If the Houston Rockets had not traded Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook this summer, would they be the favorites to win the NBA championship?
I think about this a lot. There are a dozen incredible Harden-related counterfactuals, most involving his 2012 trade from the Thunder to Houston. This particular counterfactual has me spinning as we approach the most wide open NBA season in ages.
As it stands, with Westbrook alongside Harden, the sportsbooks generally have the Rockets No. 5 in terms of the highest odds to win the title, behind the Clippers, Lakers, Bucks, and Sixers. That’s quite high — notably, Houston is higher than its eternal foe the Warriors, as well as hipster pick Utah (a team the Rockets have tortured).
But if Houston had not made the trade for Westbrook, the Rockets probably should and could have been the No. 1 title contender entering the season.
Consider how close the Rockets came to beating the impossible-to-beat Warriors in 2018, losing a Game 7 with an injured CP3 and a historic shooting slump. The Warriors’ biggest stars were healthy, and Houston still almost had them. It was clear then and it’s clear in retrospect that the Rockets and Warriors were on a tier of their own that season — every other team paled in comparison. Just look at how easily the Cavaliers dispatched the Raptors, and were then dispatched by the Warriors. There were only two teams worthy of being in the championship conversation that year, and the Rockets were one of them.
Last season, the Rockets drew the Warriors in the second round. They couldn’t beat Golden State this time either. Much is made about how Houston had a chance to stay alive at home with Kevin Durant out of service with an injury in Game 6, but judging a team’s quality off one game is perilous. Andre Iguodala went 5-of-7 from deep in that game. Harden and Paul both played well, and it was a close, heartbreaking loss. It doesn’t really matter whether Houston could have come back to win the series because they didn’t. But it’s not a good proxy for this season when the Warriors are fully without Durant and a few other core players. The Warriors were only without KD for the clincher last season.
The Clippers and Lakers have a lot to prove: the former imported two MVP-level players but we don’t know for sure how they will mesh or how much they will play in the regular season, and the latter hasn’t made the playoffs in half a decade and has no depth. The Rockets, had they not traded Paul for Westbrook, wouldn’t have much to prove. We know that a team with Harden and Paul is dynamite. We know that Harden would play a lot (barring injury), Paul would play less, and the team would be really, really good. We know it would be able to score with anyone, just as it did with the Warriors the last two postseasons.
Harden and Westbrook? That’s more of a mystery. Westbrook is a much higher-usage player than Paul traditionally, and while we expect Harden and Westbrook to have a better personal relationship than Harden and Paul did, we won’t know how that translates on the court until we see it play out. It could be great. It could be messy. But it’s definitely a mystery.
That mystery is why more people aren’t considering Houston an even bigger threat to win the championship. That, and the team’s defense, which was below league average last season. Westbrook’s defense was interesting and perhaps even good last season, but Paul (when healthy) is a top-tier point guard defender, so Houston’s problem has gotten a little worse.
If the Clippers don’t burst out of the gate, and if the Lakers struggle to dominate, and if the Bucks have a little hangover, and if the Sixers don’t put it together, and if the Rockets’ new duo doesn’t quite click while CP3 leads a frisky OKC team to a surprisingly good record — if all those reasonable dominoes fall, the second-guessing inside and outside Houston on the Westbrook trade will be huge.
The Rockets gave up something they were reasonably sure would be awesome for the chance of something different — maybe worse, maybe better. It’s a huge risk and we’re going to find out pretty quickly whether it paid off.