The Houston Rockets of the James Harden era haven't just been emblematic of what you might call the "modern NBA." To an extent, they're the reason it exists in its current stylistic form.
The Rockets helped mathematize the game, bringing the tenets of Moreyball - the idealized shot profile preached by their data-obsessed general manager Daryl Morey - to the mainstream. They pushed the 3-point revolution past what once seemed like its logical or conceivable endpoint, and other teams had no choice but to follow their lead. By bringing a set of analytic principles to life, the Rockets fundamentally changed the way NBA basketball is played.
The upshot of that revolution is that a higher premium is placed on offense than defense, with the former often coming at the expense of the latter. That tradeoff has worked for the Rockets, to a point. Since Mike D'Antoni took over as head coach and jolted their offensive system into overdrive, they've won exactly 70% of their games - second in the league to the Warriors during that span.
But while D'Antoni brought the process to completion, the Rockets set themselves on this path the moment they traded for Harden. All teams are beholden to their stars, and building a roster around a minus defender who also happens to be one of the greatest offensive players of all time will inevitably tilt a team's priorities. Ideally, you can paper over your star's weaknesses by surrounding him with players who do the things he doesn't. But you also want to surround him with players who amplify his strengths, and sometimes it's hard to find both.
One side of the ball hasn't always come at the cost of the other for the Rockets; they ranked seventh in defensive efficiency in 2017-18, and their playoff defense showed stretches of real brilliance in each of the last two springs.
But it's always been clear where this team butters its bread, even if it's never been quite so evident.
This year's Rockets, having replaced Chris Paul with Russell Westbrook and cut bait with acclaimed defensive coordinator Jeff Bzdelik, seem built to test the limits of a defense-for-offense compromise. What clearer manifestation of that bargain could there be than a game they somehow won despite surrendering 158 points in regulation to the Washington Wizards?
The front office had justifiable reasons for choosing to move Paul for Westbrook this past summer, from Westbrook's comparative youth and durability to the happiness of Harden - who'd reportedly grown disillusioned with Paul as a player and teammate. But Morey has made it plain that, above all, he expected Westbrook to make the Rockets a better offensive team, going so far as to suggest that this year's outfit could be the most efficient offense in league history (not much of a leap from where they've been the last two years, but still). The unspoken part of Morey's optimistic assessment was that Westbrook likely wouldn't help Houston's defense, which already slipped to 17th in efficiency a season ago.