The Houston Rockets are in a unique position this season.
Sitting amid a crowded Western Conference, the Rockets have what has been praised as the best regular-season line-up in Russell Westbrook (who leaves everything on the floor each and every night) and James Harden (an offensive juggernaut).
The real question isn’t if the Rockets can reach the Western Conference finals; it’s if they can work Westbrook and Harden into a co-existing offence.
Many have raised concerns about how Westbrook and Harden will co-exist on offence since Russell’s move to Houston. Last season Harden averaged a usage rate of 40.5 per cent, with Westbrook at 30.9 per cent. What is obvious is how much of the ball these two guards want and need – Westbrook’s usage had him average a triple-double for the third year in a row – especially for Harden to score monster points in his games.
Unfortunately for these two, the game of basketball is played with only one ball. Fortunately, one thing is clear: Houston is Harden’s team, Harden’s city. Westbrook faces the challenge of accepting that he is not ‘the nan’ like he was in Oklahoma for so many Kevin Durant-less years. However, some might say that towards the end of last year Westbrook began to learn how to play as the second option.
Paul George was right in the MVP discussion until his shoulder injury began to burden him. Fans at Chesapeake Energy Arena chanted MVP when George was at the line. Although still Westbrook’s team, you could see him give the reins over to George. George had game-winning shots against Brooklyn Nets (114-112), Philadelphia 76ers (117-115), Utah Jazz (148-147) and, lastly, against Houston (112-111). Westbrook passed to George in the game against Brooklyn and Houston.
Westbrook and Harden are no strangers, having spent their early career years together in Oklahoma, and have been good friends since. Both players are former MVPs. Both players are in their prime (Russ perhaps exiting his prime but still a great athlete nonetheless) and both players have a respect and admiration for each another.
This year in Houston will shock a lot of people. Russell will begin to defer more and learn to give the ball up in tight games instead of taking it in his hands and trying to win the match solo. Westbrook won’t be scoring as many points, but look for his assists to skyrocket. With so many good shooters around him, expect Russ to find them. The price for Westbrook and Harden to work effectively on the offence may be at a cost to Westbrook’s triple-double stats.
The Houston Rockets have 82 games to figure out how to work Harden and Westbrook together. It will take time, as this is the first year where Russell is not the man anymore. He will have to learn and understand how to play best with Harden, and Harden will also have to defer more. This may take more than a season, but expect the Rockets to be right among the top teams in the Western Conference.
If Westbrook and Harden can effectively play alongside each other, expect this team to go deep into the play-offs.