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Houston Rockets: How James Harden can thrive with Russell Westbrook

By Dan Crouch
James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets shoots over Klay Thompson #11 of the Golden State Warriors (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets shoots over Klay Thompson #11 of the Golden State Warriors (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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James Harden and Russell Westbrook are teaming up once again, and the trade has been met with mixed reactions from Rockets fans. Many fans are optimistic Westbrook will be Harden’s best ever Houston teammate, while others are worried he won’t fit as well as Chris Paul and the team will stray further from the goal of winning a championship. While there are certainly concerns over their clashing play styles and alpha personalities, Harden controls his own destiny, and he has what he needs to win a championship as early as next season.

James Harden has been a standout player ever since he first arrived in Houston back in 2012. The star shooting guard has taken a step forward nearly every season, but his arc of improvement has been the most remarkable factor of his journey.

While most players gradually get better each year until hitting a peak and then slowly declining, Harden has improved by adding entirely new tricks to his arsenal; he is a completely new player now with his deeper bag of tricks compared to when he first burst on the scene, and it’s all thanks to his improvisation and creativity on the court.

Harden took Houston by storm first by showcasing his elite scoring ability. One of his special moves to get points on the board was an ability to hold the ball out in front of him, almost forcing the defender to either foul or allow the layup. When defenders became wise to that trick and took a step off on his drives, he would mix it up by holding the ball close and using the extra space for a euro-step.

It wasn’t long before Harden was one of the best scorers in the game, and defenders knew it, so he moved to point guard, made passing into a more focal point of his game and led the league in assists a few years back.

Of course, he switched back to shooting guard for the last two seasons and shocked even his most optimistic fans with his scoring ability. It wasn’t the scoring that was surprising, it was the brand new methods of scoring. First it was the step-back three, then, when defenders adjusted to that, it transformed into a sidestep three. Eventually, when defenders literally stood behind him to force him off the three-point line, Harden drove down the lane and showed off his floater. Harden’s offensive game has evolved in such a way that it doesn’t matter where, or how you guard him, he WILL find a way to score.

HOUSTON, TX – MARCH 15: James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets drives past Tobias Harris #34 of the LA Clippers at Toyota Center on March 15, 2018 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TX – MARCH 15: James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets drives past Tobias Harris #34 of the LA Clippers at Toyota Center on March 15, 2018 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

There is some pessimism among fans about the pairing with Russell Westbrook, and for good reason. Harden wasn’t a good off-ball player with Chris Paul, and Westbrook is even more ball-dominant, so how can this work when they are sharing the court?

Perfecting this partnership will be Harden’s greatest test of growth yet. It will require more than just skill and creativity, it will test his leadership, selflessness, discipline and most importantly, his desire to win.

This is why the long outline of Harden’s improvement over the last seven years is so important and should not be glossed over as just his natural arc of development; his development has been anything but natural. He has proven time and time again he can adjust, get crafty, and make things work no matter what role or position he is playing.

Harden has defied the odds and one-upped his critics nearly every single year in Houston, but he is yet to do so to the full extent of winning a championship. Now, he has the chance to do so with one of his best friends by his side.

LAS VEGAS, NV – AUGUST 11: Chris Paul, James Harden and Russell Westbrook of the USA National Team participate in a minicamp at UNLV on August 11, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2015 NBAE (Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV – AUGUST 11: Chris Paul, James Harden and Russell Westbrook of the USA National Team participate in a minicamp at UNLV on August 11, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2015 NBAE (Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images)

This year, Harden’s new trick should be cutting and running off screens like a traditional shooting guard to maximize his own effectiveness next to Westbrook, while also getting the most out of Westbrook’s strengths and limiting his weaknesses. It’s a style we saw from Harden on The Thunder, but one that we’ve hardly seen since. Can he revive this play style now he is playing with his old Thunder-buddy again?

If Harden plays off the ball it doesn’t mean he needs to completely relinquish his ball-handling duties, he will still attack on mismatches and play plenty of isolation ball. Why shouldn’t he? He’s really damn good at it, but it can’t be the only deadly weapon for the Rockets again this year. Westbrook is an elite cutter due to his lightning quick first step.

Conversely, Harden’s ability to cut backdoor should be used in tandem with Westbrook’s ball-handling and passing skills.

According to tracking stats on nba.com/stats, Harden ranked first in the league for drives per game with 19.6, and Westbrook was third with 18.4. Westbrook led the league in assists off drives at 2.8, Harden was fourth with 2.2. These two sharing the court together surrounded by shooters will pave the way for Houston to be the best spaced team in the league, which suits their mantra of shooting threes at a historic rate, but it will only be effective if Harden works off the ball as hard as he does when the ball is in his hands.

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Westbrook will be a perfect number two for Harden if the pair can both play to each other’s strengths. The potential is all there, now the challenge is for Harden to make it work by reinventing and bettering himself once again.

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