The Houston Rockets made their splashy move of the summer after being limited to re-signing their free agents for the vast part of this offseason. The acquisition of Russell Westbrook certainly gives them a demonic one-two punch between him and recent MVP runner-up James Harden, but that won’t come without its fair share of issues through the course of the 2019-20 season.
Here are three problems this MVP-laden tandem will encounter in their quest for a title.
3. 3-Point Shooting
Westbrook has been a lackluster, but willing 3-point shooter his entire career. His MVP season in 2016-17 saw him shoot a career-best 34.3% from deep, an average that comes well shy of what’s expected for a player that took, in Westbrook’s case, 7.2 attempts per game.
Harden, despite leading the NBA in 3-pointers made the last two seasons, is largely a volume shooter, rather than an effective one — contrary to popular belief. While he’s able to put up a 61-point line going 9-of-13 from deep, like he did against the San Antonio Spurs last season, that streakiness averages out with his shooting slumps throughout the season, as he shot a combined 3-of-31 (9.7%) from beyond the arc in late February, going 2-for-10, 0-for-10, and 1-of-11 in games against the Lakers, Hawks, and Hornets, respectively.
Houston’s system is highly dependent in converting 3-point shots, and that’s not likely to change due to this point guard swap. The Rockets will suffer for that stubbornness, changing a capable shot-maker in Chris Paul for an erratic one in Westbrook to pair next to a streaky Harden.
Neither Westbrook nor Harden are adept at playing without the ball. Both are ball-dominant players, and while Westbrook has worked a bit on his catch-and-shoot ability after two years with Paul George, Harden has had a habit of standing when he doesn’t have the ball.
The Beard has been known as a devastating force shooting his patented step-back three, he’s become too much of a rhythm shooter to be widely effective as a spot-up shot-maker. A fix is possible, but it’s not a transition that comes easily or naturally for a star that’s been asked to carry the load for his last seven years and has patterned his game to that goal.
Westbrook and Harden have been known to barrel their way past defenders and having their way with the ball in their hands, but both are rendered almost useless when the ball is out of their hands. Their clear lack of off-ball movement will only make the players around them work that much harder to create openings around the perimeter.
There’s only one ball to go around, and if the combination of Harden and Paul looked disastrous at times throughout last season, imagine replacing Paul for a less-capable shooter who has never had to figure out a way to score besides isolation.
1. Controlling the pace
As many similarities as Harden and Westbrook have, their game is distinctly different in terms of the pace in which they choose to attack their opponents.
Westbrook is at his best in transition, snatching a defensive board only to go full steam ahead, find holes in a team’s transition defense and attack the basket mercilessly. Harden on the other hand is a much more methodic scorer, waiting to get his prey in isolation, where he will abuse him with a series of fakes, feints, and loopy crossover dribbles to get to the cup or open up enough space for a jumper.
The Rockets will have to pick whether they’ll like to play up tempo and make use of Westbrook’s end-to-end speed, or if they prefer to remain a team that operates in the half-court.
Opting for speed would make the most of rim-runners like Clint Capela, but would force players like Eric Gordon and PJ Tucker — 30 and 34 years old, respectively — to run up and down the court to aid their blazing dynamo. Playing a slower pace would allow Houston to operate under a familiar system, which they have mastered, but would render Westbrook’s use as very limited, given his lack of experience playing off the ball in a consistent basis.
If the Rockets can survive these hurdles, they can be contenders to climb their way atop the West, now boasting two of the last three Most Valuable Player award winners of the last three seasons.