NBA Season Preview 2019-20: 5 biggest questions for the Houston Rockets

HOUSTON, TX - SEPTEMBER 30 : Russell Westbrook #0 of the Houston Rockets and James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets looks on before the game against the Shanghai Sharks during the preseason on September 30, 2019 at the Toyota Center 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. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TX - SEPTEMBER 30 : Russell Westbrook #0 of the Houston Rockets and James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets looks on before the game against the Shanghai Sharks during the preseason on September 30, 2019 at the Toyota Center 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. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images) /

After an offseason shakeup, the Houston Rockets have one of the NBA’s most fascinating star pairings. How will James Harden and Russell Westbrook work together?

Running into the same wall for half a decade can lead a team to question itself — its identity, its strategy, its upside. The Rockets spent the better part of a half-decade frantically chasing — and repeatedly falling short to – the Warriors, and even as their rival saw key pieces crumble from its core, Houston willingly parted with of their own for a player of roughly the same caliber. With the opportunity that swapping Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook creates also comes great tension and uncertainty. For all their personality incongruence, Paul and James Harden were nearly ideal on-court partners. Paul was devastating enough with the ball to keep opponents constantly on their heels, dangerous enough without it to bend defenses away from Harden and a committed enough defender to cover for his costar’s apathy on that end.

Westbrook brings an entirely different set of skills and therefore imposes certain constraints that Paul didn’t. His energy borders on recklessness, his effort on defense wanes and he is among the worst high-volume jump-shooters of all time. His arrival may leave Houston more vulnerable to combustion than before, and after the intense change that occurred this offseason, anything less than a clear step forward effectively moves a team backward.

Still, it’s hard not to see a higher ceiling in Houston than in years past, regardless of the likelihood the Rockets reach it. For better and for worse, Westbrook is a force of nature that, when harnessed, can simply be too much for opponents to contain. How he channels that energy and how much he’s able to change will be the foundational issues of Houston’s season, and they’ll inform the following five questions.

1. Can Harden and Westbrook coexist?

The question of Harden and Westbrook’s fit is far more complex than whether a game has enough possessions for two of the highest-usage guards in NBA history, though that concern could prove legitimate. It stems more from a natural tension in style and the metamorphosis that has taken place since they last played together. These are not the same guards who helped lead the Thunder to the NBA Finals nearly eight years ago. Each has evolved, and in the process moved even further away from one another on basketball’s stylistic spectrum. Through skill and innovation Harden has almost hacked the game itself, honing every necessary skill and read to the point of mastery. Westbrook relies far more heavily on sheer force of will; one of the two teams on the court always feels the consequence of his chaotic, unrelenting nature. Westbrook’s teams have always been Westbrook teams, defined by his recklessness and subject to his control. Westbrook is nothing if not a creature of meticulous habit, and adapting his approach has never come easy for him. Simply changing jerseys and falling to second in his team’s pecking order doesn’t guarantee change.

The central tension of Houston’s offense is that Harden offers more value than Westbrook both with and without the ball. Any possession not run directly through Harden will come with a dip in efficiency, but maximizing Westbrook will require that he work with the ball in his hands. In theory, Harden should have no problem shifting away from the point of attack. One of the best shooters in the league, Harden demands attention regardless of whether he has the ball. He ranked in the 90th percentile in spot-up efficiency last year and has shot nearly 39 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s over the last three seasons. But as he has developed into the most prodigious isolation scorer of all time, his off-ball value has been heavily reduced. Harden’s volume catch-and-shoot attempts have significantly decreased in each of the last four seasons, and spot-ups constituted just three percent of his possessions last year. He rarely comes off screens anymore and, like Westbrook, tends to stand and watch when not directly involved in the action.

As a result, Houston’s offense has become collectively stationary and painstakingly deliberate under Harden and D’Antoni’s control. It’s an ethos that has given the Rockets some of the most efficient offenses in NBA history, but also one that runs counter to Westbrook’s frenetic, unscripted method. Balancing the two may necessitate more off-ball work from Harden – namely coming off of screens, cutting to the basket more often and merely ceding control of more possessions – while Westbrook surveys the floor. Though he and Paul are vastly different players, it’s easy to envision D’Antoni deploying Westbrook in some of the same actions (video courtesy of Half Court Hoops):

Using him in Eric Gordon’s place on this play is a creative yet simple way to get Westbrook attacking downhill:

Integrating him as an off-ball weapon could be more complicated. Arguably the worst high-volume 3-point shooter in NBA history, Westbrook can’t simply slot into an offense the way Paul could. He has shot just 33.5 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s and 36 percent on all pull-up jumpers since 2016 without exercising the sort of discretion a shooter of that caliber typically would. He could once mitigate that weakness by dominating the ball and using his speed to pressure the rim, but isn’t the athlete he used to be and projects to play without the ball more than ever this season.

Rather than stationing him in the corner or on the wing – where defenders can freely help off of him – D’Antoni might be wise to use Westbrook more often as a roll man, allowing him to collapse defenses and press advantages created by Harden’s high pick-and-roll orchestration. Against most conventional defenses, the two could create four-on-three advantages out of which Westbrook can spray passes to shooters, float lobs to Clint Capela or attack the rim with a head start in much the same way Draymond Green does in Golden State:

That will require more flexibility from both Westbrook, who prefers to dart through openings with the ball and a head of steam, and Harden, who takes a more methodical approach to half-court offense and micromanages every step of a given possession. Harden’s willingness to delegate offense might be best measured in transition – where Westbrook can put his downhill fury to maximal use. The Rockets were one of the NBA’s fastest teams following turnovers and defensive rebounds in 2016 and 2017, but by last season had become one of the slowest. Westbrook’s Thunder, meanwhile, pushed at every opportunity. At his best, Westbrook can be one of the most devastating downhill forces in the league, capable of putting a defense on its heels as soon as a possession begins. Despite being of the league’s worst transition finishers last year, his ability to create for others might be most potent when he runs:

Harden, though one of the league’s preeminent hit-ahead passers, tends to slow possessions to a crawl and work solo with stagnant teammates around him. Encouraging him to play faster and push the ball more frequently – either via pass or dribble – could lead to easier buckets for everyone involved:

2. Will there be enough defensive buy-in from the backcourt?

The offensive fit between Houston’s stars is one of the more intellectually compelling storylines of the season, but their collective efficacy on defense will prove just as central to the Rockets’ title hopes. Harden and Westbrook have long had the luxury of conserving energy on defense while more defensive-minded teammates handled the most taxing assignments on the perimeter. Each has carried such an immense offensive load during their primes that the prospect of committing fully on the other end of the floor was hardly realistic, and neither — particularly Westbrook — was ever held accountable for their defensive foibles, which only perpetuated bad habits.

The two guards are poor defenders in different ways. Harden offers next to no resistance at the point of attack and all but refuses to fight over screens while Westbrook, when he cares to, manages just fine on the ball, using his quickness and intensity to hound ball-handlers. Away from the ball, however, Westbrook’s focus is inconsistent at best, and the time he is locked in is largely spent gambling in the passing lanes. Harden, while stout in the post and usually in the right places, can be easily discarded with enough movement and screening.

A defense built on that sort of foundation likely cannot survive at the highest levels of playoff basketball, especially when it figures to rely so heavily on Eric Gordon — a solid but limited defender – to cover opposing wings. P.J. Tucker and Clint Capela can only do so much, and as offenses become ever more spaced out, away goes the guarantee that one of Houston’s bigs will be there when the ball inevitably gets by the first line of defense. Mike D’Antoni has the option of playing Tucker at center — and he will — but that alignment might have lost some of its edge now that the disparity between his fifth- and sixth- best players has widened.

Westbrook and Harden, of course, have some say in just how much resistance the first line of defense will pose. Simply playing committed and attentive defense would go a long way in shoring up the entire unit, and if Westbrook alleviates some of the offensive weight from Harden’s shoulders (and vice versa), each might have more energy to spare for the other side of the floor. The Rockets will be good enough on offense to make do with only a passable defense. But just reaching that threshold will necessitate real change from those who have the most at stake.

3. What does Westbrook look like surrounded by this much shooting?

For the bulk of Westbrook’s 11-year career, he worked with relatively little space around him. As the Thunder chased length and athleticism on the wing, they struggled to surround their core with the sort of shooters that could unclog driving lanes and make opponents pay for rightfully collapsing onto OKC’s stars. When both Westbrook and Durant were in their primes, the Thunder could mitigate spacing concerns with raw talent. As that advantage over the rest of the league deteriorated, however, the team’s margin for error began to shrink and its lack of reliable shooters was cast into stark relief. Westbrook was one of the NBA’s best spread pick-and-roll point guards, without the benefit of the “spread.”

That context only makes Westbrook’s change of scene all the more fascinating. Shooting ability is a prerequisite for playing on the Rockets, and Westbrook figures to have more space around him than ever before. That could be a harbinger of a more efficient Westbrook, if all goes seamlessly. He has never been one to show great restraint, but playing in more space should at least allow Westbrook the option of being a more selective shooter — and therefore more efficient in other facets of the game. Passing lanes will be cleaner, layups less challenged, ill-advised floaters and pull-ups no longer necessary — all of which should benefit Westbrook and the teammates capitalizing on his creation.

Those differences will be most evident in the minutes Westbrook plays without Harden, when he’ll more frequently have the ball, and thus, decision-making power. When he doesn’t have the ball, Houston can mitigate Westbrook’s poor shooting by playing up to four marksmen around him — a luxury the Thunder never really had. Collaborating with a playmaker of Harden’s caliber could help, at least slightly, Westbrook’s catch-and-shoot accuracy.

Such a drastic change in environment will also serve to further clarify who Westbrook is as a player. The shortcomings of the Thunder’s roster likely constrained him, but to what degree? Would more space and better shooters really change the fact of his inefficiency or lackadaisical defense? Or do his flaws exist independent of his surroundings, unable to be corrected regardless of context or surrounding talent? He couldn’t have chosen a better place for the case study to play out.

4. How deep will D’Antoni’s bench go?

Perhaps no team has felt the cost of overworking itself in the regular season to more devastating effect than the Rockets. Between injuries, inconsistency and the incentive of avoiding the Warriors before the Conference Finals, the Rockets had little choice but to squeeze everything it could out of the top of its roster last season. In addition to acquiring a superstar this offseason, Daryl Morey also rounded out the back end of the rotation with more complete, proven players to help alleviate pressure from Harden and Westbrook. He kept Austin Rivers and Gerald Green around while adding Thabo Sefolosha and Tyson Chandler — all on minimum deals — and brought back Danuel House at a price that could prove quite team-friendly.

House will likely get the first chance to fill minutes as a combo forward off the bench, but Green, Sefolosha and Ben McLemore will all get opportunities. Harden and Westbrook needn’t overlap for more than half of each game, and Rivers and Gordon are plenty dynamic to provide secondary playmaking on bench units. Sefolosha, despite his age, still offers heady wing defense and ball movement, and Chandler should provide a creakier approximation of what Capela does (with Isaiah Hartenstein serving as insurance). If Ryan Anderson can restore his value as a stretch big, all the better for the Rockets.

It is yet unknown how many of those pieces D’Antoni will use. It is his (and his stars’) nature to keep a short rotation, with his stars absorbing as many minutes and touches as possible. He now has enough depth at his disposal to cut back on his stars’ minutes without leaving the team vulnerable to prolonged dry spells and the flexibility to dictate or adjust to most any style. He’ll need to gauge how each role player fits with Harden and Westbrook and holds up on defense, but the personnel leaves D’Antoni open to experimentation. Players fall in and out of the rotation over the course of a season, but for this year’s Rockets, it could be for having better options rather than lacking them.

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5. How long will it take for everything to coalesce?

Houston does not have the luxury of biding its time. The longer it takes for Westbrook, Harden and the rest of the team to mesh, the more taxing it could be just to tread water in an ultracompetitive Western Conference. The more effort they exert, the more they risk wearing down along the road to the Finals.

Even if Harden and Westbrook fit seamlessly, it likely won’t be right away and D’Antoni still must figure out how best to complement them. Promising though the supporting cast looks, it is comprised almost entirely of older or unproven players with meaningful limitations. Morey has shown a willingness in the past to cut bait with lottery tickets in the past, and may even have another splashier move up his sleeve. The end of Harden’s prime draws slowly nearer, and Houston’s window may never be more open than it is now. Things turn quickly in the NBA, and the Rockets will twist their way through any path that might finally lead to a championship.