Rockets, Russell Westbrook start season

It was a recurring story line the last two seasons that even with a backcourt as dynamic as James Harden and Chris Paul, the Rockets still seemed one player away from overcoming the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference.

There is a strong belief that the Rockets are now a co-favorite with the Los Angeles Clippers to break through to the NBA Finals this season. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey pulled off a stunning blockbuster trade this offseason when he essentially swapped the Oklahoma City Thunders’ high-producing point guard Russell Westbrook for aging and disgruntled Paul.

It makes sense that with two recent MVPs still in their primes sharing the backcourt, the Rockets will dominate the West, especially with the Warriors now a shell of themselves and LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers still with some major holes in their roster.

But as the Rockets prepared to open the 2019-20 season against Milwaukee, coach Mike D’Antoni cautioned that the Rockets winning it all isn’t as simple as adding Westbrook and stirring. There is still time to be put in, work to be done and chemistry to be built.

“Being sure there is synergy between [Westbrook and Harden is important],” D’Antoni told the Defender. “Not that they have watched the other guy play. A lot of times you go to an All-Star Game and you watch and you say, ‘Oh wow look at him play.’ Just incorporate everybody in there.

“But I think they are doing a good job; they are getting there but it’s not quite there yet. But I’ve been really encouraged by what I’ve seen.”

Though Westbrook and Harden were once teammates with the Thunder the dynamics have greatly changed. Westbrook was the starter and Harden was the Thunder’s high-scoring sixth man, but now he is “the man” in Houston and among the NBA’s elite.

The Westbrook-Harden backcourt was sort of a mixed bag during the preseason with Westbrook at times feeling his way through a new system while Harden did his usual, which is scoring buckets. In addition to getting use to his new surroundings, Westbrook is coming off a couple of injuries and has been bothered by a dislocated finger on his right hand.

As the season begins, Westbrook will have to do more adjusting than Harden. Westbrook became a triple-double king with the fourth quarter often being his money quarter with the Thunder. But that has been Harden’s time here.

If done right, the ability of both to score the ball should serve the Rockets well during the early parts of the game and down the stretch.

“We are just more athletic,” said Austin Rivers, who is expected to serve as the primary backup to Westbrook. “When you add a guy like Russ, he’s strong and athletic. We all have big guards on the floor.”

D’Antoni, while offering caution, seems excited about what Westbrook will bring especially after what he saw in the preseason finale win over Miami.

 “He’s got that extra gear and he is also an unbelievable competitor so as soon as the lights come on that’s going to help his game, too,” D’Antoni said. “It’s one thing about practice, but once it becomes real, I’m sure he will go up another notch.”

Follow Terrance Harris on Twitter @terranceharris