“I just had a malfunction.”
When Russell Westbrook has the ball everything is out of control and dangerous, always a split second from insanity.
When James Harden has it everything is deliberate and calculated, a moment away from whatever he’s planning on finishing. Harden is slow then fast. Westbrook is fast then fast.
Harden steps back for his smooth trademark three and Westbrook leans into his awkwardly upright mid-range pull-up. Westbrook looks to crush the rim and Harden wants to loft feathery lobs above it.
As ideas of offensive players, Harden and Westbrook complete each other. But just because they cover an entire spectrum of styles of play doesn’t mean they make each other better.
LeBron James and Anthony Davis feed off each other’s brilliance, creating an unstoppable two-man game on offence and suffocating length and athleticism on defence. Draymond Green’s ability to handle and pass is the knife that punishes teams for having to respect Stephen Curry’s gravity.
Harden and Westbrook just kind of exist as different ideas standing next to each other. One plays his way, then the other plays his.
They will make each other better to slight degrees just by being so talented. When Westbrook has the ball, his driving will benefit from Harden’s spacing. Westbrook’s ability to soak up possessions and take over games with sheer athleticism and force will give Harden a level of respite that Chris Paul couldn’t provide last season.
But that’s about it. The synergistic magic is only faint. It is more hopeful than powerful.
The Rockets still make immense sense when Harden has the ball. With Curry and Kevin Durant out, Harden is the most dynamic and impactful offensive player in the game. Surrounding him with shooters and letting him go to work is a guaranteed elite offence.
Westbrook is more enigmatic and his fit in Houston is predictably still a work in progress at the moment – at times looking like Tom Cruise has awkwardly been thrown into a Leonardo DiCaprio movie and suddenly told to just do his thing and not really worry about the movie for now.
The benefits of Westbrook are clear. He is more durable than Paul and can take more of a load off Harden. He can generate more pace on a team that can look and feel direly slow at times. He injects athleticism to add a different menace to Paul’s guile.
He doesn’t cut and move off the ball, though, like Dwyane Wade did to complement LeBron, and he doesn’t defend like Paul does. That, in the end, is again where this team will probably fall short.
Harden and Westbrook are both just too laconic on defence and off the ball – there’s too much of a leisurely identity about the team at times, and not enough of the manic intensity and length they had in 2018 when Paul, Trevor Ariza, P.J. Tucker and a more powerful, agile Clint Capela anchored a dominant defence.
Harden alone will still make them frightening – despite the defensive questions and the lack of depth. Like Curry, Harden is cruel and unguardable – his ability to get hot and start raining those step backs is crushing and leaves everyone helpless.
The little crossover dribbles to start drives from the top of the arc feel more like a soccer move than a basketball play. For all the crafty dark magic that can be tiresome at times, at his core Harden is still just a genius.
Now he has an odd sidekick – one who isn’t a perfect fit, but adds life and mania, and if nothing else, makes things healthily unpredictable.