Harden Has Always Been The Problem, Not CP3…and Not Russell Westbrook

Four seasons ago, the grind-hard Houston Rockets team that featured James Harden, Lou Williams, Eric Gordon, and the poster boy for modern-day NBA grind, Patrick Beverley, went 55-27, finishing third in the Western Conference, then underachieved, losing in the conference semifinals.

The following season, Daryl Morey brought in Chris Paul in an attempt to jumpstart a more fluid offense, opening up more and better quality shots for James Harden. Paul, alongside Harden, was the most becoming that the Rockets looked since Harden got traded in 2012. In 2018, Paul’s inaugural season with the Rockets, they were well on their way to surpassing the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Semis, but after Paul got hurt in Game 5, up 3-2, the Warriors rattled off two decisive wins in a row to seal the series.

Last season, in what appeared to be a last-ditch effort, Morey brought in Russell Westbrook to Houston to reunite with Harden and to help bring more offensive firepower to compete for a title. The duo looked unstoppable offensively, averaging the most points ever by a duo (61.5), but once again underachieved in the playoffs. Despite Westbrook catching COVID-19 and injuring his hamstring, sidelining him for half of the series, their book was written when it took seven games to defeat Chris Paul and an Oklahoma City Thunder team that was projected to finish well short of the playoffs.

Let us rewind real quick to Harden’s final season with the Thunder. The season that OKC went to the Finals against the Miami Heat. Many people forget who underachieved in that championship series…Harden, who averaged 16.8 ppg during the season on 49.1 percent shooting, 39.0 percent from three, and 84.6 percent from the free-throw line. In the Finals, however, his numbers dipped. He averaged 12.4 ppg on 43 percent shooting, and 31.0 percent from three. Far too often would he go missing in action for large stretches of the game on offense, which was very atypical of regular season Harden. Granted, Westbrook shot 13 percent from three, but when have we ever expected Russ to hit threes consistently?

As of Wednesday night, Harden got another star to possibly play alongside him in Houston, John Wall, who will also join his former college teammate, DeMarcus Cousins there as well.

Harden’s future with the Rockets is in question still, because if this team didn’t sniff a Finals appearance with Harden in the last eight seasons, how could they now? Wall hasn’t played professional basketball since 2018, Cousins hasn’t been fully and consistently healthy since the 2016-17 season, and there’s a clear trend that Harden finds a way to lose important games.

All that to say, CP3 wasn’t the problem in Houston, Westbrook wasn’t the problem in Houston, and John Wall, who is the closest thing to Westbrook’s skill-set in the NBA, but coming off an Achilles tear, isn’t going to be the problem if Houston decides to keep Harden and inevitably underachieve this season as well.

On the other hand, after one subpar Westbrook postseason with the Rockets after being injured and sick, fans and some media members turned the blame in his direction.

Well, now Westbrook is in D.C. with a player that fits his style of play better than any player in Westbrook’s career. Bradley Beal is a superstar who averaged 30.0 ppg but is content with being a second option if that equates to winning games. He’s been in that position for most of his career behind John Wall, except for the last two seasons where he’s more than proven that he can be a No. 1.

Westbrook’s biggest flaw isn’t that he’s a bad teammate. That’s a lie and that’s defamatory. It’s that he tries to do too much when triggered.

The 2016-17 season, his MVP season, was a blessing and a curse. The curse was that he learned that he can lead a team to improbable heights virtually by himself. That came back to haunt him during the 2017-18 season after Andre Roberson went down with a torn patellar tendon and Paul George turned inconsistent. Westbrook had a flashback of the previous season and tried to do too much, which didn’t necessarily hurt the team, but it didn’t help much. He was triggered, again.

The Thunder ran it back the following season with Westbrook and George. After a slow start, the duo picked it up and went 14-5 from the New Year to the All-Star Break. That’s around the time that George injured his shoulder and played through it, but wasn’t the same. Westbrook was triggered. He once again reverted to his ‘Russ against the world’ mentality of 2016-17 and tried to do too much.

However, Westbrook is extremely misunderstood. A player in today’s NBA who’s ultimate critique is “trying to do too much,” and trying too hard to be great, deserves some credit because that’s an endangered attribute in the league. Luckily for him, though, he’s going to team up with a guy that has his same mentality, Bradley Beal, who isn’t injury prone, is very consistent, and can play on and off of the ball…and oh yeah, is a career 38 percent three-point shooter.

Trading Russell Westbrook to the Washington Wizards just revitalized his career and his worth. Surrounding him with an unselfish counterpart in Beal and a knockdown shooter in Dāvis Bertans, who shoots 43.4 percent from three, will remind everyone how lethal and versatile the Brodie is.

Addam M. Francisco

Founder & Editor-in-Chief. National Association of Black Journalists. University of Central Oklahoma.

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