It took the Rockets — or, to be more precise, James Harden and Russell Westbrook — a mere season to conclude that their partnership doesn’t work. For all the sterling numbers they continued to put up, they basically ran the offense in a “your turn, my turn” manner. And their tendency to hog the ball wasn’t merely borne of personal preference; it was necessary in order for them to maximize their talents. Each All-Star had to have full command of the leather to get humming, during which time the other couldn’t help but stay stationary in the periphery.
That the Rockets went all in on the experiment despite ample on-paper evidence of its failings signified their willingness to do something — anything — to change their fortunes. Harden’s frequent run-ins with notably difficult backcourt mate Chris Paul made the latter expendable, and the Thunder became alluring trade partners following the departure of leading scorer Paul George. It likewise didn’t hurt that Westbrook’s salary matched with that of the point god. The result was a deal that led to the reunion of former teammates, albeit at the expense of future draft picks. The complete commitment to small ball then sent center Clint Capela packing.
Considering the Rockets’ boldness, it’s just too bad that the results exposed them to have been foolhardy at best. Once again, they exited the playoffs early, and the development made casualties of head coach Mike D’Antoni and general manager Daryl Morey. And with new management in place, Harden has reportedly stayed incommunicado. Meanwhile, Westbrook is demanding to be moved, and to an extent that makes it a matter of when and not if. The problem is his contract, which runs until 2023; he cuts the second most expensive paycheck in the National Basketball Association, and it’s fair to wonder whether his advancing age and swooning efficiency give potential employers fair value for money.
Make no mistake. There will be suitors. Westbrook is too unique a player not to be a tantalizing prospect for franchises compelled to be gamblers in search of respect and respectability. He puts backsides in seats, and, under the right circumstances, can catapult teams otherwise on the fringes to contention. On the other hand, the pandemic has made his box-office pluses irrelevant, while his ceiling limits his effectiveness to middling franchises that will then have to reconstruct their rosters to suit him. Which, in a nutshell, is why the Rockets will need to make accepting him worth their while.
Whether Westbrook will start his 2020-21 campaign in another uniform remains to be seen. The short turnaround time won’t be of help as he seeks greener pastures, and he may well have to resign himself to staying with the Rockets in the near term. They don’t want that, of course, and will be breaking the bank in a buyer’s market just to ensure addition by subtraction. Else, they’ll risk losing Harden as well. Pity the fans who deserve better, but who will, it seems, again be consigned to accept another season of disappointment.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.