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COLUMN: The Houston Rockets are not contenders after acquiring Russell Westbrook



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The Oklahoma City Thunder's Russell Westbrook reaches out to fans after a 114-106 win in overtime against the Orlando Magic at the Amway Center in Orlando, Fla., on Wednesday, March 29, 2017. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/TNS) Tribune New Service and Stephen M. Dowell Buy Photos

In what was probably the last big move of the NBA’s free agency period, the Oklahoma City Thunder sent All-Star guard Russell Westbrook to the Houston Rockets, reuniting him with former teammate and MVP James Harden. 

The Thunder got aging-star Chris Paul in the deal, along with two first round picks. On the bright side for the Thunder, they have now stockpiled 15 first round draft picks in the next six drafts alone — the other picks came from the Los Angeles Clippers when they sent Paul George to team with Kawhi Leonard.

The Rockets now have a guard pairing of former MVPs and two of the most impressive solo performers in the league. This duo will be really exciting and incredibly fun to watch, but in no way does this move make the Rockets contenders in the Western Conference.

As impressive as Westbrook has been over the last three seasons, averaging a triple-double in each of them, it didn’t translate to wins for the Thunder. Despite adding George, who finished in third place in MVP voting last season, the Thunder haven’t gotten past the first round of the playoffs since Kevin Durant left for the Golden State Warriors.

After this most recent move, the Rockets were given 7-1 odds to win the 2020 NBA title, the fourth highest odd behind the Los Angeles Lakers, Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks. I’m not buying that at all. 

Westbrook and Harden will have the same problem that Harden had with Paul: Neither of them are effective without the ball, Westbrook especially. Last season the two combined for a usage rate of over 70%, and Harden’s 40.47% was the second-highest in NBA history, only behind his new teammate’s 2016-17 MVP season. 

This wouldn’t be a problem if they were efficient scorers, but that’s not the case. Westbrook averaged 22.9 points, which sounds good, but did so on over 20 shots per game and at 42.8% clip from the field. Harden was better, averaging 36.1 points per game, but his 44.2% shooting from the field isn’t ideal either. 

Houston Rockets guard James Harden reacts to an official's call during the first half against the Dallas Mavericks on March 10 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas. Tribune News Service Buy Photos

The only reason this trade makes a bit of sense is the history between these two players. The two have played together before and were friends even before they reached the NBA. If either of them were going to change their game to accommodate another player, it would be for each other. 

This team has potential to be near the top of the west next season if they find a way to make it work, but I wouldn’t count on it. Realistically, Westbrook doesn’t put them over any of the teams they finished behind last season, and the Lakers and the Clippers have improved their rosters drastically, hypothetically putting the Thunder in the six seed. 

You can believe fans will tune into quite a few Rockets games next season for the excitement factor, but don’t expect them to be much better than last year’s Thunder team.

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