In a perfect world, great players bring out the best in each other. But talent isn’t a drug that makes teams perform at an elite level. Chemistry, complimentary styles of play, and personality affect how teams are going to function when there is more than one superstar on the roster. It’s no fault of talented players when they don’t exactly connect on the court. For James Harden and Russell Westbrook, the easy part is playing together; they have already played together. But their careers have done a huge shift. Harden is no longer a 6th man but a superstar and a former MVP. Westbrook has had to carry a team and is also a former MVP. Both are used to dominating the ball and the offense. When they played together in OKC, it was Kevin Durant’s show. But now they are going to have to sacrifice in order to enable the other. Being close friends helps. They can tell each other the truth, lean on one another, be a huge support system. If things falls apart, they won’t turn on each other.
But they won’t turn on each other because things won’t fall apart. Here’s why.
1. Too Dominant. The inside-outside combo of Westbrook and Harden, elite offensive players with eight and seven All-Star appearances respectively, will overwhelm defenses. They will get fouled at a Biblical rate and the Rockets will lead the league in free throws. The ying and yang of Westbrook and Harden makes them an ideal combo. Westbrook has a career defensive rating of 105 while Harden has an offensive rating of 118. They are strong where the other is weak. Harden’s step back three is just as lethal as Westbrook’s drive to the rim and finish in traffic. The only thing that will stop them is injuries.
2. Mike D’Antoni. The so-called offensive whisperer has had all summer long to tweak his Freedom Offense. Westbrook is a challenge. He’s not the shoot or move it kind of player that D’Antoni fetishizes. Westbrook is a mediocre shotmaker and D’Antoni has to find a way to get the best of who Westbrook is as an offensive player while encouraging him not to hold on to the ball. Westbrook is cringe worthy when he doesn’t utilize everything he has on the court and goes iso to the detriment of the team. It’s a must for his own longevity that D’Antoni add wrinkles to the offense that elevates the midrange; Westbrook is comfortable there.
Westbrook is a fiery competitor and D’Antoni is going to have to fight his urge to be intimidated by such a personality. He’s going to have to pull Westbrook back when he wants to go off the island, something he can do but nothing he has done before. D’Antoni not only wants more years in Houston, he wants to be known as something more than a regular season coach. He has incentive to get the best out of Westbrook: the NBA Finals.
3. The Western Conference. The 2019-20 West is a matchup of two stars. Westbrook and Harden. LeBron and Anthony Davis. Kawhi and Paul George. Steph and Klay. Jokic and Jamal Murray. To compete you have to have a one-two combination. Or a one-one(a) combination. The Rockets are the only team that has two MVP’s. While many see that as a curse, it is a blessing. Both Westbrook and Harden can take their games to the highest possible level, game after game. Load Management means when Westbrook or Harden sits, the other can go back to the way it used to be: iso player vs. the world. Westbrook and Harden are a perfect fit in this new West with assassins up and down the roster. They will hold their own and excel.