By rejecting the Thunder’s sub-max contract-extension offer seven years ago, James Harden set two superstar careers in motion.
When last teammates, Russell Westbrook and Harden complemented each other fairly well. Westbrook was a young star, prone to wild play. Harden was a backup who provided steadiness. Both were very good. Neither was great. They leaned on each other.
Separated, both blossomed into Most Valuable Players.
Westbrook advanced through stardom then really took off when Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City. Westbrook became an all-around marvel, averaging a triple-double with excellent clutch play in 2016-17. He won MVP, edging Harden in the closest vote of the last dozen years.
After multiple runner-up finishes, Harden snagged the award the next year. He led the Rockets with one of the best offensive seasons in NBA history then topped himself last year.
Now, Harden and Westbrook reunite in Houston. Barring a sudden drop, they’ll become the first teammates in NBA history who are both in-their-prime former MVP guards. The pairing offers incredible upside – but plenty of potential pitfalls.
Harden and Westbrook will become just the fourth duo to play together within three years of already having won MVP, joining:
• Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant (2017 Warriors)
• Moses Malone and Julius Erving (1983 and 1984 76ers)
• Bill Russell and Bob Cousy (1959 and 1960 Celtics)
Those other top-end twosomes had more positional balance. Curry is a guard, Durant a forward. Malone was a center, Erving a forward. Russell was a center, Cousy a guard.
Harden and Westbrook will be just the third set of former MVP guards ever to play together. The other two:
• Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash (2013 and 2014 Lakers)
• Oscar Robertson and Bob Cousy (1970 Cincinnati Royals)
By the time he got to Los Angeles, Nash was rapidly declining out of stardom. Bryant missed nearly all of their second season together due to injury. Nash was washed up by that point, anyway. After six years of retirement, Cousy – who was coaching the Royals – returned to play seven games mostly as a publicity stunt.
Harden, 29, is definitely still in his prime. Westbrook remained in his prime last season. Though there’s risk the 30-year-old reliant on his athleticism falls off quickly, Westbrook should remain pretty darn good next season.
That creates a tough question for the Rockets: How do they deploy both stars?
Star guards generally provide their value by handling the ball. That’s why super teams have rarely stocked up on multiple guards. The fit is especially tricky because both Harden and Westbrook are lead guards. Westbrook has spent his whole NBA career at point guard. Harden has become so good at point guard under Mike D’Antoni, there’s no going back now.
Harden is better than Westbrook. But Harden’s superior shooting also makes him a far better off-ball player than Westbrook. When Westbrook is away from the ball, defenses will sag off him and clog spacing.
Will the Rockets take the ball from their best player to give it to their second-best player? That doesn’t seem ideal.
Westbrook can attack scrambled defenses rotating back to him when he gets the ball from Harden. But closeouts won’t be coming hard at Westbrook.
One of the disappointing developments of Harden’s time with Chris Paul was Harden not developing his off-ball game. Harden just doesn’t seem into whizzing around screens, pressuring defenses without the ball.
Harden also hasn’t shown much pace in starting his moves in isolation. He often pounds the ball until the shot clock gets low, neutralizing his teammates. That was a problem when Harden played with Paul. It’ll be an even bigger issue with Westbrook.
Maybe Westbrook’s attacking style will spread to Harden. The duo could be dangerous if attacking quickly. But there are questions about whether an up-tempo system would wear down Harden before the end of a deep playoff run.
Harden and Westbrook can stagger their minutes as much as possible. That’ll allow each time to have the offense catered to him. But that will still leave significant time they must share the court.
And that’s only offensively. The defensive issues are far worse.
Harden is a lousy defender at everything other than guarding post-ups. Westbrook is sometimes active and often reckless defensively. His reliability on that end is low.
P.J. Tucker and Clint Capela can cover for some miscues in front of them. But that’s a big ask, especially with Eric Gordon playing in three-guard lineups.
D’Antoni has never looked especially interested in defense. It’s hard to see who will address the inevitable problems, if they’re even solvable.
But the Rockets get a major talent boost with Westbrook. He’s better and more durable than Paul. The upgrade is evident with the picks surrendered and extra year of salary absorbed by Houston.
That’s what the Rockets are betting on – MVP-level talent, no matter how it comes.