The Reboot: Inside Harden and Westbrook's Reunion

They cut their teeth in Oklahoma City and always dreamed of playing together again. After a summer blockbuster, Russell Westbrook and James Harden got their wish.
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Russell Westbrook andJames Harden

Orientation is underway deep within the Toyota Center, where a team of oversized basketball players are enveloped by their even more oversized chairs. Rockets assistant Brett Gunning has the floor. On the video wall of the home-theater-style film room, he walks the team through the guiding philosophies of Rockets basketball—a refresher for some, a revelation to others. Houston, which led the league in three-point attempts by a mile last season, doesn’t want its players indiscriminately chucking threes. It wants them hunting open ones. Inside the arc, it’s not enough to get into the paint for a shot. Gunning makes a data-driven case for the extra step that turns a floater into a layup or a foul.

There are clips to demonstrate the spacing that makes such a thing possible, with driving lanes wide enough to fit a Volvo. Highlight reels show shooters running to stand in the corners and big men politely getting out of the way. Any effort to understand how James Harden managed the most prolific scoring campaign in the past 32 years or how Houston managed one of the best offensive seasons on record starts with that negative space.

Houston Rockets Sports Illustrated Cover features James Harden and Russell Westbrook

The platonic ideal came in a January win over the Knicks in which Houston took 42 shots at the rim, 44 three-pointers and just four shots in between. (Incidentally, Harden—working without Chris Paul and Clint -Capela—scored 61 points.) Every year, the average NBA team inches closer toward Houston’s shot profile. And in turn, the Rockets push the envelope a bit further. Gunning shows the team that even with the basketball world gaining on them, stylistically speaking, Houston was able to trim down its diet of midrange shots to just 4.2 per game—fewest in the league.

As if on cue, Russell Westbrook, the Rockets’ newly imported superstar, chimes in. “Those 4.2?” he notes slyly to the room. “Those are mine.”

The players crack up, as does coach Mike D’Antoni. “O.K.!” D’Antoni relents. “Then nobody else gets one!”

So begins the give and take of a radical experiment. Matchmaking mere superstars is passé. The Rockets, like the Warriors before them, landed an MVP to accompany their MVP. It’s not exactly the subtlest of moves; both Harden and Westbrook have big, loud games, inarguably bigger and louder than when the two began their careers together in Oklahoma City a decade ago. Only through separation did they fully become the anchors their respective franchises needed them to be. By reuniting, they hope to now find security in each other.

“We’ve accomplished a lot of accolades, individually,” Harden says. “Now it’s time to accomplish something that we haven’t accomplished before.” It’s a long way to June. Yet through the very fact of being on the same team, Harden and Westbrook have already engineered one outcome that never should have been possible in the first place.

The deus ex trade machina, in this instance, was Paul George. A year after re-signing with the Thunder on a four-year deal, George requested a trade that would ultimately send him to the Clippers. What was a shocking development around the league wasn’t quite so for Westbrook. “I can’t be surprised if me and Paul were in communication the whole time,” Westbrook says. “So I wouldn’t say I was surprised at all. I’m all for doing what’s best for my teammates. If Paul felt like it was time for him to move on and explore options, then I’mma back him. That’s the type of relationship we have.”

Following a development of that magnitude, Houston began its due diligence. “Once Paul went to the Clippers, I reached out to Oklahoma City and they said they were open to talk,” Rockets general manager Daryl Morey says. “So we talked.” Harden and Westbrook did too. Over the years they had joked about playing together again in the same way two friends might daydream about a trip they know they’ll never take. Harden was a stakeholder with the Rockets, and Westbrook was entrenched with the Thunder. (“I just built a new house in Oklahoma,” Westbrook says.) The very idea of two of the highest-paid, highest-usage players in the league on the same team was too preposterous to honestly consider.

Until George. There are no truly isolated events in the NBA, least of all where the movement of a star player is concerned. Harden checked in with Westbrook to better understand his friend’s situation. “It wasn’t like that was the first time they talked in years,” Morey says. “That was more like: Hey, is something different now that Paul’s gone?

“I guess [Russell] said that there was.”

Westbrook and the Thunder worked together to find a solution that made sense: a trade to Houston. Morey told The Wall Street Journal that this latest move was the “biggest strategic risk” of his tenure—a risk, he clarifies, having less to do with Westbrook than what the Rockets gave up. (A bigger risk, it turns out: tweeting in support of a democratic movement in Hong Kong, turning the preseason into a stage for geopolitical intrigue.) There was Paul, who had been instrumental to Houston’s contention the past two years, a pair of protected first-round picks and two potential pick swaps. These were not inclusions made lightly.

Greg Nelson/Sports Illustrated

Greg Nelson/Sports Illustrated

“Sometimes we feel like we’re the Lorax,” Morey says of life as a general manager. “We speak for the future.” In 12 years on the job in Houston, Morey has only traded away multiple first-round picks on two occasions. One was to acquire Harden, the move that made the Rockets as we know them. The other was to land Westbrook.

“Ultimately, there were a certain amount of teams that were able to take on my contract that I was able to, I would say, pick from,” Westbrook says. (Miami was another option, per Morey.) “This was the best situation for me.”

The last time Harden and Westbrook were teammates for actual, meaningful games wasn’t in Oklahoma City but in London. Together they won gold in 2012 as relatively junior members of Team USA, just months before the trade that would send Harden to the Rockets and change their lives forever. Team USA was characteristically stacked, with only the problem of how to best cram talent upon talent into a given lineup. Given that kind of luxury, Mike Krzyzewski, then the coach of Team USA, rejected the very premise of a pecking order. “I don’t want you guys to conform to this,” Krzyzewski told the team then. “I want Kevin Durant the killer. I want LeBron James to go all-out. I want Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler. I want Russell Westbrook to come in like a nightmare. I want you guys to be yourselves.”

D’Antoni, an assistant with Team USA in 2012, comes from a similar philosophical place. “Who am I to tell Russ to change or tell James to change?” D’Antoni asks. “They’re MVPs. Best players in the league. So we try to make them as efficient as we can, try to nudge them in the areas we think we can improve in and we think they can do better at. But at the end of the day, they are who they are—and that’s pretty good. You’ve got two MVPs. Now my job is to make sure they’re confident, they feel good together, they’re rested, they’re focused. If they’re that, we’re gonna be really good.”

In some ways, it really is that simple. Sharing the ball isn’t exactly splitting the atom. The most pertinent question when stars converge is whether they wanted to in the first place. Considering that Harden lobbied Westbrook, his friend of 20 years, and that Westbrook chose Houston in large part to play with Harden, the verdict on that point seems quite clear. The next issue is how they’ll manage it on an operational level. To take the ball out of Westbrook’s hands is to take the keys out of the ignition. Houston doesn’t mind. D’Antoni and his staff actually take a certain pride in how little their team moves—and, in particular, the idea that while covering the least ground of any NBA team, the Rockets were still able to produce the most open threes. All it took was one unstoppable force and four relatively immovable objects.

The electricity of a player like Westbrook changes the formula slightly, but not as much as you might think. “He’ll be standing a lot,” D’Antoni says of Westbrook’s time without the ball. Houston needs him to help space the floor, which is to say it needs him to shoot—even after making just 29.0% of his threes last season, the worst of any player with his volume. “If you take the right shot,” D’Antoni says, “we do not care if you miss shots.”

For all the reasonable concern over balancing possession between two high-volume creators—the “if and when and how,” as Westbrook put it—these are two of the best basketball players alive, aligned at the perfect time in their careers. Time has shown Harden and Westbrook how hard it is to win, and just how many ways there are to lose. Harden has one of the more complicated playoff histories of any active superstar. Westbrook hasn’t won a playoff series since Durant left Oklahoma City in 2016. “Thunder U” is over. Both are now in their 30s. This is the real world, where the weight of everyday life requires coming to terms with a certain amount of daily concession. Isn’t it only natural that, now having really lived in the league, these two stars would reach for the trust they have in each other?

“I thought it was the best decision for me and my career right now, and to be able to reunite with a brother, a friend,” Westbrook says. “To be able to do that is something that you dream about and live for.”

The balance between superstars, at the end of the day, is a matter of shared experience. We can calculate how many possessions a player consumes and how many seconds they have the ball in their hands. What matters more, fundamentally, is the way it feels. And because basketball operates in that space, it becomes subject to the reality that Harden and Westbrook want to see, and their desire to make this work. “If and when I’m upset, he’s able to talk to me, I’m able to talk to him,” Westbrook says of Harden. “It just creates a bond. And knowing that it’s coming from a great place because we understand and we know what our ultimate goal is, for both us, and that’s a championship.”

This is how friends become coworkers. It’s also, of course, how even some with strong bonds come to strain their friendship. Perhaps there’s a world where the proposition of pairing Harden and Westbrook seems terribly naive. A world where Westbrook’s posting a video of himself doo-wopping to “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” before the season feels oddly prophetic. More likely, two of the sport’s most undeniable creators will find a working balance in a genuinely dominant offense. “It’s all about discussion,” Harden says. “It’s all about communication. It’s all about trying to get better. Throughout the course of the game, he’s gonna have it going a lot. I’m gonna have it going a lot. We’ll figure it out each and every game.”

Sports Illustrated

Sports Illustrated

There is a system in Houston that will not change. Under D’Antoni, point guard after point guard—from Harden and Steve Nash to Kendall Marshall and Jeremy Lin—has tapped into its creative power. “So we’re gonna have Russ-sanity?” D’Antoni asks. It’s a harrowing thought. Westbrook has already scored better than 30 points per game, averaged a triple double—and done both in the same season. What happens to his wildfire game when it’s finally given room to breathe?

“Last year, he couldn’t drive without double teams,” says Rockets guard Austin Rivers. “It’s impossible to double-team Russell Westbrook here. We have too many scorers, we have too many shooters. The floor’s too wide. It just can’t happen.” Yet somehow a defense will attempt to corral him while preparing to shift at the moment Harden gets the ball. If the measure of a player’s basketball dominance is the absurdity of the tactics used against him, the case for Harden as the game’s best offensive player is crystallized by his contributions to the avant-garde. Milwaukee’s Eric Bledsoe attempted to defend him last season by stepping to one side and openly conceding drives to the rim. Consider the mental gymnastics required for an opponent to defend Harden by getting out of his way—how terrifying his step-back must be for an all-league defender to abandon all hope, not to mention all pretense of traditional coverage. What Harden does with the ball is not, strictly speaking, guardable. The same could be said for Houston’s offense more broadly, as Westbrook knows all too well from his years as an opponent.

“What they do,” Westbrook says, “is put you in binds.”

The Rockets never set out to be exemplars of isolation basketball. Things just wound up that way when opposing defenses, caught between their futile alternatives, started switching to stay alive. One of the great curiosities in Houston this season is what Westbrook, after struggling in iso situations last year and struggling with his efficiency in general, might do with those one-on-one opportunities. “Well, hopefully the reason was that the floor was a little closed,” D’Antoni says of Westbrook’s isolation blues. “We hope that’s it.” Then comes the smirk. “Now, if he’s just bad at it, what the hell did y’all give him the MVP for?”

On some level, it’s a moot point. The beauty of the arrangement is that neither Westbrook nor Harden has to be all things at all times. “James Harden is the best half-court offensive weapon in the league,” Morey says. “Russell’s the best transition weapon in the league. The two together, it’s a really special combination.”

Tyson Chandler, who agreed to sign with the Rockets the day after they traded for Westbrook, has experienced the business end of both options. “As far as guarding James, it’s a nightmare,” Chandler says. “He knows all the tricks. He’s strong, but then he knows how to play finesse, so he catches you on your heels. When you’re trying to not touch him, he bulls you. Then when you’re too aggressive, he exploits it. He’s smart as s---.” When players such as Chandler talk about Harden, they often start to imitate him—his handle, his footwork, the contact he creates—as if his game itself held some animating force.

Attempting to slow down Westbrook, in Chandler’s experience, draws on an entirely different set of considerations. “To be honest, when we played against Russ, the whole thing [was about] getting back and controlling the paint,” says Chandler. “Giving him a wall. He has to see a wall.” And even if the defense builds that wall in time, Westbrook might just run through it anyway. (Harden, by contrast, might have the wall removed by city ordinance.)

One of the motivating factors in Houston’s trading for Westbrook was a desire for a more dynamic presence. For as brilliant as Paul was with the Rockets, he’s ultimately a micromanager of a point guard—and 34 years old at that. Those in Houston speak of Paul reverently, though it’s telling when center Clint Capela incidentally describes him as a guard “who really needs a screen”—something the Warriors certainly noticed when they played the Rockets in the conference semifinals. Houston was 27th in pace last year, and D’Antoni and his staff are urging a faster tempo this season, in part because Westbrook’s game lends itself to the break so naturally. Training camp was filled with drills to simulate uneven fast breaks and accelerated by attempts to get the ball moving up the floor quickly off makes and misses alike.

Simply having Westbrook on the floor shifts an opponent’s priorities. When Chandler, then with the Mavericks, played against Westbrook in the 2011 playoffs, sprinting back to batten down the hatches became his primary focus. “That’s what he’s gone against,” Chandler says. “But now, having James, you can’t do that.” The 19-year veteran has a special admiration for Westbrook, whom he describes as his favorite player in the league. When the schedule allowed him a night at home, Chandler would tune in to Thunder games and call his son in from the next room. “Come watch this,” Chandler told him. “That’s how you should play.”

The autopsy of the Rockets’ 2018–19 season is long since finished. Yet even now, after rewatching and reliving their six-game loss to the Warriors, no one with the team seems quite sure why their run ended the way it did.

“S---,” Rivers says. “That’s a billion-dollar question.” It’s always in style to lay a loss at Harden’s feet, no matter that he averaged 34.8 points for the series and went for 35—on just 25 shots—in the elimination game. Perhaps Houston didn’t adjust to the stylistic shift of the series as nimbly as it should have. It’s certainly fair to call the defense or the rebounding into question, considering the way that Golden State’s reserves conjured enough points from chaos to effectively swing the series. There’s always a complexity in why, and in this case a mirroring account from Occam’s razor: Maybe, just maybe, the defending champions were a good basketball team.

The simpler matter, for Rockets defensive ace P.J. Tucker, is pinpointing the exact moment when everything fell apart.

“It was all in Game 5,” Tucker says.

When Durant limped into the tunnel late in the third quarter with an apparent Achilles injury, he left a series tied 2–2 and the Warriors leading by just three points. “This is our season right here,” Tucker told his teammates. “Either we take advantage of it, or we think like we’re just gonna win but they kick our ass.”

“It was the latter,” Tucker says, swallowing his disgust. Houston allowed a shorthanded, freelancing Golden State team without its best player to score 36 points in the final 14 minutes, when even a single stop could have saved their season. “It was a lot of letdowns,” Tucker says of the 104–99 loss. “Then, when you come back for Game 6, either you’re going to be resilient and tough and fight through it, or. . . .” Tucker searches, and then shrugs. “It’s hard to put in words, even now.”

Houston has a way with the inexplicable. How did the Rockets manage to lose their edge when Durant’s injury gave them just the break they needed? How do you even make sense of a team missing 27 straight three-pointers, as Houston did in Game 7 of the 2018 Western Conference finals? These are the ghosts that contending teams are forced to live with: unsatisfying- endings chased with unsatisfying answers. Some franchises would have taken those losses, baffling as they were, as reason to alter course. “We’re not doing that here,” D’Antoni says. “We’ll double down. We missed 27 threes in a row? We’ve gotta take 30.”

And if the Rockets couldn’t quite break through by pairing Harden with Paul, then how about the rare guard in the league to rival Harden’s level of ball dominance? The idea behind acquiring Westbrook isn’t addressing a specific shortcoming. It’s an adherence to a broader mode of thinking. The goal in Houston is and always has been to flank Harden with the most talented superstar teammates possible. Westbrook, in this way, is undeniable, even if Paul’s game made for a simpler fit. Tension is the heart of any great collaboration. Freud had Jung. Lennon had McCartney. Basketball, too, is best understood as a dialogue between peers who push and pull on one another, a sort of existential pick-and-roll. There will be moments when Harden and Westbrook struggle to unlock the best in each other. There will be inevitable bouts of frustration.

“I think that’s the best part about me being here, is to be able to challenge him and him being able to challenge me,” Westbrook says. “To become better players.” When Westbrook balks at taking an open three in a practice scrimmage—a cardinal sin of Rocketry—Harden insists that he shoot next time. When an isolation step-back later leaves Harden deep on the wing and slow to get back on transition defense, Westbrook chides him for it, and both move on. The benefit of shared history is knowing what to say or, sometimes, when to say nothing at all. It’s what brought Harden and Westbrook together again after all this time, to resolve all they’ve become with what might have been.