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Are the Rockets better? The pressure is now on Russ and Harden

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Like discussions between the Houston Rockets and the Oklahoma City Thunder for a blockbuster deal Russell Westbrook grew seriously Thursday, called Daryl Morey, general manager of Houston James Harden to discuss how both stars can work together. Harden carefully cut off Morey and reminded him: "I know how to play with Russ and he knows how to play with me," Morey told ESPN.com in Las Vegas on Thursday night.

They played three seasons together, two of the three basic superstars that brought the Thunder to the 2012 final. Harden was 22 when LeBron James and the Miami Heat overwhelmed Oklahoma City in that series. Westbrook and Kevin Durant were 23. They were one of the youngest teams ever to get ahead so far. They looked like a dynasty in the making.

Harden has never played a new game for Oklahoma City. The Thunder traded it in the Rockets in October 2012, in a deal that proved to be a crucial moment in the history of the NBA. The trade did not kill Oklahoma City. The thunder never reached the Final again, but they made legitimate runs in 2013, 2014 and 2016. Injuries derailed the first two – two more & # 39; what-ifs & # 39 ;.

The 73-victory Warriors recovered from a 3-1 deficit against Oklahoma City in 2016, an all-time gut punch. The Thunder not only defeated Golden State in Games 3 and 4 of that series. They overwhelmed them with size and speed and athletic behavior. They seemed to make the Warriors helpless. They became the team Sam Presti, his architect, was expecting – the team that the rest of the division feared might become the Thunder.

And the Warriors called a little more, because the Warriors are champions (even if they were not champions at the end of that season). Klay Thompson& # 39; s 11 3-pointers in Game 6 to save the Golden State season literally changed the entire landscape of the competition for the next half-decade. The history of the NBA in 2010 is perhaps more closely intertwined with the history of the Thunder than with any other team – even if the Thunder never won the Westbrook era championship.

If you have to cook that history for two moments, it's the Harden trade and that ill-fated game 6. The first player in Oklahoma City is a player who has since finished five times in the top five in MVP voting. The second may have cost them a title and a chance to keep Durant.

Harden became a different kind of player in Houston and has since changed shape into something that we have never seen before. Westbrook became a completely different player when Durant left him as the only remaining star in Oklahoma City. They are probably the two most ball-dominant players in the NBA. They have recorded the two highest usage rates for one season in NBA history: Westbrook in 2017, Harden in 2019. They were the best two finishers in one of the most controversial MVP races ever, and one of the wonderful subplots of this strange , fascinating trade will watch the die-hard fans of Houston struggle with accepting the star they mock as an unjust MVP usurpator.

In their successive years, Westbrook and Harden have developed such particularly ruthless, controlling styles that it is difficult to imagine them playing in a different way. It is almost hard to remember how they came in contact with each other seven and eight seasons ago. Houston bets that the two stars can remember – that they can retire to old habits, and combine what they are now with what they once were together.

That was Harden's message to Morey on the phone on Thursday. That was Westbrook's message to choose the Rockets as one of his destinations – along with the Heat, which can now haunt Paul as a consolation prize. (According to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, the Rockets were hoping to turn the deal into a three-stage trade, suggesting that Presti would feel that he could squeeze more for Paul by doing that deal alone. The winnings from Oklahoma City and the Dunder higher in the 2020 concept. An under-the-radar loser here: Atlanta, which owns the 2022 first-round pick from Oklahoma City protected by the lottery. The Thunder embark on a deep reconstruction. falls into the lottery, the hawks get two second-rounds instead.)

Westbrook was enthusiastic about playing with Harden again, according to sources familiar with the conversations. That kind of buy-in is important. Both superstars will have to change this to work, even though Mike D & # 39; Antoni will probably plan minutes as tight as he did with Harden and Paul. The & # 39; Antoni & # 39; s experience coaching Westbrook on Team USA has boosted Houston comfort levels by making this deal, sources say. The thunder belonged to Westbrook in almost all ways. The Rockets don't do that. Maybe that will only bring about some change in him.

The Harden-Paul combination worked in part as well, because Paul is deadly on catch-and-shoot 3s. Westbrook is not that. Westbrook has combined about 33% of such recordings in the past three seasons, per NBA.com. He is one of the worst large-volume 3-point shooters in the history of the NBA.

He is frankly useless away from the ball, except for the occasional slash on the inside for an offensive rebound. (Steven Adams is perhaps the biggest winner in this deal, by the way. He can now grab some defensive rebounds. He is one of the toughest rebounders in the competition, and yet his recovering recovery rate is almost equal to that of Andrea Bargnani – one of the worst big men rebounders ever.)

Westbrook rarely cuts when someone else is in control. He enjoyed lowering the baseline for dunks from a scripted action centered around Durant, but that set left with Durant. He usually cools far beyond the 3-point line, hands on knees.

Defenders have learned to ignore Westbrook when he enters passive off-ball mode. That now comes down to a double team at Harden. Depending on how much time is left on the shotgun clock, paint clogging can short-circuit the Houston offense.

There is an obvious solution: give the ball a lot to Westbrook! Harden is a much better shooter than Westbrook. He draws more attention away from the ball. He can rest more while Westbrook runs the show. He will get more catch-and-shoot 3s, and he only tried 70 of them at 1,028 3-pointers last season, per NBA.com. The Rockets may generate more easy fast-break buckets with Westbrook bouncing back and the ball sprinting like crazy.

This is not unknown to Harden. He just spent two seasons sharing the offense with one of the most ball-dominant players of the division in Paul – a classic, old-school puppet-master point guard. Their partnership sometimes seemed uncomfortable. A bit difficult. Hardening is not really an active bullet cutter. But the Paul-Harden duet got the Rockets inside a whisker of the 2018 Finals, where they would probably have been heavy favorites against LeBron & # 39; s latest Cleveland team.

The shaky sweater of Westbrook makes this collaboration a bit more complicated. Harden might have to give Westbrook more ball management duty if they share the floor than with Paul. The Rockets know that. They are excited to see what Westbrook can do with pick and rolls Clint Capela and three capable shooters – Harden, P.J. Tucker and Eric Gordon in the planned starting line-up of Houston – with their flanking lines. The floor will open even more when Houston goes to the Tuckwagon line-up, with Tucker in the middle above Capela.

Westbrook rarely enjoyed that kind of pristine space in Oklahoma City. There was always at least one other player – a stone wing, a paint-bound force forward – cramping space for Westbrook and Adams. For all its flaws and apparent decline over the past two seasons, Westbrook is still a monster athlete. He comes faster from the bow to the edge than almost everyone. When defenders stoop – a general tactic against Westbrook – he can sometimes put his head down and still hit them on the other side of that screen. Dealing with Westbrook has a mental and physical toll. He always comes to you. Always. It carries.

When Westbrook got chances to perform a real spread-pick-and-roll in Oklahoma City, defenses had few answers except they hoped someone would miss an overt kick-out 3.

play

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With Russell Westbrook and James Harden joining the Rockets, here are their top five plays as teammates on the Thunder.

If you look a little more at that, you have to move the ball from Harden's hands into Westbrook & # 39; s. Harden is better with the ball than Westbrook. It is not close, at least it has not been for years. Hardening was more efficient in pick-and-rolls, isolations, even in transition. Taking a player's ball and giving to a worse player is generally a bad idea.

But Houston hopes it is a more flawed solution than a bad idea. They will only do it anyway. To link Westbrook and Harden is a guess that they are still malleable after years of getting to do what they wanted. The Rockets need Westbrook to cut when Harden has the ball; encounter the Harden kick-outs, catch them at full speed and rustle through defenders who had planted themselves in the paint; to rediscover its transition efficiency; to screen for Harden, and vice versa, when matchups ask for it.

Harden must also do all of the above. Both have to defend themselves again.

Westbrook is 3½ years younger than Paul. In depth, this is a talent game from Houston. During the Harden championship window, the Rockets approach one-on-one transactions with a very simple calculus: are we now getting the better player? Most statistics suggest that this is true, even though the current gap between minutes is quite small – too small to justify coughing up two picks and two pick swaps when Westbrook did not have a market. Age suggests that the gap will widen during the lifetime of Westbrook & # 39; s contract, which is one year longer than Paul's. The Rockets also bet that the Westbrook deal will be easier when it comes down to it.

The assumption is that as Paul gets older, his superior fit alongside Harden will not be as important as Westbrook's superior talent – and at least Westbrook and Harden will iron out some of those fit issues.

The price is really the problem. Most rebuilding teams with holes in point guard – or just a lot of holes – showed little interest in giving up real assets for Westbrook, sources say. That may have changed on December 15, when most free agents signed this week are eligible to trade again, and at that time a team will feel more desperate than it does today. But given the initial cool response to Westbrook's availability, the Thunder was right to break up early. (I have said many times that I would not have given up real assets for Westbrook Goran Dragic and blah contracts for him seemed like a fair endgame. The market was indeed cool. But remember the old NBA adage: only one is needed.)

They would not send him to some savage destination. They could not handle the MVP that remained that way. Miami and Houston left that behind. It is unclear whether Miami was a serious and satisfying candidate for Houston to give up all these concept assets.

The Heat doesn't have many people who can still be traded, and Westbrook suggested complicated conversations. They might have been reluctant to act Bam Adebayo or Justise Winslow; with one or both disappeared, who would Westbrook and Jimmy Butler play with long term?

Miami already owes two first-rounders (their 2021 pick and a protected pick-up from 2023) to Oklahoma City, a dynamic that complicates trading opportunities. Would the Thunder trade Miami for a player who could improve the Heat – and thus devalue the picks that Miami should send the Thunder?

But there were ways around that limitation. The Thunder could have pushed Miami to lift the protection of the 2023 pickup truck. They could have traded back to Miami and pushed for some or all of the Heat & # 39; s 2022, 2024 and 2026 picks. Extending the obligation to 2024 and later would have delayed the transfer of those picks far beyond the scoops of Westbrook and Butler – in other words, to a future with a higher chance that the Heat would be bad. The design from 2022 is perhaps the highly anticipated super design, with both high school players and the last group of one-and-ready stars. The future choices of a good team have more commercial value than the current picks.

This kind of push-and-pull contaminated talks between Houston and Oklahoma City on Thursday. (Conversations between the heat and the thunder were silent by then, sources say.) The rockets tried to convince Oklahoma City to take Houston & # 39; s first scoop, sources say. Oklahoma City refused and pushed further for picks. Houston admitted, and the two assumed the 2024 and 2026 picks in Houston – both with only top four protection.

That protection is light. Harden turns 35 in 2024. There is more risk here for Houston than it seems justified. But this is the summer of risk – from teams that feel a Warriors-free window and go all-in.

The Rockets can probably argue against this by claiming that divesting Paul has cost them one first choice. The other choice (plus the swaps) is the cost of the talent gap, now and in the coming three seasons. Tilman Fertitta wanted a flashy shake-up. He has one.

This is undeniably a great return for Oklahoma City. The Thunder has received seven future first-round picks, combined in deals that Westbrook and Paul George. They have received so many future first-round picks, it will be interesting to see if they can score them all. (Probably not going, teams generally collect picks like this to pack at least a few of them into transactions.). They have received so many first-round picks that you almost forget that they also have Shai Gilgeous-Alexander – a long-armed threat with potential for all stars.

The once-in-a-lifetime event of Kawhi Leonard holding the Clippers against a ticking clock gave Presti a lever to turn George into an instant reconstruction. This deal is the coda. It is cliché to say that dismantling is the easy part, and construction is the most difficult. That is largely true. But Presti nailed this destruction to an extent that he rarely saw.

For the Rockets, I am not sure that this increases their chances for 2020 as much as they hope – or even completely – unless the chemistry issues between Harden and Paul were not negotiable. The Rockets have trivialized those issues publicly and privately and continued in response to the Westbrook deal. That is what teams do. Capela sent Paul away with a moving Twitter tribute.

But if those issues were really about to divide a potential title candidate, the Rockets had to do something. The burden is on both Westbrook and Harden to prove that this trade would have been better for Houston & # 39; s title opportunities in 2020 than standing patten.

. (tagsToTranslate) NBA (t) Oklahoma City Thunder (t) Houston Rockets (t) James Harden (t) Russell Westbrook

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