There's little mystery as to why Daryl Morey swapped Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook last summer. Adding Westbrook was thought to raise Houston's ceiling as it looked to capitalize on James Harden's prime, and for much of the season, Morey's theory proved to be correct. Westbrook played like an MVP once the calendar turned to 2020, and the Rockets looked like legitimate championship contenders for stretches of the season. But neither Westbrook nor the Rockets lived up to their potential in Orlando. Houston is right back where it started 14 months after its superstar swap.
Saturday's loss to the Lakers featured a rough performance from Westbrook. The 2016-17 tallied just 10 points on 13 shots in Game 5, failing to take charge when the Rockets desperately needed a spark. Westbrook averaged just 19 points per game in the playoffs on 43 percent shooting entering Saturday. One of the NBA's most Jekyll-and-Hyde players failed to deliver as Houston's Finals hopes faded to black.
"It didn't turn out as planned, but there are so many things and different obstacles that we had to overcome as a team," Westbrook said postgame. "Not a bad year but not the way we wanted to end it."
It would be unfair to ignore the context surrounding Westbrook's playoff struggles. He tested positive for COVID-19 before joining Houston in the NBA bubble, and he subsequently suffered a quad injury that kept him out for the first four games against the Thunder. It was clear that Westbrook wasn't in peak form for much of the postseason. He struggled to score against bigs he'd normally punish in isolation. He relied far too heavily on his mid-range and three-point shot, harkening back to his poor play at the very start of the season. Westbrook found a real groove with the Rockets after a shaky first two months, and his dominance fueled Houston's Finals hopes. But a hampered Westbrook hamstrung the Rockets throughout the 2020 playoffs.
"I wasn't 100 percent but I'm not the guy to make excuses." Westbrook said postgame. "Very frustrating, honestly. I had to sit back 20-21 days without working out [due to COVID-19]. ...I had to re-acclimate when I got here, played two games, and then boom I got hurt."
The Rockets made a superstar splash last summer as they found a new star alongside James Harden. It's unlikely any similar moves will come this offseason. Houston doesn't have its first-round pick in 2020, and it's unlikely Morey can cobble the assets for another elite talent. There could be additions on the margins, but much of the Rockets' improvement in 2020-21 must be internal. That starts with their MVP point guard.