Are the Rockets better? Pressure’s on Russ and Harden now

As discussions between the Houston Rockets and the Oklahoma City Thunderon a blockbuster deal for Russell Westbrook grew serious Thursday, Daryl Morey, Houston’s general manager, called James Harden to discuss how both stars might work together. Harden gently cut Morey off and reminded him: “I know how to play with Russ and he knows how to play with me,” Morey recounted to late Thursday in Las Vegas.

They played together for three seasons, two of the three foundational superstars who drove the Thunder to the 2012 Finals. Harden was 22 when LeBron James and the Miami Heat overwhelmed Oklahoma City in that series. Westbrook and Kevin Durant were 23. They were one of the youngest teams ever to advance so far. They looked like a dynasty in the making.

Harden never played another game for Oklahoma City. The Thunder traded him to the Rockets in October 2012, in a deal that has proved to be a pivotal moment in NBA history. The trade did not kill Oklahoma City. The Thunder never reached the Finals again, but they made legitimate runs in 2013, 2014 and 2016. Injuries derailed the first two — two more “what-ifs.”

The 73-win Warriors rallied from a 3-1 deficit against Oklahoma City in 2016, an all-time gut punch. The Thunder didn’t just beat Golden State in Games 3 and 4 of that series. They overwhelmed them with size and speed and athleticism. They made the Warriors look helpless. They became the team Sam Presti, its architect, envisioned — the team the rest of the league feared the Thunder might become.

And the Warriors summoned something more, because the Warriors are champions (even if they were not champions at the end of that season). Klay Thompson’s 11 3-pointers in Game 6 to save Golden State’s season literally changed the entire landscape of the league for the next half-decade. The history of the NBA in the 2010s is perhaps more closely interwoven with the history of the Thunder than it is with any other team — even if the Thunder never won the championship in the Westbrook era.

If you have to boil that history down to two moments, they are the Harden trade and that fateful Game 6. The first cost Oklahoma City a player who has finished in the top five in MVP voting five times since. The second might have cost them a title, and a chance to keep Durant.

Harden became a different sort of player in Houston, and has shape-shifted since into something we have never quite seen. Westbrook became a very different player when Durant left him as the only remaining star in Oklahoma City. They are probably the two most ball-dominant players in the NBA. They have recorded the two highest single-season usage rates in NBA history: Westbrook in 2017, Harden in 2019. They were the top-two finishers in one of the most contentious MVP races ever, and one of the delightful subplots of this strange, fascinating trade will be watching die-hard Houston fans grapple with accepting the star they derided as an unjust MVP usurper.

In their years apart, Westbrook and Harden have developed such singularly relentless, controlling styles that it is hard to imagine them playing any other way. It is almost hard to remember how they meshed seven and eight seasons ago. Houston is betting the two stars can remember — that they can ease back into old habits, and blend what they are now with what they once were together.

That was Harden’s message to Morey over the phone on Thursday. That was Westbrook’s message in choosing the Rockets as one of his destinations — along with the Heat, who may now pursue Paul as something of a consolation prize. (The Rockets hoped to turn the deal into a three-team trade, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. That they could not do so suggests Presti might feel he can wring more for Paul by doing that deal on his own. Trading Paul could also deflate Oklahoma City’s win total, and vault the Thunder higher in the 2020 draft. An under-the-radar loser here: Atlanta, which owns Oklahoma City’s lottery-protected 2022 first-round pick. The Thunder are starting a deep rebuild. If that pick falls in the lottery, the Hawks get two second-rounders instead.

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