Houston, we have a problem. Two of the league’s most ball-dominant players will be sharing the backcourt, the only thing they will share this year. Yes, the perennial playoff disappointment that is Houston has spent a gazillion dollars locking up two ball hogs with inflated egos: Russell Westbrook and James Harden.
In 2017, Harden signed the biggest contract extension in NBA history, inking a four-year deal that could be worth $228 million through the 2022-23 season. This upcoming season, Harden is expected to earn $38.2 million.
That number matches what newly acquired point guard/negative ball of energy Russell Westbrook is expected to earn this season with his five-year, $207 million deal.
All is well with having about half a billion dollars locked up in two players if those players could coexist together. But that is a big “if,” and in this case, with these two players, that if is questionable at best. At worst, those two are combustible, like a match to a gas leak. An explosion is imminent this year in Houston.
Shooters gonna shoot
In the 2018-19 season, James Harden led the league in field goal attempts per game with a staggering 24.5, four more than Russell Westbrook’s 20.2 shots per game — good for fourth in the NBA.
So what you’re saying is, the Rockets will have two starters that will shoot the ball a combined 45 times per game? These two are going to fight for the ball more than two dogs scrapping for the last bone. It’s going to get ugly quickly. These two players are fueled by shooting at a high volume. Good shots, bad shots, horrible shots. It doesn’t matter. They just need to shoot and shoot often.
So what happens when Russell sprints up the court with his signature tunnel vision and launches a horrible three? James will be mad. James will pout. And James will be sure to get the ball on the ensuing position and sprint up the court that much faster and launch an even more contested shot. He will do anything to prove to Russ that the offense runs through him. All the while, the rest of the offense has been frozen out by their own team. Meanwhile, the defense is laughing as the Rockets, the two-man team that they’ve become, as they outduel each other in a pissing contest to see who can sink the ship fastest.
Defense? What’s that?
And we’re not even talking about defense. Harden is the laughingstock of the NBA when it comes to defense. No one in their right mind can argue this one. Westbrook, for all the passion, passive-aggressiveness, and frowning he brings to the table, isn’t a lockdown defender either. What about all those rebounds he snatches on a nightly basis? Two words for that: stat-padding — but don’t tell him that.
As for steals, Harden and Westbrook ranked second and fourth in the 2018-19 season, respectively. That stat, however, doesn’t tell the whole story. Steals are just a simple, convenient metric to measure a certain aspect of defensive prowess.
Here’s a brief explanation from a handy Medium article explaining why Russell, despite his steals and rebounds, is a liability on defense:
Russell Westbrook’s 3.9 DBPM paints him as a super-elite defender in the realm of Michael Jordan among guards, but that number is super inflated by the metric ton of rebounds he puts up. Rebounds count as defense since they end a possession, but that’s a system thing in OKC. Westbrook can lock in on defense but he also gets caught with his pants down mentally far too often, and he piles up steals but does so by taking gambles and leaving his team exposed far too often.
No real shot at a championship
Long story short, Houston took a major gamble in reuniting two former players. And while the two of them may have been a solid pairing in OKC, their games have totally evolved, their egos have overinflated, and the dosage of shots needed to placate them has reached unsustainable levels. Houston couldn’t get over the hump with a man nicknamed the “Point God” distributing the ball to one of the most prolific scorers in history. The Thunder couldn’t win a meaningful series with one MVP and another potential MVP in Paul George. Houston will soon find out that they too will be unable to win it all, despite the MVP talent and high-caliber offense they’ve assembled.