It’s so easy to get swept up in the excitement of a Woj bomb. Wait, he’s not tweeting about Marcus Morris anymore? Russell Westbrook just got traded where?! The Thunder have how many draft picks??? Russell Westbrook and James Harden are teammates again?!?! The initial excitement of the Rockets’ point guard swap with the Thunder—which sends Chris Paul and two first-round picks to OKC in exchange for Westbrook—initially seemed like yet another blockbuster move in a non-stop summer of league-shattering trades and signings. After taking a breath, however, the Westbrook-for-Paul swap—in the short-term—feels more like a re-shuffling of the deck than another impactful move.
For Houston, the trade reeks of desperation. The Rockets seemed like they would be standing pat this summer, and that strategy actually made a lot of sense. For all their reported squabbling, Paul and James Harden have actually proved to be a solid duo over the last couple seasons. Even after their slow start in Year 2 of the Harden-Paul experiment, the Rockets were one of the better teams in the league in the second half of last season. After the All-Star break, Houston had a robust 17.0 net rating with Paul and Harden sharing the floor. And for all the talk of CP3’s decline, over that same time frame, the Rockets had a 10.7 net rating in Paul’s solo minutes.
But it would appear the bickering won out. Houston headed into this offseason with numerous reports about discord amongst its stars after a second straight bitter defeat at the hands of the Warriors. So with the landscape of the league around them shifting rapidly, the Rockets threw their hat in the ring, acquiring Westbrook for the cost of two future firsts and two first-round pick swaps.
After recovering from the idea of Westbrook and Harden coming back together as teammates, it’s unclear what their fit will be all these years later. Paul and Harden made it work by taking turns as the head of the snake, and CP3 also received valuable stretches of alone time against opposing backups (hence that aforementioned 10.7 net rating). Houston can do that with Westbrook, but his lack of outside shooting makes him a completely different off-ball threat than Paul when he’s sharing the floor with Harden. Teams will ignore him on the three-point line, and Westbrook’s affinity for pull-up twos are the antithesis of the Rockets’ offense.
While Russ is younger than Paul, that could possibly work against Houston in the immediate future. CP3, though certainly headstrong, is probably easier convinced at this point in his career to take somewhat of a backseat to a perennial MVP candidate. Meanwhile, Westbrook is Harden’s rival when it comes to usage percentage, and frankly, it makes more sense for him to be initiating pick-and-rolls than standing alone on the wing. Will Harden be okay with spending more time off the ball to accommodate Westbrook?
It seems like the Rockets felt they had to do something this summer. But there’s a good argument they benefited most from standing still. Houston was very close to taking down the Warriors juggernaut in back-to-back seasons. The Rockets were the last team to beat Golden State with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green all in the starting lineup. If Houston could have worked out its internal issues, it could have been right back at the top of the West.
Trading for Russ feels like change for the sake of change. Perhaps in the long-term, the Rockets—who are currently letting Mike D’Antoni twist in the wind of the final year of his contract—will be committed to playing a more egalitarian style of basketball, and the move signals a shift for the franchise’s future.
But the future is also compromised with this move. Westbrook is on the books for an extra year than Paul, and the Rockets are losing picks that could have been used on young talent or in future trades. While Russ may be a better player in a vacuum than Paul, that doesn’t mean he instantly upgrades the Rockets’ roster.
If the Paul-Harden relationship was truly unsalvageable, then this trade makes more sense. I’m sure we’ll see reports to that effect in the near future. But this move comes off more like the Rockets feeling pressured to act more than anything else. While Daryl Morey has always struck as someone who is more of an opportunist than impulsive, once the excitement of this trade wears off, it’s difficult to see how Houston is in a better position because of it.