Houston Rockets: Grading the Harden, Westbrook duo after 21 games

Houston Rockets Russell Westbrook James Harden (Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)
Houston Rockets Russell Westbrook James Harden (Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images) /

With the Houston Rockets’ season a quarter of the way completed, it’s worth examining whether the Russell Westbrook and James Harden pairing has been a success. Here’s what the data suggests!

The question of whether the Russell Westbrook trade has been a success for the Houston Rockets is a complicated one. For starters, it’s challenging since we’re raising the question with only 25 percent of the Rockets’ season completed, but also because there is data that suggests the trade has been a successful move.

One key element in this assessment is who the Rockets traded away for Russ and what the alternative was. The Rockets sent away Chris Paul, who had dropped off his play to a career-worst during the 2018-19 season. CP3 simply had lost the ability to beat defenders off the dribble and get past opposing guards. It became clear that father time had caught up to him, which isn’t necessarily surprising, as father time is undefeated.

During the 2018-19 season, CP3 averaged career lows in scoring and in shooting efficiency, as he averaged only 15.6 points per game on 41.9 percent from the field. The first thought is automatically that CP3 had fewer opportunities due to James Harden‘s “unguardable tour” as The Beard averaged 36.1 points per game last season. This would seem to be correct when considering The Point God’s 12.4 field goal attempts per game.

The key thing to remember is that Paul also had several All-Star seasons in which he had fewer field goal attempts than that. On top of that, he averaged 2.6 turnovers per game, which was tied for the second-most of his career.

Chris Paul had reached the point of diminishing returns and was fresh off of signing an albatross of a contract that the Rockets couldn’t get rid of. Not only that, he simply couldn’t play second fiddle to James Harden any longer. Part of the issue was that Paul’s ability had escaped him, but the other challenge was the fact that CP3’s ego prevented him from fully taking a backseat.

Russell Westbrook, however, has been friends with Harden since they were teens and welcomed the opportunity to join his childhood friend. Not only that, Westbrook embraced the opportunity to join the contending Rockets, as his Oklahoma City Thunder had essentially reached their peak, especially after Paul George departed to join his hometown LA Clippers.

Westbrook is currently giving the Rockets 21.7 points per game, which is more than CP3 ever gave the Rockets. Granted, Westbrook is shooting 39.9 percent from the field, which is certainly not efficient, but the Rockets knew what they were getting in regards to Westbrook’s shooting inefficiency. Westbrook is currently averaging 4.5 turnovers per game, which is tied for his lowest amount of turnovers since winning the MVP during the 2016-17 season.

His presence on the Rockets has helped them improve their rebounding woes, as the Houston Rockets are averaging 48 boards per game, which is fourth-best in the league this year. The Rockets also rank third in the league in pace this season as compared to 26th in 2018-19. It’s also worth pointing out that through 21 games, the Rockets are currently 14-7 this season, whereas last season they were 10-11 through their first 21 games.

Westbrook and CP3 both are very different players, as Russ is an uber-athletic guard, and arguably the most freakishly athletic point guard the league has ever seen, in addition to being a one-man show on the break.

CP3 is a much more fluid passer and a better 3-point shooter, which is important for a Rockets team that shoots 46 treys per game. Not only that, Paul’s ability to shoot from downtown would be a great remedy for the double teams James Harden is seeing, as The Point God is too big of a shooting threat to be left open.

One of the biggest takeaways from the trade is the fact that Westbrook and Harden get along and have a good friendship, whereas there were frequent reports of tension and friction between Paul and Harden.

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It’s difficult to look at the trade in a vacuum but there have been positives and negatives of the trade. The Rockets have done a good job of allowing Westbrook to be himself and to play his game as opposed to trying to fit him in the team’s system and style of play. But the thing about Chris Paul is that the Houston Rockets didn’t have to try and fit Chris Paul into their style of play because he was a natural fit.

From a contractual standpoint, the Rockets had to make the trade as CP3 was owed $124 million for the remainder of his contract heading into this season. Rockets’ fans will just have to be patient and try to see the positives in having The Brodie, as he’ll certainly adapt to D’Antoni’s offense more as the season progresses.

It’s also difficult to assess the trade right now considering all of the injuries the Rockets have had, as the Rockets have been without Eric Gordon, Gerald Green and even Danuel House for six games this season.

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One of Russ’s biggest strengths is his ability to facilitate the offense and kick out to open shooters. Without having these shooters, it’s neutralized these strengths thus far. Hopefully with more time and a fully healthy roster, we’ll get better results. For now, though, let’s just accept the fact that the Houston Rockets’ season could be much worse.