One week after the announced trade from the Philadelphia 76ers, James Harden will make his Los Angeles Clippers debut to play alongside former teammate Russell Westbrook on Monday night in Madison Square Garden against the New York Knicks. The Los Angeles Clippers will now be starting four players with multiple All-Star appearances on their resumes in Harden, Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard, and Paul George.
Harden and Westbrook's professional paths have been intertwined since the beginning of their NBA career on the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2009. Alongside Kevin Durant, they formed a dangerous young core that reached the NBA Finals in 2012. Although they fell short of a championship, that early experience laid the groundwork for both to emerge as future league MVPs and scoring champions.
When Harden was traded to the Houston Rockets in 2012, he transformed into one of the league's most lethal offensive weapons, leading the NBA in scoring for multiple seasons and clinching the MVP award in 2018. Westbrook, meanwhile, continued as the heartbeat of the Thunder, especially after Durant's departure in 2016, and went on win an MVP of his own, as well as averaging a triple-double for three consecutive seasons — a historic achievement not seen since Oscar Robertson in 1962.
Westbrook and Harden: A dynamic duo in Houston
The 2019-2020 season saw these two stars align for a second time as the Houston Rockets acquired Westbrook with the aim of pairing him alongside Harden to boost their championship aspirations. It was a season of high expectations, and the duo did not disappoint in terms of offensive firepower in the regular season. Harden dominated the scoring charts with an average of 34.3 points per game, while Westbrook added 27.2 points per game.
Their combined scoring efforts reached a historic high, the likes of which the NBA hadn't seen since the days of Elgin Baylor and Jerry West with the Lakers in 1969. Harden and Westbrook averaged a combined 62.5 PPG, echoing the dominance of that iconic Lakers duo. This offensive firepower brought an exhilarating brand of basketball to the Toyota Center.
James Harden and Russell Westbrook have surpassed Shaq and Kobe as the highest scoring duo in a season since the ABA-NBA merger 🤯
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) August 8, 2020
In tandem, Harden and Westbrook elevated the Rockets to one of the most formidable squads to watch in the league. The team's offensive system, heavily reliant on isolation plays and a three-point barrage, seemed tailor-made for the two superstars. Harden, with his step-back threes and uncanny ability to draw fouls, and Westbrook, with his relentless drives and mid-range pull-ups, complemented each other in a dance of high-octane scoring and playmaking.
Delayed Regular Season And Falling Short Of A Ring
Despite the regular season's impressive numbers and highlights, the playoffs told a different story. Topped with the season abruptly ending and then resuming three months later in the infamous Orlando bubble due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Rockets' star duo ran out of gas, as they were eliminated in the second round by the LeBron James and Anthony Davis-led Los Angeles Lakers.
The postseason shortfall marked the end of Harden and Westbrook's run together in Houston, as both would find themselves on different teams the following season, leading to a disastrous Rockets rebuild and cultural shift for the next three seasons.
Third Time's The Charm?
As Harden and Westbrook reunite for their third stint in Los Angeles, they find themselves at the tail-end of their careers — Harden at 34 and Westbrook at 35. The combined careers now carry the weight of unfulfilled championship dreams, as each of their basketball mortality hangs by a thread.
Kawhi, already a two-time NBA champion, knows the taste of victory. However, his availability on the court when it comes to health cannot be trusted at this stage in his career. Paul George has also endured his fair share of injuries throughout his time on the Clippers.
Time and time again, the Lakers' “little brother” has failed to achieve the elusive NBA Finals ring, let alone make a first-ever appearance. For this “Big 4” — Harden, Westbrook, George, and Leonard — the 2023-2024 season represents a last-ditch effort, a final push toward the summit of an NBA championship. With three of them in the last year of their contracts, the stakes couldn't be higher.
For Rockets fans, witnessing The Beard finally earn an NBA title could wash away the failed attempts of winning it all during his nine-year tenure in Houston.