As they seek a championship, the Houston Rockets are switching things up. Don’t worry about fit, they have talent and chaos on their side.
Winners win not in spite of chaos but by embracing it.
The Golden State Warriors strategically induced positionless chaos to build a mini-dynasty. The Toronto Raptors opportunistically took advantage of chaos to end it. If this summer is any indication, the Houston Rockets are torching the spreadsheets and embracing chaos.
After two-straight disappointing playoff eliminations, the Rockets traded the neat-and-tidy dynamic of James Harden and Chris Paul for the uber-aggro dynamism of Harden and Russell Westbrook. We’re talking Paul Simon vs. Woodstock ‘99. Jason Sudeikis vs Chris Farley. Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games vs. Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle. Houston’s trade with the Thunder is the third iteration of Daryl Morey’s Harden-plus-super-star formula, starting with Harden and Dwight Howard, moving through the CP3 experience and landing here, with both an exclamation point and a question mark. However, the Harden-Westbrook partnership has the potential to do greater things than any of the former duos, even if the fit isn’t as straight forward.
The Warriors and the contemporary 3-point shooting obsession has put “fit” on a pedestal. Kevin Durant’s fit with the Warriors was seamless and led to championships. When D’Angelo Russell was traded to Golden State, analysts worried about how Russell would fit next to Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson and overlooked the fact that he’s coming off an All-Star season, can provide isolation scoring and still has upside defensively. Or, put simply, Russell is good. According to contemporary basketball analysis, skillset trumps talent. Fit is fashionable.
Houston has helped give the fit movement steam. They have 3-point shooters, rim runners and versatile defenders surround Harden. They’ve also won zero championships. This isn’t to nitpick or boil down a complex argument to Ringz, but ask anyone in the Rockets organization and they’ll tell you the last two years have been a disappointment. During the second round of the playoffs against the Warriors, the Rockets were gifted an injury to Durant and couldn’t capitalize.
During Game 6 in Houston, the Rockets had a chance to win at home and force a Game 7 back in Oakland. The Warriors were short-handed without Durant and DeMarcus Cousins. Yet, rather than attack Golden State where it hurt, Harden settled for step-back 3 after step-back 3, several clanging off the rim in crunch time. Harden missed his last three 3-pointers after Durant’s injury in Game 5. In the elimination Game 6, he seemed exhausted, missing five free throws and inexplicably throwing the ball away on a key inbound pass with less than two minutes left in the game.
In some respects it makes sense to dance with the one that brought you but, in a playoff series, it’s the team that makes the best adjustments — not the one reluctantly clinging to what worked — that often wins. The Rockets became too predictable and played the violin as the Titanic went down.
In the Eastern Conference, if it weren’t for several fortunate bounces, the Philadelphia 76ers may have knocked off the Toronto Raptors in the second round despite the concerns over how Jimmy Butler fit with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. Fit aside, Philadelphia’s starting lineup of Simmons, J.J. Redick, Butler, Tobias Harris and Embiid were third in the league in net rating. Fit matters, at a point. The first thing you need is talent.
The Warriors had both — fit and talent. But now that the Warriors have been somewhat deconstructed, they’re just like everyone else: trying to acquire as much talent as possible and figuring out the fit later. Now that this perfect fit/talent conglomerate has been broken up, the league is more open than it has been in the last decade.
(As a point of reference, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade weren’t the perfect fit with the Miami Heat, but they won as many championships as the Durant-edition Warriors.)
High rollers spent the summer stocking up on top players. The Rockets are right there, with one top-five player and another top-20. When it comes to talent, they are as well-positioned as any.
From a barrel-chested and basketball IQ standpoint, Harden might be the closest thing to LeBron James outside of LaLa Land. Westbrook induces fear and attention in a way Paul did not. Opponents can’t take their eyes off either of Houston’s guards, which should create more space for both. Clint Capela had a disappointing postseason but is still one of the more versatile defensive centers in the league and is a threat rolling to the rim. PJ Tucker is a pit bull with a dope sneaker collection. Eric Gordon gets buckets in a pinch. Austin Rivers and Danuel House round out an underrated bench.
Even after flashy offseasons by the Lakers and Clippers, you could argue the Rockets are the most complete team in the West. Unlike the Clippers, they have a rim protection presence and aren’t facing injury concerns. Unlike the Lakers, they have depth and talent around their two stars. The Utah Jazz are nice but without the star power of the Rockets. The Warriors are bruised and poised to exhale. The Denver Nuggets are counting on a leap from Jamal Murray that may or may not happen.
If Harden and Westbrook can’t figure out how to play with each other, then head coach Mike D’Antoni can stagger their minutes and keep a former MVP on the floor at all times. When it comes to fit, Houston’s role players make more sense in a spread pick-and-roll led by Westbrook than did Oklahoma City’s. He should see marginal improvements because of that alone.
If the Harden and Westbrook thing gels — if they learn to play off each other, Westbrook becomes less blindly ambitious, and both play defense — they could have the inside track at the No. 1 seed in the West and homecourt throughout the playoffs. Now, that’s a big if, but it’s also possible, and as likely as any other scenario you could game out.
It will take Harden evolving to be slightly less predictable, relying more on his creativity and less on patented moves that exploit loopholes in the rules. It will take Westbrook falling back, conceding usage and becoming an agent of chaos. He is the one who at the end of the game will crash for an offensive rebound, will put his head down and throttle toward the rim, will jack up a mid-range jumper when the defense is giving him space, will gamble for steals, will draw fouls. He widens Houston’s variance — the valleys are marginally lower but the peaks are so much higher.
The risk is worth it because the Rockets won’t be much worse, if at all, by swapping Paul for Westbrook, but they’ve propped open their championship window for a few more years. Fit be damned, all the Rockets want is a chance. As the NBA has proven time and time again, a chance is often all it takes.