It was the offseason of NBA stars pairing off. First, there was Anthony Davis finally getting his trade to the Los Angeles Lakers to team up with LeBron James. Then Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving announced they were headed to the Brooklyn Nets. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George pulled off their Los Angeles Clippers coup a week later.
Finally, Russell Westbrook was traded to the Houston Rockets. Alongside James Harden, he will form a backcourt consisting of two former MVPs and two of the highest-usage players in the league.
Despite the pair’s experience together with the Oklahoma City Thunder, questions about their chemistry next season have been rampant due to their reputations as two historically ball-dominant guards. But is that fair?
One of their teammates doesn’t think so.
P.J. Tucker defends Harden, Westbrook
Speaking with Ben Golliver of The Washington Post, Rockets forward P.J. Tucker criticized the scrutiny placed on Harden and Westbrook:
“I hate when people talk about certain guys and say they can’t work together,” Tucker said. “It may not work with Paul George and Kawhi Leonard [on the Los Angeles Clippers]. It may not work with Anthony Davis and LeBron James [on the Los Angeles Lakers]. It may not work with anybody.
“[Westbrook] is another super aggressive guy who can attack the rim and score the ball. That opens everything up for everyone else. [Harden and Westbrook] know each other’s games. They’ve played together when they were young and they’re excited to play together again. If they’re excited, I’m excited.”
Throwing up your hands and saying every other new pairing in the league could also fail isn’t exactly the strongest way to defend Harden and Westbrook, but there is some reason to believe in them. Harden and Westbrook have demanded the ball in their hands more than any other players this decade, but both have some pretty strong incentives to make it work this season.
Harden’s bread-and-butter has long been his ability to play in isolation and end up with a 3-pointer or free throws, but that doesn’t mean he can’t play off-ball when Westbrook is attacking. The vast majority of his 3-pointers last year were pull-up jumpers, but he actually made his few catch-and-shoot 3-pointers at a higher clip.
Westbrook’s tendency toward mid-range shooting, awful three-point shooting and off-ball nonchalance sound like an awful fit for Houston’s rigid system, but we haven’t even seen how the coaching staff plans to integrate him. Who knows, maybe Westbrook can buy in and transform as a player now that he isn’t on a Thunder team that catered to his every whim.
Of course, James and Davis don’t have these concerns, because they can clearly work together on the pick-and-roll and in isolation. Neither do Leonard and George, who have two of the most diverse offensive toolboxes in the league.
Having clear chemistry questions from the start doesn’t mean Harden and Westbrook are doomed to fail as a pairing, but it’s still an odd situation because superstar pairings usually don’t have this much work to do.
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