Houston/Lift Off

Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports

To get this out of the way up front: the NBA shrinking in the face of one nation in which it has interests – one whose interests happen to conflict with those of what the American ideal is supposed to be, mind you, as it suppresses the protests of people in Hong Kong, facing potential extradition to the mainland, where prisoners’ cases can be ignored entirely – makes the league’s put-on image of empowerment look transparently weak.

That Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey sparked the current, ostensibly bipartisan discourse with a fairly innocuous tweet seems to say more about that nation, its insecurity as a world power and its desire for overwhelming power on a world stage, than it does about anyone who has anything to say about it, but the NBA is at some fault here, and commissioner Adam Silver is in an even more unique position than he was when the Donald Sterling circus unfolded five years ago[1].

With a deep breath – and I know it’s complicated to dig out of that tunnel, even if human rights shouldn’t be – I would like to move on to the Rockets themselves, and the fascinating approach(es) they may take this season in integrating the likes of, ehem, Russell Westbrook into their offense.

The battle over who would be the NBA MVP in 2017 was, if you will allow me the indulgence, tantamount to the Battle of Britpop[2]: Russell Westbrook-as-Oasis, the working class hero abandoned by everything but rock and roll power, against James Harden-as-Blur, an already-accomplished-and-perhaps-slighted exemplar of refined efficiency and recognized zeitgeist.

Chris Paul was the first real counterpoint to James Harden within the Rockets’ offense; Dwight Howard had tried, and failed, to bring his unique brand of happy-go-lucky rollism and dunksmanship to Houston, but it did not work. Paul’s off-rhythm, downbeat adjustments

Rockets fans spent that season clowning on Westbrook for his gross inefficiency[3], and Thunder fans spent that season clowning on Harden for being the teacher’s pet of foul calls. When Westbrook, Harden’s former Oklahoma City teammate, won, the Rockets took it personally, demonstrating the kind of wherewithal the would adopt in publicly firing off an investigative report in which they handed themselves the 2018 Western Conference title.

The Rockets did away with the Thunder in five games in that year’s playoffs, but part of Westbrook’s appeal was his rabid animosity in the face of Everest-esque odds; he scored 47 points, had 11 rebounds and nine assists in the Thunder’s 105-99 series-losing effort and averaged over 37 points per game overall. Harden won the following year’s MVP trophy, and all seemed right in the stomachs of Rockets fans, for the time being, team performance notwithstanding.

Over time, Harden became regarded as a top offensive player of all time, while Westbrook regressed to being a player of his time; even now, it stands to reason that players of his particular abilities – driving and scoring/dishing, athletically scouring steals, generally living on whatever reservoir of energy a guy like that can possibly sustain himself on for more than, oh, thirty seconds at a time – in a word, “fall off a cliff” after the age of 30. Westbrook turns 31 in a month. To be fair, Harden just turned 30, albeit with a much more well-rounded game to his name.

I don’t have any insight to Mike D’Antoni’s mind, despite his time with the Knicks; he has always tried to live at the forefront of NBA offense, at least, and will presumably implement sets that maximize Harden’s impeccable efficiency (exploitation?) with regard to officiating. Westbrook, of course, has no time for that; he likes to live at the edge sharply standing between NBA etiquette and necessary measures. Russell Westbrook lives like he has designed a brand of watches that only he wears.

Then again, what we can expect from the Rockets is points: just, a LOT of points. Harden has been the NBA’s scoring champion each of the last two seasons, having averaged the seventh-most per game ever last year with 36.1, and Westbrook is the last NBA scoring champion not named Harden.

They approach pace differently; Westbrook is a steaming bull, content with scoring in D’Antoni’s Suns-era provision of under seven seconds, while Harden is meticulous, a cognizant Kobe-era byproduct who eventually decides that if he can, he will. To coexist effectively, each – Westbrook in particular – will have to learn to play off the ball and attract enough attention from opposing defenses to open lanes for the other and those surrounding them in the minutes they play together. That is, perhaps, the biggest question surrounding Houston on that end.

Individual play types will be particularly curious; each player utilizes the pick-and-roll in his own fashion, and with different speeds. How, say, P.J. Tucker or Austin Rivers responds will be a point of interest. But the Rockets have the blueprint of an All-Star backcourt in place – they’ve seen the Warriors do it, even without Kevin Durant, their other old buddy, but the best case may end up being the Clyde Frazier-Earl Monroe ’73 Knicks – and they have enthusiasm, as important in the duo-centric NBA as anything since the Big Three era started in Boston in 2007.

*     *     *

[1] Pretty much any other media outlet can give you a better rundown of things up to and including the bizarre decision to have a media blackout for Thursday’s Nets-Lakers exhibition in Shanghai; I defer to Deadspin and Brian Phillips, in that order, for a proper rundown, as far as English-language media is concerned.

[2] Yeah, I know…but also, did you hear Liam’s latest solo record? Or watch Noel’s “Hot Ones” appearance? I’m the last living person who cares about these things aside from each other (Also there was no chance Westbrook wasn’t Oasis in this analogy)!

[3] Which, in fairness, hit its “volumes-at-11” level this season, but I digress, only because Russell Westbrook lives his entire life at the volume of 11—

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