James Harden and Russell Westbrook have both won Most Valuable Player awards while carrying their own respective franchises.
Now both are convinced that they can share the spotlight — and the basketball — enough to win an elusive NBA championship.
The tone of togetherness and sacrifice permeated the scene during Houston Rockets media day proceedings on Friday in Houston, as Harden and Westbrook — the former Oklahoma City Thunder teammates-turned MVP rivals-turned teammates again — spoke excitedly about how they expect the two ball-dominant superstars to blend together in the 2019-20 season.
If either is concerned about giving up any of the offensive load, they sure didn’t show it.
“We’ve accomplished a lot of individual accolades,” said 2017-18 MVP Harden, the reigning two-time scoring champion who has averaged more than 20 field-goal attempts and 30 points per game in each of the last two seasons. “Now it’s time to accomplish something together that we haven’t accomplished before.
“If Russ got it going and has one of those games that we’ve all seen before, guess what I’m going to do? Sit back and watch the show and vice versa.”
“It’s going to be scary, that’s all I can tell you,” said 2016-17 MVP Westbrook, who also owns a pair of scoring titles in addition to averaging a triple-double for each of the last three seasons. “It’s going to be scary — not for us.”
Westbrook, who turns 31 in November, arrived in July after being traded from the Thunder for nine-time All-Star Chris Paul and a collection of first-round picks, some with pick-swap potential. Westbrook and Harden were last Thunder teammates in 2011-12, when reaching the NBA Finals along with Kevin Durant, when they lost to LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat.
Neither Westbrook nor Harden, who turned 30 in August, have been back to the Finals since, seemingly increasing the urgency to make a title run in an upcoming season that appears wide open. Both of last season’s finalists — Toronto and Golden State — look drastically different entering this season after free-agent departures of Kawhi Leonard and Durant, respectively.
“If we don’t win, I’ll take all the blame for it,” Harden told media members. “That’s just what the territory comes with. That’s why you have to go out there and win. That’s why we work extremely hard in the offseason to bring players in and whatever is necessary to give us the best chance to win.
“I know what’s at stake.”
The Rockets especially feel the burden of having been repeated stepping stones in the Warriors’ recent runs to the Finals. They have been knocked out of the playoffs by Golden State four times in the past five seasons — including the 2017-18 postseason, when the top-seeded Rockets lost a crushing Game 7 to the Warriors at home in the Western Conference finals.
Hence the aggressive move by Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, who seems less than concerned over Harden and Westbrook meshing on the court.
“James Harden is, like, the best half-court player I’ve ever seen, honestly,” Morey said. “And then Russell is maybe the best transition player, one of the best of all time, as well. If you put those things together, which I think we have a chance to do, now you’ve got something really special.
“We’ll see how it all works out, but I think it could be really special.”
Westbrook, who has been friends with Harden since they were 10-year-olds in the Los Angeles area, agrees that cynics need not worry about the two stars colliding.
“We have a friendship first outside of basketball,” Westbrook said. “I think we communicate and understand each other. In the game, it’s going to be easy. There will be times when I’m upset or he’s upset, but we’re going to sit there and let him know what he’s doing right and vice versa.
“I think that’s the best way to complement each other.”
—Field Level Media