The Houston Rockets made one of the biggest moves of the offseason when they sent Chris Paul and a few first-rounders to Oklahoma City in return for Russell Westbrook, reuniting him with former teammate James Harden in the Magnolia City. After this trade, fans and analysts alike suddenly see the Rockets as a favorite to bring home their first title since Olajuwon did it in 1995. But I’m here to tell you we’re looking at the same old Rockets from a season ago, and they debatably became even worse post-trade.
Last season, the Rockets led the league in isolation with over 14% of their plays ending up one-on-one, the highest rate in the NBA since the Carmelo-led Knicks in 2013. Former MVP James Harden led the way for his team, averaging 12.2 points per game on isolation off 10 isolations per game, both significantly higher than the second-ranked player in the categories.
As much as I hate to say it, this style of play works for Harden. His first step is one of the quickest in the league, and when he combines that with his ability to draw “fouls” on the drive or to “step back” and hit a contested midrange or 3-pointer, it makes him one of the toughest players to guard in the NBA. Even better for Harden was the player he had running the backcourt with him.
When paired up with Chris Paul, Harden had some of the pressure taken off him. Since CP3 is one of the most composed floor generals in the NBA, opposing defenses were forced to respect both of them and in a sense pick their poison as to who they wanted to get sliced up by on a given possession. Now with Paul being replaced in favor of Russell Westbrook, all hell is about to break loose on the Rockets roster.
Westbrook averaged 4.46 turnovers per game last season, second-worst in the league behind none other than his future teammate James Harden. The usually mild-mannered, let-the-clock-run-down style the Rockets play will not suffice with Westbrook insisting on running 20 mph up the court. Westbrook’s “athletic” style of play is completely opposite to what the Rockets had going last season. The Westbrook-led Thunder were ranked sixth in the league in pace of play while Harden and the Rockets ranked fourth-slowest due to their preference for isolation plays. Something’s got to give and honestly, both outcomes are bad for Houston.
If the Rockets decide to speed up their style of play, they will expose themselves for the lack of depth they have on their team. After their starting five, the team’s best player is either 33-year-old Gerald Green or Austin Rivers, neither of which a team would be too proud to admit. A faster pace means Harden and Westbrook tire sooner and the Rockets are forced to play their bench, the same that played just 15.2 minutes per game and shot just 40.2% last season, both ranking lowest among all benches in the NBA.
If Westbrook gives in and decides to slow his play a little bit, the outlook is somehow even worse. Aside from the turnovers, Westbrook is one of the least efficient shooters in the league in isolation, and his effective field goal percentage in isolation, 38.1%. ranks third-worst in the NBA for players who took over two shots in iso per game. Add this to the fact that the Rockets hoisted up an NBA-record 45 3-pointers a game while Westbrook shot 29% from beyond the arc last season, and it makes me even more skeptical.
Of course, the Rockets will still make the playoffs and likely be a top-4 seed when the postseason kicks off, but anybody who is buying in on their odds to win the title (fourth-highest in the league), needs a reality check. The starting five looks really good on paper, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this Houston squad even got knocked out before the conference finals. The Western Conference is full of stacked teams like the Nuggets, Warriors (once Klay returns) and both L.A. teams; Harden and Westbrook’s play styles do not add up, and the general lack of depth on the team make it tough to see them making it any further. Better luck next season, Rockets fans.
Conner Gilson is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He tweets @connergilson03.