Alone Out There: On Russ & Harden

A few years ago, I wrote roughly 1500 words about a regular season game between the Thunder and the Pacers from late in the 2014-15 season. In that game, Russell Westbrook scored 54 points on 43 shots and the Thunder lost by 12. As a result, they ended up just missing the playoffs. That season, Durant had been injured and only played 27 games. For the rest of the season, Russ went nuts. The game swirled around him like a cyclone. Or maybe it was a black hole. Watching him was exhilarating but also alarming. After the late-season loss to the Pacers, I wrote of Russ, “It felt like he was all alone out there. It felt like the other people on the court were ghosts. Russ seemed to be part of a drama no one else could see. The basketball game started to disappear.”

Watching the Rockets this year, at times, felt like a version of the same thing. It is not hard to argue that, over the long history of the NBA, the recent iterations of Russell Westbrook and James Harden have carried a bigger offensive load than any other players ever have. It is fair to wonder whether it is possible for these two particular players to coexist on a basketball team. Certainly, each has picked up some bad habits over the years since they last played together: resting up on the defensive end, failing to engage off the ball, making questionable decisions in key moments, etc. It is fair to think this experiment is destined for failure.

One of the many paradoxes of basketball is that of all the team sports, basketball is the one in which individual players have the most influence over winning, and yet, at the same time, the fluid nature of the game means that combinations of players succeed or fail in often surprising ways. Talent tends to win out, but only if that talent is able to cohere beneficially. Russell Westbrook is not traditionally an easy fit. Russell Westbrook is a meteorite screaming through the sky, and you don’t generally ask a meteorite to adjust to what the rest of the heavenly spheres are up to. A meteorite just keeps screaming. The sky is almost irrelevant.

And yet, in the face of all logic, having sat with the news of Russ-to-the-Rockets for a little while now, I’m feeling strangely optimistic. As I often do in times of profound confusion, I looked up some stats. Back in 2011-12, Russ & Harden played 1231 regular season minutes together over 62 games, and the Thunder had a net rating (point differential per 100 possessions) of 11.3. In the playoffs, they shared the court for 458 minutes over 20 games and the net rating went up to 14.7. 11.3 is elite; 14.7 is scorched earth. In both cases Russ + Harden was OKC’s best 2-man combo on the offensive end. 

Obviously, I am aware that these statistics are basically ancient runes at this point. Those were different players, and that was a different league. Harden made 113 of 292 3s that season, and 86% of those were assisted. This past season, Harden made 378 (!) of 1028 (!!) 3s, and just 16% of those were assisted (!!!!!!!!!!). Meanwhile, Russ made us think about triple-doubles so much over the past few seasons that he drained the concept of mystique entirely. The point is, we’ve all been through a lot since the 2012 Finals. We’re irrevocably changed. 

Basically, what we’ve got is a bunch of statistical evidence that Russ and Harden might be the two least malleable players in the NBA, so singularly who they are that it feels impossible to imagine them otherwise. They may be past their primes. They likely are. And yet, many years ago, together, they were more together than their individual selves. The thing about basketball—the thing for which there is just no accounting—is that in basketball, context is everything. It’s why individual players are so important. A great player can make other players greater. Russ and Harden have spent years crafting games somewhat antithetical to this idea, but now they are together again. What will that look like? What will it mean?

Around 335 million years ago, the tectonic churning under the massive plates of the Earth’s crust formed of the continents a supercontinent. Around 175 million years ago, those plates drifted apart. Evidence suggests that the forming and breaking apart of supercontinents has been cyclical throughout the geological history of Earth. One might think of time itself as a this sort of endless drift, great forces coming together and breaking apart, a kind of planetary breathing. 

Two great forces of basketball have collided now in Houston, and years from now, our ancestors will read the fossilized evidence of what that was like. They will wonder if we saw it coming, but if they look at their own lives, they’ll know we had no idea.

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