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Houston Rockets

Why the James Harden-Russell Westbrook partnership will and won't work with the Houston Rockets

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Harden and Westbrook (NBA Getty Images)

Just when it appeared as though all of the dust had settled from an insane NBA offseason, the Houston Rockets made a blockbuster trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder for Russell Westbrook.

Rockets general manager Daryl Morey announced on July 17 that the team has traded Chris Paul, two protected first-round picks and "other draft considerations" to Oklahoma City for the eight-time All-Star. The Rockets received only Westbrook in return.

Westbrook and Harden have been teammates before, even making the NBA Finals together in 2011-12, the season before Harden was traded to the Rockets. The two, however, have changed a lot since then, to the point where there's no guarantee this partnership will work.

First, let's take a look at...

Why it will work

A big reason the Rockets finished the 2017-18 season with the best record in the NBA was that they had a Hall of Fame point guard running the offence for 48 minutes per game. Paul and Harden played a lot together, but Paul was on the floor for basically every minute Harden was on the bench, and vice versa.

The Rockets weren't able to do that to the same degree in 2018-19 because Paul was in and out of the lineup with injuries. As long as he can stay healthy, the plan is likely to usher Westbrook into that role, both as a means to keep him and Harden as fresh as possible for the playoffs and to ensure they get the touches they've become accustomed to as two of the league's highest usage players.

While Westbrook isn't close to being the shooter Paul is - more on that in a bit - he's better suited to be a No. 1 or No. 2 on a contender at this stage of his career. Westbrook is coming off of a season in which he averaged 22.9 points and 10.7 assists per game, numbers that helped him make his fifth straight All-Star appearance and eighth All-NBA selection. Paul, on the other hand, averaged a career-low 15.6 points per game last season to go along with 8.2 assists.

By most advanced metrics, it was one of the worst seasons of Paul's career, a concerning sign for an undersized point guard entering his mid-30s.

MORE: NBA world reacts to trade | Houston's updated title odds

One thing in particular Westbrook does better than Paul that will ease his fit on the Rockets is put pressure on teams at the basket. According to NBA.com, Westbrook averaged the third-most drives per game last season, trailing only Harden and DeMar DeRozan. He's primarily a scorer in those situations, but he led the league with 9.7 passes per game off of his drives, which he turned into 2.8 assists.

For all of the attention Westbrook gets as a scorer, he's quietly become one of the league's best facilitators.

Westbrook should have even more space to work with in Houston than he did in Oklahoma City, as the Rockets can surround him with shooters at every position, plus an athletic rim-runner in Clint Capela. When teams collapse on his drives, Westbrook will set up the likes of Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker and Gerald Green with the same type of 3-pointers Harden creates for them on a nightly basis.

When they don't, Westbrook will finish at a high rate at the basket. He might not be quite as explosive as he once was, but Westbrook made 63.1 percent of his shot attempts in the restricted area last season, marking a new career-high.

Westbrook could add a new dimension to the Rockets as a transition scorer as well. Whereas Paul generated 10.8 percent of his offence on those plays last season, around a quarter of Westbrook's scoring came in the open court. (The only players to score more points per game in transition than Westbrook? Devin Booker, LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo).

With Westbrook and Harden together, it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Rockets go from being in the middle of the pack in transition scoring to among the league leaders.

If nothing else, Westbrook should be able to keep the Rockets afloat whenever Harden isn't on the court, much like Paul did in his first season with the Rockets. He could also help Harden transition into being more of an off-ball threat - another way in which the Rockets could keep him as fresh as possible for the playoffs - although their on-court fit together is where this gets complicated.

That brings us to...

Why it won't work

Efficiency could be a problem, to say the least.

First and foremost, the Rockets now have the two players who have led the league in turnovers per game in three of the last four seasons sharing the same backcourt. Even though Paul's days of being an All-Star appear to be over, he's always taken care of the ball. He's averaging 2.4 turnovers per game in his NBA career - an incredible mark for a player of his calibre - compared to 4.1 for Westbrook.

As mentioned above, Westbrook isn't close to being the shooter Paul is, either. Paul was rarely on the receiving end of Harden's assists, but he's proven to be someone who can knock down 3-pointers at a high rate, both from a standstill and off the dribble. Teams have to at least respect Paul when he didn't have the ball in his hands.

Westbrook, meanwhile, has made 33.5 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts over the last six seasons. When he shares the court with Harden, teams will likely be aggressive in helping off of Westbrook to throw multiple defenders at last season's leading scorer. It's somewhat of a weird trade for the Rockets to make considering there isn't a team in the history of the league that relies on 3-pointers as much as they do.

In the words of Tom Haberstroh of NBC Sports: "It can't be overstated that the most 3-point obsessed team in NBA history just traded for the worst high-volume 3-point shooter ever."

Then there's the biggest question of them all: How do Westbrook and Harden share the ball?

Harden had the highest usage rate in the league last season and Westbrook wasn't far behind, ranking eighth overall. Both have the skills to be bigger off-ball threats - Harden primary as a spot-up shooter, Westbrook as a cutter and a shooter if he improves on catch-and-shoots and cuts 3-point pull-ups out of his game - but they haven't shown enough in recent years to believe they're capable of doing so in a way that'll help them get the best out of each other.

There could be a lot of "your turn, my turn" with Westbrook and Harden, far more than what we saw with Paul and Harden, with whichever one doesn't have the ball in their hands standing around.

Finally, the trade could hurt the Rockets defensively. Westbrook consistently ranks near the top of the league in steals and deflections - the combination of which helps him get out in transition - but he ranked 32nd among point guards in Defensive Real Plus-Minus last season, four spots below Harden, who has become a punching bag on that end of the court even though he has improved.

As for Paul, he had the best Defensive Real Plus-Minus at his position.

The on-off numbers are even more glaring. Whereas the Rockets saw their defensive rating improve by 7.7 points per 100 possessions with Paul on the court last season, the Thunder saw theirs decrease by 5.7 points per 100 possessions with Westbrook on the court. With the amount of star power that there now is in the Western Conference, particularly at the guard and forward positions, the Rockets can't afford for their two best players to be negatives on defence.

Despite those red flags, will Westbrook and Harden figure out a way to make it work? With the amount of money they are both owed between now and the summer of 2023 and the amount of draft picks the Rockets parted with to acquire Westbrook, Houston will be in big trouble if they can't.

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