Does Russell Westbrook Make the Houston Rockets 2020 Championship Favorites?
You knew the Houston Rockets weren’t going to sit idly and let the offseason pass them by. For the first week of free agency, though, it seemed as if every team except Houston was making all sorts of moves. Sure, the Rockets retained role players like Gerald Green and Austin Rivers, but most of their Western Conference rivals have spent the month of July trading haymakers. The Rockets were initially just watching from the sidelines.
Now, they’re back in the fight. On Thursday night, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Houston has acquired former MVP Russell Westbrook from the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for fellow All-Star Chris Paul and a bounty of future first-round draft considerations. Houston rids itself of a potentially cumbersome CP3 contract in exchange for a younger (but similarly expensive) Westbrook.
The trade came as a surprise, considering few believed Oklahoma City would want to take Paul’s contract back in any potential trade for their franchise player. Westbrook has spent his entire 11-year career in Oklahoma City, though the clock started ticking once Paul George forced his way to the Clippers in similarly stunning fashion just after the Fourth of July.
Now, the Thunder seems primed to rebuild, while the Rockets are right back in the championship picture. Does this trade make the Houston Rockets favorites in the loaded Western Conference? Or are they still a part of the pack?
Odds Shifted Dramatically
If the odds shift is any indication, oddsmakers think highly of Daryl Morey’s decision to swap Paul for Westbrook. As of Thursday morning, Houston had been priced at +1400 to win the 2020 NBA championship at MyBookie. Those odds put them on the same level as teams like the Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets, and new-look Golden State Warriors.
After the trade, the Rockets shot up to +700 to win it all next season. All of a sudden, Houston has the fourth-best odds behind both LA teams (Clippers +330, Lakers +400) and the Milwaukee Bucks (+420). The Rockets are slightly ahead of the Philadelphia 76ers (+750), who will also look a bit different for next season.
Oklahoma City’s odds took a nosedive after the team traded George to the Clippers in exchange for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, and five future No. 1 picks last week. The Thunder had initially listed around +2000, but the odds dove to +5000 after the George trade. Now that Westbrook is also a goner, OKC has plummeted all the way to +8000. For scale, those are the exact same odds as the New York Knicks.
Considering the Thunder may well move Paul, Steven Adams, and others before the end of the summer, it’s safe to say those odds are going to drop even further before the regular season begins in October.
Making Sense of the West
The Eastern Conference looks fairly clear-cut at this point. You have Milwaukee and Philly on top, while teams like Boston, Indiana, Miami (pending potential trades), and Brooklyn will likely fit into the 3-6 seeds in some order come playoff time. The West is a different matter entirely.
The Warriors are going to be worse, obviously. You don’t lose Kevin Durant (to Brooklyn), Klay Thompson (to injury), DeMarcus Cousins (to the Lakers), Andre Iguodala (traded to Memphis) and expect to get better. They’ve added D’Angelo Russell and a few interesting other pieces in free agency, but there’s no way this team is finishing atop the conference again. They should make the playoffs, but time will tell.
In all likelihood, we’re going to see both LA teams battling it out with the Rockets and Nuggets for the top seed. Denver was right there with Golden State all year long, and they’re largely the same team we saw last year. Getting a year older should help, considering they’re an incredibly young team. We know what the Los Angeles teams and Houston have done. Barring some unfortunate injuries, all four of these teams appear to be playoff locks.
Portland and Utah should be there, too. The Blazers strengthened their roster around Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, while Utah may be among the most-improved teams in the game after pairing Mike Conley with Donovan Mitchell in the backcourt. That gives us six likely playoff teams out West.
The fight for the last couple of spots should be a bloodbath, though Golden State and San Antonio are the likely favorites. Oklahoma City’s vacated playoff spot is going to the Lakers in this hypothetical. The Warriors still have Stephen Curry, which counts for something. The Spurs have added solid swingmen like DeMarre Carroll and Trey Lyles while re-signing Rudy Gay. Dejounte Murray comes back from his ACL tear, and he’ll battle with fellow promising youngsters Derrick White and Lonnie Walker IV for point guard minutes. It’s a deep roster, and Gregg Popovich is still patrolling the sidelines.
Oddsmakers are higher on Dallas than they are on San Antonio. The Mavericks are priced at +3000 to win the 2020 NBA Championship, while the Spurs are at +4500, which ties them with the Pelicans. Dallas and New Orleans are largely unknowns considering all the new faces they’ll roll out next season, but it’s hard to fathom either of them being better than more established teams like San Antonio and Golden State.
The Rockets have been a threat to the Warriors’ dynasty over the last several seasons, but they never broke through. Now that Golden State seems to have crumbled, the coming season presents Houston with its best chance of getting to the Finals for the first time in 25 years. The Rockets were on the doorstep two years ago in the Western Conference Finals, but they were ultimately doomed by a hamstring injury to Paul and a woeful shooting performance in Game 7.
They couldn’t get there with the Chris Paul-James Harden backcourt, so now the Rockets will give it another go by reuniting Harden with Westbrook. The two played together for three years in Oklahoma City early in both of their careers, but Harden is a vastly different player than he was back then. The Rockets will still have two ball-dominant guards, as was the case with CP3 in the mix.
There’s reason to believe this can work better for the Rockets, though. Paul showed major signs of aging last season, and he wasn’t able to step up and serve as a consistent Robin to Harden’s Batman the way the Rockets had initially designed. Just 11% of CP3’s shot attempts last season came at the rim. On the other hand, 40% of Westbrook’s attempts came at the rim, per the NBA’s shot tracking data. Russ’ ability to get to the basket and create shots for himself should alleviate some of the offensive pressure on Harden. That’s something Paul wasn’t able to do consistently during his time in H-Town.
Westbrook’s presence should also mean Harden gets to do more work off-ball. Harden is an excellent spot-up three-point shooter, but that’s not something we’ve seen him do a whole lot over the last couple of seasons. Westbrook is known as a selfish offensive player, but he’s averaged over 10 assists per game in three consecutive seasons. If the Houston Rockets can convince him to take a distributor’s role, there’s reason to believe this tandem can work together.
The most important aspect of this deal is that the Rockets were able to land Paul’s replacement without having to give up any other rotation players. Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker, and Clint Capela are still there. Danuel House Jr., Austin Rivers, Gerald Green, and Gary Clark isn’t the most inspiring bench unit, but there’s enough shooting on the roster to where offense shouldn’t be an issue for this team. Houston still has a little bit of money to offer free agents via the mid-level exception, so we’ll see what else Morey has up his sleeve this summer.
Concerns in LA?
It’s no surprise that the Clippers and Lakers are the prohibitive betting favorites. Both are among the most-improved in the league amid a flurry of activity this summer. The Clippers landing George and Kawhi Leonard speaks for itself, while the Lakers finally landed Anthony Davis to run with LeBron James.
It won’t be a smooth transition for either team, though. The Lakers, in particular, have very little continuity. Aside from James, Kyle Kuzma, Rajon Rondo, and JaVale McGee, this is almost an entirely new roster. We’ve seen Davis and DeMarcus Cousins play together in New Orleans, but we’ll see how that works now that Boogie is a year-and-a-half removed from his Achilles tear. The Lakers are also working under a brand-new head coach in Frank Vogel. Regardless of how much talent is on the roster, learning to play with a bunch of new faces under a new coach is something that can take time.
It’s also worth noting that the Lakers have a slightly older roster, and they have more injury red flags. LeBron suffered the first long-term injury of his career last season, and he’ll be turning 35 in December. Anthony Davis has played 70 or more games just twice in his first seven seasons. Rondo and Cousins have noteworthy injury histories as well.
The Clippers have less turnover. Doc Rivers is still running the show, while LAC will also be bringing back key contributors like Patrick Beverley, Ivica Zubac, JaMychal Green, Lou Williams, and Montrezl Harrell. Leonard and George will shoulder most of the offensive load, which is obviously new, but I don’t expect the Clippers to struggle as much early in the year as the Lakers might.
At this point, the Clippers look like a safer bet than the Lakers to win next season’s title. The problem is the lack of value. Betting on the Clippers 11 months ahead of time at +270 just feels unnecessary. I would just wait until the regular season begins before even considering a futures bet on any team to win it all. The odds are going to fluctuate constantly as the season progresses, and it’s hard to imagine we won’t get better value on either LA side at some point in the coming months.
The Western Conference just got a lot more interesting with the Rockets nudging their way back into the conversation. Houston was going to be among the frontrunners even if they had stood pat, but swapping Paul for Westbrook raises their ceiling quite a bit if everything breaks the right way.
The Rockets weren’t a team getting much betting traction, but you can be sure that’ll change now. The dramatic shift in odds seems to indicate that Houston should be taken seriously as a title contender again. The Clippers and Lakers may still be favorites, but their respective paths to the Finals just got a little bumpier. With Westbrook now in tow, the Rockets won’t be flying under the radar after all.