Losses: Chris Paul, Iman Shumpert, Kenneth Faried.
Additions: Russell Westbrook, Ben McLemore, Tyson Chandler.
Likely Starters Guard: Russell Westbrook, James Harden Wing: Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker Big: Clint Capela
Predicted Record: 49–33 | 8th in NBA | 5th in West
Back in the early part of this decade, when LeBron James and Dwyane Wade teamed up in Miami, it took a little while for the combination to work. At first, it felt like two lead guitarists in a supergroup taking turns noodling. The crowd was wowed. Games were won. Nevertheless, something was lacking. When a team is playing at its peak, players add up to more than the sum of their individual talent. Miami, at first, was winning off individual talent alone.
Eventually, LeBron and Wade figured it out. They became a kind of cyclone of devastation. They leveraged the outsized attention each of them required of opposing teams into outright impossibility. Eventually, they overwhelmed everyone for a couple years, culminating in two championships, a 27-game winning streak, and loads of memorable moments.
During LeBron’s first season in Miami, he was 26. Wade was 29. LeBron’s best years were still ahead of him, and Wade was still squarely in the middle of his prime. I found myself thinking about that first Heatles season this summer when Daryl Morey traded for Russell Westbrook. Like LeBron and Wade, Westbrook and James Harden are offensive systems unto themselves. They have been, in recent seasons, the primary options on their respective teams to an alarming, insane degree. Each has set records for usage while posting gaudy statistics, and each has been thwarted in the playoffs when individual heroics weren’t enough.
Allow me to admit here and now that I have no idea whatsoever how Russell Westbrook and James Harden are going to coexist on a basketball team at this point in their careers. I wrote about this earlier in the summer, and I haven’t managed to come to any conclusions in the intervening months. The versions of themselves that have existed over the past few seasons will absolutely not work together. They can’t just stand around with their arms crossed when they’re not actively dribbling the ball. They are going to need to exercise skills that may have begun to atrophy. You can’t really understate the degree to which these two dudes have been living in isolation these past few seasons. We have literally never seen anyone play like this before. We’ve certainly never seen two players like this come together, because two players like this haven’t ever, like, existed.
Ultimately, this makes them compelling. We always have questions about how basketball players are going to function in the context of a team, but this iteration of the Rockets poses questions I’ve never considered before. When superstars team up, they always have to alter their games, but not like this. Ray Allen was still running around screens like a maniac when he got to the Celtics in 2008. He still got his points in similar ways; he just had to accept a smaller role in the offense than he was used to. This is different. We need to find out if Harden, a dude who just set an all-time record for unassisted 3-pointers made in a season, can function as a spot-up shooter. We need to find out if Westbrook, the most useless off-ball player in the league in recent seasons, can be a supercharged hybrid of, I dunno, Marcus Smart and Allen Iverson?
Probably, this won’t be a clean fit. There will be problems, and there will be angst. Still, this team has undeniable talent. They’re versatile and tough. They’re going to come at you in waves. I have them as the 8th best team in the league, but they’re the first team I’ve written about this summer, going from worst to best, that I believe has a shot at winning the title. I haven’t been this excited about a basketball experiment in years. If it works, it’s going to change everything about how we think about two of the greatest players of the past 25 years. Isn’t that great?