The next NBA season is approaching fast, and the Houston Rockets have some decisions to make about their two superstars and the squad surrounding them. With Mike D’Antoni out of the picture after a disappointing loss to the Lakers in last season’s playoffs, Houston is at a crossroads – double down on the small ball strategy under tag-team duo Russell Westbrook and James Harden, or leverage one of the former MVPs to undertake a rebuild.
Of course, the decision has more nuance than that. The Rockets could hold onto one of their big-ticket stars but continue playing a similar style of basketball. However, given the repeated postseason failings of the last few years and D’Antoni’s firing, a change of one kind or another seems inevitable.
If Houston wants to shake things up again without sacrificing too much immediate potential, they could trade Westbrook or Harden for a couple of proven players – adding a bit more depth and a change in roster while holding onto the core of the team. In that scenario, Westbrook seems like the more likely offer, given Harden’s status as the franchise star.
But who could offer the best price for Westbrook’s talents? The Boston Celtics could be a contender. A swap of Russ for Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart has the potential to be a win-win, improving the Rockets’ already-fantastic shooting potential with no playmaking loss, while adding defense and a bit of depth. And Boston would get a former MVP and veteran scoring phenom on a young team that could use his fire and experience.
The Rockets Get Stopping Power, Playmaking, And Even More Shooting
Kemba Walker isn’t quite the scoring force that Russ has been historically, but his offensive potential might be even higher. He’s an exceptional playmaker who forces defensive attention on the outside as well as on the inside, due to his status as a greater perimeter threat. He’s also a proven hustler on both ends of the floor and has been a fantastic teammate in Boston by all accounts.
Smart brings a lot of the same qualities to the table, just in a younger, less proven package. He’s a dagger sharpshooter. He’s a defensive force on most on any position. And he’s exceptional in high-pressure situations. In this trade, the Rockets wouldn’t lose all that much at the point guard, but they’d gain a whole additional asset in Smart, whose best years are almost assuredly ahead of him.
The one thing Houston wouldn’t really get in this particular exchange is size. Any movement away from D’Antoni’s small-ball experiment would likely want to increase the squad’s rim protection, which the Walker/Smart combo wouldn’t necessarily do. Still, two great players for the price of one aging star could be exactly what the Rockets need. Walker could fill more of the role Chris Paul had in Houston, without the added friction of Paul and Harden’s disagreements.
The Boston Celtics Big 4
Westbrook’s immediate additions to any team are obvious, and it would be no different in Boston – incredible volume scoring, finishing, and solid versatility. Russ brings an intensity along with his years of experience, and that could be just what Brad Stevens’ young Celtics need to get past their Eastern Conference demons. The only real question is, would Westbrook be worth the price?
Walker is a fantastic player, and he seemed to mesh with the Celtics crew this year much better than Kyrie Irving did during his brief tenure. Still, Kemba wasn’t quite all Boston fans had hoped for. In the playoffs, in particular, he had significant dips in offensive output – the absence of which could have put the Celtics over the top in key moments. Westbrook is less of a perimeter threat, but in every other offensive regard he’s as good as or better than Kemba.
The bigger question in this hypothetical is Smart. While he doesn’t represent the franchise’s future the way Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown do, Smart is a core piece of the modern Celtics and has only gotten better year to year. In clutch moments, it’s often been Smart who’s made the big stops and big shots to put Boston back in the game, and he’s easily the most dedicated hustler on the team.
Does that mean he’s too valuable to give up? Not necessarily. The Celtics aren’t at a loss for solid role players, and the Tatum/Brown combo remains the team’s core on both ends. Losing Smart might be a hit to Boston’s youthful chemistry, but it could be worth it if the front office believes Russ can deliver a trip to the Finals. Westbrook, Tatum, Hayward and Brown would be a fearsome Big 4 in the East, and that could be just the thing the Celtics have been looking for.