James Harden had yet another brilliant, MVP-caliber campaign in 2018-19, and after a rough start to the season, the Houston Rockets rebounded in the second half, rounding into their expected form. But they suffered yet another playoff defeat at the hands of the Golden State Warriors, the arch-nemesis they have yet to overcome in four tries during the Harden era.
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Management ultimately decided to pull the plug on the Harden-Chris Paul partnership- with some prodding from Harden -mortgaging the future in a stunning summer trade for Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook. The two former Thunder backcourt mates are now reunited in an intriguing yet awkward fit.
The trade ultimately was made to extend Houston’s window (Westbrook is four years younger than Paul), lighten Harden’s workload (Westbrook has been far more available the past few seasons than Paul) and improve team chemistry (Paul and Harden reportedly clashed last season, and Harden wanted this trade). Now the question becomes whether the Rockets can make it work.
Westbrook is not the shooter or defender that Paul was, but he’s a superior rebounder and will add an element of speed and athleticism that the team has not had in the Harden era; the Rockets last season played at one of the league’s slowest paces. With Houston’s perimeter shooting, Westbrook will also enjoy more spacing surrounding him than at any other point in his career which should make his drives to the rim more lethal. Given his struggles shooting from long distance, the season will hinge on whether Westbrook can move without the ball when Harden has it.
Other new additions were largely at the margins. Ryan Anderson is back and should battle fellow newcomer Tyson Chandler for backup center minutes. Thabo Sefolosha figures to be the backup power forward. And Ben McLemore could have a chance to revive his career if supplanting Gerald Green in the rotation as the second wing off the bench; McLemore brings the shooting and athleticism necessary for that spot.
Best Addition: It’s obviously all about Westbrook here, as it should be – it’s not every day that a team adds a former MVP still at the tail end of his physical prime. The Rockets are hoping that Westbrook can catalyze their team dynamic enough to finally push the team over the hump.
Biggest Loss: The Rockets will miss Paul’s leadership and steady hand in guiding bench units with Harden off the floor. Even when accounting for his physical decline, Paul is one of the most reliable floor generals in the league.
The Rockets’ 2018-2019 season was defined by Paul’s health and the team’s regression on the defensive boards where they fell to 29th in DREB%. Westbrook’s presence should improve the Rockets on the glass and ease Harden’s workload, but it remains to be seen whether Houston can maintain its defensive intensity after losing Paul – the Rockets were second in defensive rating last season after the All-Star break.
The core seven in Westbrook, Harden, Tucker, Clint Capela, Eric Gordon, Danuel House Jr. and Austin Rivers are locked in and ready to go in their roles. This time around, there won’t be a chunk of the season wasted upon tinkering with crucial elements of the lineup as was the case in 2018-2019 when Mike D’Antoni looked to recreate his wing rotation after losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute in free agency.
It’s not likely that the Rockets make any major moves during the season. With money remaining from their mid-level exception, they could play the buyout market again but the team is hoping for better health this time around to obviate that need. They could also use a surprise emergence from one of the young players on the roster such as Gary Clark, McLemore, Isaiah Hartenstein, or Chris Clemons.
Team MVP: No surprise here, this team will always go as far as James Harden can carry it on his broad shoulders. While he won’t repeat last season’s gaudy 36.1 points per game average, he’ll put up MVP-caliber numbers across the board yet again.
Best Value: The Rockets were able to re-sign House this summer at three years, $11.1 million, keeping him next to Harden for the next several seasons. His value probably depressed on the open market after a horrible playoff performance. While that was a major hit to Houston’s chances last postseason, the silver lining was that it probably allowed the Rockets to bring back House on an affordable deal.
X-Factor: Westbrook took more of a step back last season in deferring to Paul George than people realize and George had the best season of his career. Westbrook should feast on second units and spoon feed Capela for lobs at the rim and Houston shooters for open threes.
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Harden and Westbrook mesh immediately and stay healthy, everyone fills their respective roles and the Rockets take the West’s top seed and ultimately win the title.
Westbrook’s poor shooting causes the team’s offensive efficiency to plummet while Harden, now 30, shows the first real signs of regression of his career. The Rockets win over 50 games but are not a real threat to win the championship.