So much for the idea of the Rockets standing firm and running things back for the 2019-20 season.
Houston, after initially being described in reports as a longshot in Russell Westbrook trade talks, landed the Oklahoma City star Thursday night, edging out other suitors like the Miami Heat and Detroit Pistons. The move is undoubtedly a huge one: Westbrook joins the Rockets, while the rebuilding Thunder will take back an aging Chris Paul and pocket first-round picks in 2024 and 2026, along with two future pick swaps. If you’re counting, OKC has now picked up a total of eight first-round picks since this year’s draft alone.
Many will likely struggle to understand this deal for Houston. But let’s not make this more complicated than it is: Rockets general manager Daryl Morey has always prioritized star talent over just about everything else. And Westbrook has that, even if he might make for a questionable fit.
The first question that comes to mind: Is it really worth it to hand the rock to a ball-dominant player who is so much less efficient than James Harden is? Especially when that player occupies the same point-guard position, and can’t shoot the ball nearly as well as Paul, the man he’s replacing? The wide gap in defensive IQ between Paul and Westbrook is also worth pointing out, even if Westbrook’s athleticism is substantially greater than Paul’s ever was. (Maybe there’s a hope that Westbrook and Harden, longtime friends from their time in OKC, will play off each other well because of that prior experience together? Also: It’s hard to believe that the Thunder drafted three MVPs in a row, and now all three are on other rosters.)
In Paul, the Rockets had a pretty steady secondary playmaker who could both play alongside Harden — even when they clashed — and maintain continuity with the same 1-on-1 playing style when the former MVP went to the bench for a breather. Houston mostly lived, and sometimes died, with that strategy — one that would have been tougher to deploy as Paul continued to slow down. One indication that Paul was beginning to lose a step: The cerebral point guard averaged 1.05 points per direct isolation play1 in 2016-17 and an NBA-high 1.15 points in 2017-18, according to data from Second Spectrum. But during the 2018-19 season, Paul saw his 1-on-1 numbers fall dramatically, down to 0.88 points per direct isolation.2
But even with Paul slowing down, there are two areas where he still outplays Westbrook: He makes far fewer mistakes (Paul has a 4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio for his career, while Westbrook owns a 2-to-1 ratio), and he is vastly superior from the floor, having hit almost 38 percent from deep the past 10 seasons while Westbrook stands at just 31 percent over that span. That difference in shooting ability is a key distinction, given that the Rockets have been more reliant on the 3-point shot than any other NBA club in recent years.
There are ways in which a move like this could pay off for Morey and the Rockets, though. Westbrook will turn 31 soon, and his relative durability the past few years is an obvious plus compared to Paul’s, who is 34 years old. (Paul’s contract expires a year sooner, but both deals carried roughly a $40 million annual price tag either way.) Westbrook will never be the shooter that Paul is, but Houston is banking on the fact that he’ll be just as good for the offense — if not better — because of his ability to create.
There will be some other areas of concern, too. Harden and Westbrook rank No. 1 and No. 2 in the NBA in turnovers3 the past three years, with more than 1,100 giveaways each in that window. And Westbrook has a tendency to call his own number at times when he’s ice cold — particularly in the playoffs, even when he has a capable superstar teammate to help shoulder some of the burden.
Still, in our story on Westbrook earlier this week, we mentioned that the OKC star ranked near the top of the NBA in drives per game and shot a career-best 65 percent at the rim, all while throwing an NBA-high 802 passes that led to 3-point attempts. Between the Rockets’ ample spacing and their perimeter scoring threats — two things the Thunder lacked — Houston may benefit from Westbrook’s explosive athleticism on offense.
Even if Westbrook continues to be highly productive — if not triple-double-a-night productive — there are still so many questions we’ll be curious about. Will his contributions on both ends outweigh the steadiness the Rockets generally got from the older Paul? (Especially when our early projections pegged Houston as the best team in the West still.) Will Houston become an even more predictable two-headed monster than before? And what if this still isn’t enough to put the Rockets over the top?
We know Morey’s gambling tendencies by now, and he’s content to get these answers later and change things down the line if need be. For now, though, the Rockets have another star alongside Harden, and if nothing else, it figures to make the team very interesting — probably even more than before.