A deeper look at the deal
Russell Westbrook represents Houston's biggest Hail Mary
Houston's acquisition of Russell Westbrook emboldens everything the front office has believed over the last decade: do everything you can to acquire the star player and figure out the rest later. To call this trade anything less than Daryl Morey's greatest gamble as a general manager is doing an injustice. The Rockets put all of their chips on the table for a star who's tantalizing qualities almost make you forget about his unforgiving deficiencies.
How this could work
For all his flaws, Russell Westbrook is still a damn good basketball player with an irrefutable positive impact. For his career, Westbrook is averaging 23.0 points, 8.4 assists, 7.0 rebounds, and 1.8 steals per game on 52.9% true shooting. His scoring efficiency may be average at best, but it's hard to deny how incredibly productive he is when he takes the floor. Even last year, in arguably one of his worst seasons, the Thunder were 5.3 points better when Westbrook was on the floor versus off the floor.
He's also a significantly younger player than Chris Paul, meaning Houston may have extended their title window (if this works) by about four years. Paul took a significant dip last season in production which may have been the first signs of a prolonged decline, but there's no guarantee that Westbrook will age gracefully either. It'll be interesting to monitor in the coming years.
Westbrook does also bring a rebounding presence that Houston as a team sorely lacked last season. The Rockets were 29th in defensive rebounding percentage last season and it was the primary reason they dipped so much as a team defense compared to the prior year. Even with inflated rebounding numbers, Westbrook has generally been one of the best rebounders at his position for his entire career. His 6'3" frame gives him an advantage on the glass that 6'0" Paul was simply unable to provide for Houston.
Thunder Defensive Rebounding Percentage:
With Westbrook: 75.4
Without Westbrook: 70.6
However, it's hard to deny that his high usage rating, negative floor spacing, and defensive inconsistencies make him a clunky fit next to someone like James Harden. For this to work, there needs to be serious sacrifice and adjustment from both parties - the likes of which both players haven't had to do before. If those sacrifices aren't made, none of this matters and the Rockets are arguably a worse team than what they were before this trade.
The Rockets have put too much on James Harden's plate as a creator for far too long and the acquisition of Westbrook can help alleviate that a touch. In 2018-19, Harden had a usage rate of 40.47% - the second highest in NBA history. The same could also be said for Westbrook. Though his usage did go down significantly last season as he deferred to Paul George more, Westbrook still had a 30.9% usage rate - good for 10th in the NBA.
Head coach Mike D'Antoni will likely impose a strict stagger like he did with Paul and Harden. However, for at least twenty minutes a game and all of crunch time, Harden and Westbrook will have to learn to play together. This obviously means both will need to learn how to play without the ball in their hands and provide adequate floor spacing.
While it's easier to see how Harden could become a floor spacer (41.4% on catch and shoot three-pointers last season), he's shown an unwillingness to play that role, even with Paul by his side the past two seasons (1.7 attempted per game in 2017-18, 0.9 attempted per game in 2018-19). Harden often wanders far away from the play when he doesn't have the ball and it makes for terrible floor balance.
It's unlikely Harden will ever cut the way he used to in Oklahoma City as a sixth man, but Harden's a strong enough shooter that he doesn't have to do that to provide floor spacing. However, he does have to fill lanes and run to corners on fast breaks when Russell Westbrook has the ball and be ready to shoot. The same goes for half court sets - Harden has to provide a credible off-ball threat by being ready to shoot or attack closeouts when Westbrook is attacking the basket. Defenses can and will collapse on Westbrook and ignore Harden if he doesn't make this adjustment.
As for Westbrook, floor spacing off the ball becomes more complicated, but it is possible. You may ask how this is possible when Westbrook has arguably one of the least efficient, volume shooters in NBA history (30.8% career three-point shooter). It starts with eliminating the bad shots, which Westbrook takes a lot of. Houston is known for maximizing shot selection and Westbrook is exactly the kind of player that could benefit from this hyper-efficient approach.
The first thing that would need to happen would be taking the mid-range shot completely out of his arsenal. For his career, Westbrook has shot at around 35-40% from mid-range, which is not even close to being good enough to justify taking those kinds of shots. Even in his best year in 2017-18, he shot 39.8%, which is good for only 0.796 points per possession. Westbrook's career average on three-pointers is higher than that alone (0.924 points per possession).
This would be a tough ask as Westbrook has consistently been among the league leaders in mid-range shot attempts. However, this also means that cutting them out of his game completely could be enough to make him a marginally more efficient scorer by itself.
The second thing Westbrook would have to do would be eliminating pull up three-pointers from his game (if he continues to take three-pointers). Over the past five seasons, Westbrook has only shot above 30% from pull up three-pointers once (34.7% in 2016-17). As a whole, he's shot at least five percent better on catch-and-shoot opportunities since 2014-15. With Harden constantly driving and kicking to open shooters, Westbrook will find much better catch and shoot opportunities than he did in Oklahoma City if he commits to taking them.
While shooting is a very important modern way to space the floor, there are other ways to attract gravity and make it hard for a defender to sag off of you - cutting. Shooting has become such an integral part of team building in 2019 that you almost forget that awesome teams with little amounts of it. A great example of this is the 2010-2014 Miami Heat teams with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Before teaming up, nobody would've confused James or Wade for great three-point shooters. In fact, Wade ended his career as a 29.3% three-point shooter - worse than Westbrook.
Tom Haberstroh wrote a great column for ESPN in 2014 about how Wade provided some of the best floor spacing in the league in his prime despite being such a poor shooter. This was possible because he was such an unbelievable cutter. When defenders sagged off Wade to help cover James, they were giving Wade an open lane to gather a full head of steam towards the basket. Given the athlete Wade was at the peak of his powers, this was essentially death by a thousand cuts.
A great passer like James always managed to find Wade when he would dive to the basket and take advantage of a sleeping defender. While Westbrook has a slightly smaller frame, he's a very similar athlete in the way he can explode to the rim and run the floor like Wade. If Westbrook chose to fill lanes and cut off the ball in the manner of Wade, floor spacing wouldn't be such an issue.
The problem is, much like Harden, Westbrook has a habit of becoming disengaged when he doesn't have the ball too. Ever since Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City, you'll often see Westbrook with his hands on his knees away from the play and not moving. If it's true that Houston was indeed Westbrook's preferred destination, this kind of ball-watching has to stop. He has to commit to becoming a dynamic cutter or become a dramatically more efficient three-point shooter. Since the latter seems unlikely, cutting would be a great step in making this partnership work.
The case against this trade
Even with the protections that were added on, paying two first round picks and two first round pick swaps is no small price for Westbrook. The Rockets are investing a lot of future draft compensation on a ton of "ifs." There's a strong case that Houston may have been better off running it back with Chris Paul this season as he's a significantly better defender and shooter than Westbrook. The on-court fit is just a lot cleaner.
Westbrook and Harden will have to kick a lot of bad habits developed over the years for this marriage to work. Asking players this late in their careers to make the kinds of sacrifices mentioned above is a lot. When you factor in the fact that both haven't had to adjust their play styles this dramatically before, it seems nearly impossible. It's possible, but improbable.
The Rockets also took on $47.1 million in guaranteed money in 2022-23 in this trade.
Westbrook and Harden also will both have to commit to whatever defensive scheme new associate head coach Elston Turner designs for Houston. Both players have had someone else in the back court to make up for their defensive weaknesses for the past few years, but that won't exist anymore. Hiding on the weakest guard every night will not be an option for either Westbrook or Harden. If the Rockets want to raise the Larry O'Brien trophy at the end of the season, being 17th in defensive rating will not cut it this year.
This may end up being a worthwhile gamble for Houston, but at the end of the day, it's just that - a gamble. The Rockets lowered the floor to raise their ceiling next season. It's the ultimate calculated risk.