For The Win - USA Today
With the talent of James Harden and Russell Westbrook, the coaching of Mike D’Antoni, and the roster moves of Daryl Morey — the Houston Rockets will win the NBA Championship in the 2019-20 season.
The team currently sits with the fourth highest odds to win the title in the coming season, according to Vegas. However, the general conversation around the NBA media and twitter world has the Rockets far and away behind the two teams from Los Angeles, Milwaukee Bucks, and even the Philadelphia 76ers.
But it’s time to put some respect on the Rockets name. Starting with their superstar duo and their ability to co-exist.
James Harden is coming off an absolutely wild statistical year. Finishing the regular season averaging 36.1 points, 7.5 assists, 6.6 rebounds, 2.0 steals and shooting 44.2% from the field. He also led the league in usage rate by a wide margin and finished third in total minutes played, according to Fox Sports. In other words, he had the ball in his hand more than any other player in the NBA, and the Rockets reaped the benefits of it — finishing the season at 53-29. They were an elite offensive team, finishing second in total points scored per 100 possessions at 115.5.
The Rockets used Harden as the focal point and surrounded him with three point shooters emphasizing the corners. Shout out P.J Tucker, and the lob catching center Clint Capella. Harden also had an All-Star backcourt partner — Chris Paul — who obviously is no longer with the team after getting moved to Oklahoma City in return for a different All-Star guard — Russell Westbrook.
The guard out of UCLA is coming off a season that is tough to judge. On one hand he averaged a triple-double, 22.9 points, 10.7 assists and 11.1 rebounds on 42.8% shooting from the field. However, he also shot a dismal 29% from behind the line, in combination with hoisting 5.6 threes a game — the second most average attempts in a single season in his career. The Thunder also ended their season with a disappointing first round loss to the Portland Trailblazers.
Westbrook, like Harden, is a player that has the ball in his hands a ton, as he finished tenth in usage rate last season. It leaves the question of whether or not Harden and Westbrook can gel together on the floor.
I think the answer to this question exists in an examination of how Chris Paul’s stats actually changed when he came to the Rockets. There was an identical worry over Paul’s ability to play with Harden, as he was also used to always having the ball in his hand.
The surprising answer is that Paul’s usage rate didn’t change at all. In his two years in Houston his usage rate was 24.5 % and 22.5%, and his career average is 24%. In general all of Paul’s statistics didn’t change very much from his average rates, and in some cases they even went up.
D’Antoni and Harden were able to find a way for the Beard to keep his league high usage rate and MVP level output, and still allow Paul to find his All-Star level production. And it should be an even easier with Westbrook.
Westbrook is a better player than Paul at this point of their respective careers. Harden and Westbrook’s respective skillsets should also actually help each other with where the other struggles
I’ll digress for a quick second though to mention the rest of the Rockets roster that has the caliber of player to help the two superstars win a championship. Clint Capella garnered critique last year, but at the end of the day he is the perfect type of big man to play along Harden. Eric Gordon and P.J Tucker are a strong supporting cast to the superstars on the wing position, as both play elite defense, and can knock down open three pointers.
Austin Rivers, Tyson Chandlers and Danuel House round out the eight-man rotation that will most likely receive the majority of the minutes. It’s a top eight that gives you a little bit of everything, and I think it has been unforgivably overlooked going into the season.
The strength and depth of the roster is important, but at the end of the day the team will go as far as Harden and Westbrook take them. It’s easy to say the two ball dominant guards will take away touches from each other, but we’ve already shown that wasn’t the case with Harden and Paul.
So why not look at how the two can help one another.
Starting with the way Westbrook can help Harden. Houston has reached two Conference Finals in recent years, but the playoff exits have been disappointing — especially last year’s exit against a depleted Warriors team. Harden has shouldered much of the blame for these playoff exits, and it’s a peculiar thing to try to explain. On one hand, Harden’s statistics barely drop off his incredible regular season numbers. Yes, he’s had a handful of hopelessly poor performances, but his critiques are targeted more on his perceived effort levels and general tiredness that analysts put down to his incredible usage rate during the season.
I think there is absolutely some truth to it, and while Chris Paul is a fantastic basketball player, the six-foot point guard was past the point in his career where he could be a go-to scoring option against playoff team level defenses these past two years.
Russell Westbrook is not past that point in his career. Westbrook represents a player for Harden who can truly shoulder that scoring load not just in the regular season, but even more importantly, in the playoffs. The partnership will help each individual superstar stay away from the breaking down process of the long NBA season, and allow both of them to excel.
Westbrook does it all on the basketball court, but the man struggles with his three point shot. There were points last year when Westbrook turned down open threes to an extent where he was clearly in his head about it.
The combo of Harden and D’Antoni is as good a three-point doctor in the NBA today. Between Harden’s ability to draw defense and kick the ball at the perfect moment to open shooters, and D’Antoni’s offensive scheme that emphasizes three point shot attempts, especially from the corner — Westbrook should be looking at many more quality three point shots last year.
Look no further than P.J Tucker. Harden and D’Antoni turned the NBA vet, who was never known as a shooter, into a quality three-point specialist. Tucker has ranked in the very top percentile in corner threes for the past two years. Westbrook should hopefully see similar progress in the long range-shooting department.
Everyone is jumping on the Los Angeles bandwagons, but both those teams will have undoubted growing pains. The Bucks roster lost value this offseason, and they’re still desperately without three point shooting.
The Rockets will win the 2019-20 NBA Championship. Just remember who called it.