before the beginning of the 2012-13 campaign. Westbrook was already an All-Star at the time, but both players established themselves as franchise players, winning MVPs and making NBA history along the way.
Westbrook and Harden share confidence about making the pairing work in Houston because of their familiarity with each other, but they were significantly different players when they last were teammates.
“I’ll fit right in, personally,” Westbrook said. “Floor spread, it gives me the opportunity to attack, penetrate, kick. Defensively, it’ll give me an opportunity to switch and guard and rebound at a high level. Push the break, get us out on the break. A lot of different things.
“I think the style of play is great, something I’m looking forward to, just getting out in space in the open floor, shooters all around and playing that way.”
Westbrook and Harden are two of the most ball-dominant players in NBA history. Both primarily have handled the ball and dictated offense for the teams while also affecting the game with scoring and rebounding. Westbrook has won two scoring titles and led the league in assists the past two seasons; Harden has won the past two scoring titles, last season averaging 36.1 points per game.
“The biggest strength, I think, of Coach [Mike] D’Antoni and his staff is taking what guys are good at and putting them in ways to succeed, but not saying that they need to change, but figuring out how to utilize their strengths,” Morey said. “That’s what Mike’s done better than any coach I’ve ever worked with. When you’ve got two MVPs, it’s a lot to work with.”
The trade sending Westbrook to Houston came together quickly and was a direct ripple effect of Paul George requesting a trade from the Thunder a few days into free agency and joining Kawhi Leonard with the LA Clippers.
After the Thunder moved George, they accelerated conversations with Westbrook about his future with the franchise, and both sides agreed that the best outcome was a trade this summer. Houston was the primary desired destination for Westbrook, mainly because of Harden, who played a part in advocating for the deal.
“James is persistent if he wants something done, and we had conversations and we always talked throughout the season, so it was definitely a process, an easy process for me,” Westbrook said. “Not a hard decision at all.”
Morey laughed when Westbrook mentioned Harden’s persistence.
“You guys said it came together quickly, but it didn’t happen quick enough for James,” Morey said.
Westbrook had been seen as a likely lifer in OKC, especially after pledging his loyalty following the 2016 departure of Kevin Durant to the Golden State Warriors. Westbrook signed an extension that summer to provide stability to the franchise, and then he re-signed a new five-year supermax extension the next summer, planting his flag seemingly for the long term.
Westbrook and the Thunder had engaged in conversations about his future after the 2018-19 season, with an understanding that a change may be necessary at some point — though the expectation was that scenario was tabled until at least after 2019-20.
But with circumstances changing, Westbrook and the Thunder were both ready to move on.
“It’s tough,” Westbrook said. “It’s something that will stay with me the rest of my life. Because I basically grew up there, in Oklahoma City. Eighteen years old in Oklahoma City and the people, the organization, never done me wrong. They always stood up for me and my family — always had my back — and I’m very, very grateful and I don’t take that for granted.
“Like I said, Sam and Mr. [Clay] Bennett [OKC’s owner], Coach [Scott] Brooks, Coach [Billy] Donovan, the whole staff, everybody over there always had my best interests, and I can’t do nothing but be thankful and grateful for what they did for me and my family.”
The Westbrook-Rockets partnership is ironic, since he has been ridiculed and despised by the Houston fan base perhaps more than any other. Westbrook and Harden went head-to-head in 2016-17 for the MVP award, with Morey loudly campaigning for Harden and against Westbrook.
On Friday, however, in a nearly 20-minute opening news conference, Westbrook flashed his trademark charm, affirmed his commitment to play hard every night and spoke openly about the desire to win a championship.
But there was one more thing he wanted his new fans to know.
“That I’m a nice guy,” Westbrook said with a smile. “Obviously when I play the game, I’m going out to compete. I’m going out to win. And I don’t care how that looks.”