The Rockets belong to Russell Westbrook now, but that’s not the only thing we learned from the 2019-20 NBA season.
As we wait for whatever is to come of the 2019-20 NBA season, even a momentary pause will leave certain moments and breakthroughs from the season as a memory and conversation to cherish while we look forward to the next time basketball is in our lives. Yet other, larger trends from the NBA season will not go away.
Using this break to take stock of what happened in the NBA through the first 65 or so games of the season, here are the undeniable, no-brainer things we learned in 2019-20:
3. The Rockets became Russell Westbrook’s team in the spring
Back on Feb. 7, the Rockets lost to the Suns in Phoenix by 36 points. This was just after a convincing victory over the Lakers on the road, a game that seemed to solidify the fact that Houston’s super-small approach could work. This loss to Phoenix would become one of the only blemishes on their record through the rest of February.
The real story of that game, though, wasn’t how the Suns stymied a strategy no one else in the NBA could. It was that Russell Westbrook didn’t play. Losing to the lowly Suns without Westbrook, and going 9-2 in the month overall, signaled a shift in the Rockets’ hierarchy.
Westbrook 33.4 points per game in February, handling a monstrous 38 percent of Houston possessions when he was on the floor to the tune of a nice 59.4 true shooting percentage. This on a team featuring 2018 NBA MVP James Harden. The Rockets became Westbrook’s team from February on, and especially after the trade for Robert Covington opened up the floor for Westbrook to transform into Juggernaut, the X-Men villain.
The 2019-20 season was by no means a bad one for Harden. The perennial MVP candidate scored like mad, remained highly efficient, and used Houston’s return to heavy switching on defense to flash some defensive value in the post and on the glass that he hadn’t shown in a while.
Still, the Rockets came together around Westbrook. After finishing 26th in pace in 2018-19 with Harden and Chris Paul pounding the rock, Westbrook’s addition (and the casting out of Clint Capela) propelled Houston to a fourth-place finish in possessions per game. Westbrook gave the Rockets another player who could create 3s for role players and get to the line for efficient baskets himself. Paul could do just one of those things.
The Rockets are far from a finished product with Westbrook and Harden together, and the defense and rebounding showed major cracks before the league pressed pause, but few could have expected Westbrook at age 32 wrestling Houston’s idea away from Harden, the man who built it.