2019 NBA Japan Games: Houston Rockets v Toronto Raptors
SAITAMA, JAPAN - OCTOBER 8: James Harden #13 and Russell Westbrook #0 of the Houston Rockets chats against the Toronto Raptors as part of the 2019 NBA Japan Games at Super Saitama Arena on October 8, 2019 in Saitama, Japan.
Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

SI: The Reboot

Inside Harden and Westbrook's Reunion

By Rob Mahoney via SI.com - 

Orientation is underway deep within the Toyota Center, where a team of oversized basketball players are enveloped by their even more oversized chairs. Rockets assistant Brett Gunning has the floor. On the video wall of the home-theater-style film room, he walks the team through the guiding philosophies of Rockets basketball—a refresher for some, a revelation to others. Houston, which led the league in three-point attempts by a mile last season, doesn’t want its players indiscriminately chucking threes. It wants them hunting open ones. Inside the arc, it’s not enough to get into the paint for a shot. Gunning makes a data-driven case for the extra step that turns a floater into a layup or a foul.

There are clips to demonstrate the spacing that makes such a thing possible, with driving lanes wide enough to fit a Volvo. Highlight reels show shooters running to stand in the corners and big men politely getting out of the way. Any effort to understand how James Harden managed the most prolific scoring campaign in the past 32 years or how Houston managed one of the best offensive seasons on record starts with that negative space.

The platonic ideal came in a January win over the Knicks in which Houston took 42 shots at the rim, 44 three-pointers and just four shots in between. (Incidentally, Harden—working without Chris Paul and Clint -Capela—scored 61 points.) Every year, the average NBA team inches closer toward Houston’s shot profile. And in turn, the Rockets push the envelope a bit further. Gunning shows the team that even with the basketball world gaining on them, stylistically speaking, Houston was able to trim down its diet of midrange shots to just 4.2 per game—fewest in the league.

As if on cue, Russell Westbrook, the Rockets’ newly imported superstar, chimes in. “Those 4.2?” he notes slyly to the room. “Those are mine.”

The players crack up, as does coach Mike D’Antoni. “O.K.!” D’Antoni relents. “Then nobody else gets one!”

So begins the give and take of a radical experiment. Matchmaking mere superstars is passé. The Rockets, like the Warriors before them, landed an MVP to accompany their MVP. It’s not exactly the subtlest of moves; both Harden and Westbrook have big, loud games, inarguably bigger and louder than when the two began their careers together in Oklahoma City a decade ago. Only through separation did they fully become the anchors their respective franchises needed them to be. By reuniting, they hope to now find security in each other.

“We’ve accomplished a lot of accolades, individually,” Harden says. “Now it’s time to accomplish something that we haven’t accomplished before...”



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