The day before his 32nd birthday Russell Westbrook let his employer know he wants out. However, his contract ($84 million owed, a $46 million opt-out in 2022-23) makes trading him to a contender increasingly difficult. A contender won’t have the assets to appease the Rockets who will want an All-Star and draft picks. That excludes the Clippers. Milwaukee may bite. Don’t knock the Heat out of a Westbrook sale but that would mean they’d have to give up on their Giannis 2020-21 dreams and trade Andre Iguodala. Phoenix might prefer Westbrook instead of Chris Paul. The Knicks have the assets and Westbrook does sell tickets. Westbrook for Jrue Holiday and Lonzo Ball makes the money work. Regardless of where Westbrook lands, it’s been a disaster of a year for Houston.
The Rockets needed seven games to beat the OKC Thunder, a team of Chris Paul and kids, in the first round of the playoffs. They lost in five uninspiring games- four in a row- to the Lakers. Mike D’Antoni’s exit wasn’t a surprise but Daryl Morey leaving began the Houston blow-up. The Rockets inability to sign an experienced head coach put Houston into chaos mode. It’s created friction between Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and the organization.
Both Westbrook and Harden are at a point in their careers where they want to be in the playoffs, competing for a title. A rookie head coach and an assistant GM promoted to the head slot aren’t going to appease veterans who are desperate to get back to the Finals.
Westbrook is the first domino to fall. The trade request puts the Rockets in a tough position unless they can get Joel Embiid out of Philly, Bradley Beal out of Washington, DeMar DeRozan out of San Antonio, and even then, the Rockets were built for James Harden’s style of play. And James Harden style of play is the problem. Iso ball loses in the playoffs. Not to mention he can’t get along with other All-Stars.
Houston’s culture was an issue under Mike D’Antoni but that’s what he brings. D’Antoni can be wishy-washy and struggles with setting boundaries and keeping stars in line. Think of a coach who is the opposite of Gregg Popovich. Like not even in the same stratosphere as Popovich’s tough love. It wasn’t just Westbrook who hated the culture and how Harden dominates the ball. It’s was a lot of Rockets. P.J. Tucker. Austin Rivers. Eric Gordon. They were miserable. Bickering over money, roles, usage.
Despite the numerous conflicts, Westbrook had a strong 2019-20 season except for three-point shot-making which has never been a Westbrook thing. Five out of the last six years Westbrook has been catastrophic behind the arc, making less than 30% of his three-point shots. The rest of his game though, under D’Antoni, thrived.
He shot a career-high 47%. He resurrected his free throw shooting after a dismal 2018-19 65%. He averaged 8 assists and 7 rebounds, had a 21.0 PER, was a clutch shot-maker with 50.4% makes with less than 3 minutes left in the quarter.
But there is always the bad Westbrook despite being a 9-time All-Star, 9-time All-NBA, 2-time scoring champ, and MVP. His ferocity, speed, energy, and commitment camouflage the aforementioned three-point shot disaster, fatigue in the 4th quarter, and average defense. Six years ago, Westbrook made 90% of his dunk attempts. Those numbers have diminished as he has aged, from 90% to 87%, then 79% in consecutive years, 78%, and last season 76%. He is 32 years old today. He has lost some of his speed. But none of his fire, leadership, commitment, and competitiveness.
Westbrook hasn’t been in a WCF in four years and his lone NBA Finals appearance was eight years ago. He’s trying to get to a title and though his future is uncertain one thing is clear. After one year, he and the Rockets are over.