Daryl Morey knew the Rockets were taking a risk. Still does. Houston’s gunslinging GM could have played it safe last summer, brought Chris Paul back, chalked up any rift between Paul and James Harden as just friction between two competitors and not rolled the Rockets future draft capital into a deal for one of the NBA’s more polarizing players.
But Morey wanted Russell Westbrook.
Harden did, too.
They got what they wanted. Now they have to figure out how to make it all work.
The Rockets knocked off Memphis on Monday, a badly needed win that sprayed cologne on the lingering stench from a hideous loss to Miami the night before. Westbrook sat for this one, a DNP-Rest for the first time this season, while Harden broke out for 44-points, knocking down a season-high 43.8% of his three’s in the process.
All is well in Houston.
The Harden-Westbrook pairing will be under a microscope, and deservedly so. Skeptics wondered why Morey would roll the dice on a player like Westbrook, a career-alpha who in the post-Kevin Durant era in Oklahoma City emerged as one of the NBA’s highest usage rate players. The relationship between Westbrook and Harden was rock solid, but the last time the two shared a uniform Westbrook was co-headlining the Thunder with Durant while Harden was telling head coach Scott Brooks how much he enjoyed being a sixth man.
Harden is an alpha now, a two-time usage rate leader himself who gobbles up the play clock with his ballhandling, while the poor-shooting Westbrook appears ill-equipped to play the role of co-star. Neither player has shot the ball well early—both are connecting on about 25% of their three’s—while the Rockets defense, middle of the pack last season and ranked in the top-ten two years ago, has slipped into the bottom third of the NBA.
In a telephone interview on Monday, Morey preached patience. Big picture, Morey told SI.com, he saw plenty of positives. Westbrook has been good, giving Houston its desired boost in transition and playing like “a real warrior” in end of game situations. Harden’s shooting has been sluggish but, Morey said, chuckling, “if people think that’s going to continue we are in trouble.”
Morey won’t defend the defense, which wouldn’t be easy anyway. “We need to get better,” Morey said. “No one is hiding from that.” The stats are brutal—Houston is getting gouged from beyond the three-point line while opponents effective field goal percentages rank among the league’s worst. The Rockets looked lifeless in the first quarter against Miami, surrendering 46-points en route to coughing up 129 total—the fourth time this season Houston’s defense has been gashed for 120 or more. Eric Gordon has been underwhelming. Clint Capela, long a defensive backstop, has struggled.
Morey cites execution as the Rockets enemy, which raises the question: How much of that is on Mike D’Antoni? D’Antoni’s contract negotiations played out publicly last summer, with D’Antoni declining Houston’s offers, electing to coach out the final year of his deal. The Rockets gutted D’Antoni’s staff last spring, bouncing defensive coordinator Jeff Bzdelik, among others, with Elston Turner struggling to deliver results in the same role.
Morey remains firmly behind D’Antoni, citing the top-ten defense the coach oversaw in Houston’s 65-win, 2017-18 season as evidence D’Antoni can get it done. He sees a roster that defended well last year as capable of rediscovering its identity. “I’m very confident that we have the right players and coaching staff, and that we have the defense,” Morey told SI.com. “I know that sounds crazy. I know I have said stuff like this in the past. We just have to have the right execution. [Seven] games in, we have played a mix of teams. Our shot making has made us look worse than we are. Maybe [after] 20 games, if we are still struggling, then we’ll have to take a look at things.”
The Rockets need more nights like they had in Memphis, when the defense limited the Grizzlies to 12% from three. They can’t give up 129 points to Miami, 123 to Brooklyn, 158—158!—to Washington and hope to be anywhere but the lottery room in May. Morey gambled that a shakeup was needed in Houston, and the Rockets future is at stake. Oklahoma City controls much of Houston’s draft capital over the next decade. Morey expects Harden to regain his MVP form and believes shared offensive responsibilities will make Harden and Westbrook more efficient players. He’s thrilled by the play of Danuel House, a Rockets find last summer who is connecting on 40.5% of his three’s in a starting role.
There’s no panic in Houston.
At least not yet.