It's been seven seasons since Russell Westbrook and James Harden were teammates. Things have changed a tad since then.
The 2011-12 campaign was Harden's last with the Oklahoma City Thunder. He averaged 31.4 minutes, 16.8 points and 3.7 assists per game. His usage percentage was 21.6, and he only started two regular-season games.
The same year, Westbrook averaged 35.3 minutes, 23.6 points and 5.5 assists per game. He posted a 32.7 usage percentage and started all 66 games.
Post-2012, Harden has averaged 37.1 minutes, 29.0 points and 7.7 assists. In 2018-19 alone, he had the second-highest usage percentage on record. His 40.5 trails only, well, Westbrook's 41.7 in 2016-17.
Both have MVP awards. And both MVPs have had to adjust to varying levels of star teammates. From a macro perspective, both have seen their roles and individual profiles expand significantly over the last seven years.
On Thursday, the NBA world learned that the two would be reunited on the Houston Rockets.
"The Oklahoma City Thunder have agreed to trade Russell Westbrook to the Houston Rockets for Chris Paul, first-round picks in 2024 and 2026, pick swaps in 2021 and 2025," ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted.
Forget for a moment that massive haul of draft picks. Instead, focus on the potential fit (or misfit) of Harden and Westbrook in 2019-20.
This is like the NBA version of Tango & Cash. They're going to clash at times. Their styles are different. Harden has the more dressed-up, business-like offensive attack. Westbrook is more reckless. The only way this is going to work is if they can find a way to coexist.
Step 1: Mike D'Antoni May Have to Ditch the Iso-Heavy Offense
Last season, Harden completed 1,280 possessions as isolations. If that were thrown into a team leaderboard, it'd be first. By a mile. Even if you cut Harden's total in half, he'd be top 10 among the NBA's teams.
You can't blame Houston for the approach, as Harden scored 1.11 points per iso. Again, if we stack that up against teams, Harden's isos, all by themselves, would've been a borderline top-10 offense.
But can you imagine Westbrook simply standing on the wing or in the corner watching Harden, waiting for a potential last-ditch kick-out?
Westbrook's 353 isos ranked him second in the NBA, but his 0.95 points per possession on spot-ups put him below the 42nd percentile for that play type.
If the Rockets try to jam the same style down opponents' throats that they did the last two seasons, things will go poorly. Like, "Act 1 of Tango & Cash" poorly. The fellas found themselves framed, jailed and the target of what seemed like the entire prison population.
Step 2: Find a Way to Convince Russ to Cede Offense to Harden
Even back when they were teammates with the Thunder, there were indications that things might work better if Westbrook had a little less control.
"Just because Westbrook is 6'3" and James Harden is 6'5" doesn't mean Westbrook has to be the point guard and Harden is the shooting guard," Mark Travis wrote for But the Game is On in 2011. "It's not a slight to Westbrook to say that Harden is the better creator—some players are born with passing instincts like Harden, while others are born with a relentless desire to attack the rim like Westbrook."
Even with everything that's changed in the last seven years, that breakdown remains true. Westbrook has averaged double figures in assists over the last three seasons. But those are more like "I constantly have the ball in my hands and will get these dimes by force of will" assists.
"Westbrook is not as innovative a passer as [LeBron] James or Harden," ESPN's Zach Lowe wrote last year. "He has led the league in assists mostly making drive-and-kick passes the defense expects. It is a tribute to Westbrook's greatness that he can break apart defenses so often, and so completely, as to lead the NBA in assists making expected passes."
Taking all of that away from Westbrook doesn't make sense. He should still run plenty of pick-and-rolls (something D'Antoni directed a ton of prior to the last couple of seasons). For the first time in years, his pick-and-rolls will be surrounded by multiple, reliable shooters.