In the wake of the blockbuster trade agreement that will send Russell Westbrook to Houston and Chris Paul to Oklahoma City, a Rockets source tells Jordan Schultz of ESPN (Twitter link) that the pre-existing friendship between Westbrook and James Harden gave the team the confidence to pull the trigger on the deal and pair them again. Sources tell Sam Amick of The Athletic that the former Thunder teammates began discussing the idea of playing together shortly after Paul George asked to be traded.
“They are motivated to play together,” said Schultz’s source.
ESPN’s Zach Lowe conveys a similar sentiment, relaying an anecdote about Harden offering a reminder to Rockets GM Daryl Morey during a conversation about Westbrook: “I know how to play with Russ and he knows how to play with me.” Westbrook is also enthusiastic about playing with Harden again, sources tell Lowe.
Of course, it was just two years ago that we heard similar things about Harden and Paul after CP3 chose to join the Rockets. While skeptics at that time questioned whether two ball-dominant guards like Harden and Paul could co-exist, the common refrain was that the two players pushed for the union and were confident they could make it work.
It mostly did, as the Rockets won a league-high 65 games in 2017/18 and were the Western Conference’s biggest threat to the Warriors over the last two seasons. However, the Paul-in-Houston era ultimately ended with rumors of discord between the two stars, and a trade that will send CP3 to Oklahoma City in exchange for a new star point guard.
As we wait to see whether this new pairing can help lead the Rockets to that elusive title, let’s round up a few more notes on Houston’s side of the trade:
- Within his ESPN.com article cited above, Zach Lowe notes that Mike D’Antoni‘s experience coaching Westbrook on Team USA increased Houston’s comfort level in making the trade. Lowe also hears that the Rockets tried to push for the Thunder to take their 2020 first-round pick, but OKC insisted on picks further out — those 2024 and 2026 first-rounders aren’t as likely to fall in the late-20s, since Harden and Westbrook will be in their mid-30s by then.
- According to Sam Amick, the contract extension D’Antoni had been seeking is no longer a priority for the Rockets’ head coach, who is now more focused on making his new-look backcourt work. Sources also tell Amick that the Rockets explored various iterations of a Westbrook deal – including ones that wouldn’t have involved Paul – before eventually settling on the reported terms.
- The reported tension between Harden and Paul didn’t factor into the decision to make the Westbrook trade, according to Tim MacMahon of ESPN, who tweets that the Rockets considered it “manageable” and not out of the ordinary for two alpha dogs. “That would not have driven us to do something we otherwise wouldn’t have done,” one team source said to MacMahon. While that tension may not have been the driving force behind the deal, I’m skeptical that it wasn’t a factor at all.
- A league source who spoke to Vincent Goodwill of Yahoo Sports sounds even more skeptical. “James made this [expletive] happen,” that source told Goodwill. “He wanted Chris up out of there.” Still, Goodwill questions whether adding Westbrook to the mix makes basketball sense for the Rockets, referring to it as a “marriage of desperation.”
- By acquiring Westbrook, the Rockets will become the first NBA team with two players on Designated Veteran Extensions (super-maxes), tweets ESPN’s Bobby Marks. Although Paul’s deal looks nearly identical to Westbrook, it wasn’t technically a Designated Veteran contract, since CP3 signed it after he already had 10 years of NBA experience. Houston will now be prohibited from adding a third player on a Designated Veteran deal, though as Marks notes, that doesn’t seem likely to become an issue (the only other players on those contracts are Stephen Curry, John Wall, and Damian Lillard).
- An ESPN.com panel – featuring Marks, Tim Bontemps, Nick Friedell, and others – breaks down the Rockets/Thunder blockbuster, exploring how each team made out in the trade and their initial reactions to the deal.