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What’s next for Russell Westbrook and the Rockets?

(Getty Images / Tim Warner)

Back in July of 2019, members of the Houston Rockets organization probably felt like they were on top of the world.

The team’s front office had just pulled off a deal that sent former Rockets star Chris Paul to the Oklahoma City Thunder in return for a star point guard and perennial MVP candidate in Russell Westbrook.

The move reunited Westbrook with Rockets mainstay James Harden, one of his former teammates from the duo’s days with the Thunder. And, it seemingly shot the Rockets to the top of the list when looking at the NBA’s true championship contenders.

But, those on the outside had their doubts. Analysts debated about whether or not the two would be able to share the ball with each other, let alone with their teammates in the lineup. Fans wondered if their personalities would clash, given their change in status since their run to the 2012 NBA Finals with Oklahoma City.

“I’ll fit right in,” Westbrook said during his introductory press conference in 2019. “Personally, the floor spread gives me a good opportunity to attack, penetrate, and kick with shooters all around. Defensively, this team allows me to switch, guard, and rebound at a high level. And being able to get out and run on the open break, I think this style is great, and it is something I am looking forward to.”

Despite it all, Harden and Westbrook led the Rockets to the fourth seed in the Western Conference, compiling a 44-28 record in a regular season shortened by COVID-19.

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They took out the new-look Thunder in the first round of the 2020 NBA Playoffs, and turned their attention to the league’s newest superteam, the Los Angeles Lakers.

Then, things began to fall apart.

After taking a 1-0 series lead with a 112-97 win in Game 1, the Rockets sputtered, losing four straight games by at least eight points en route to a 4-1 series win for the eventual NBA champion Lakers.

Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni announced that he wouldn’t be returning to the team for the 2020-2021 NBA season, and Rockets general manager Daryl Morey stepped down from his post before becoming the new president of basketball operations for the Philadelphia 76ers.

Just when Rockets fans thought things couldn’t get worse, the ship hit another obstacle in November of 2020.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Tim McMahon reported that both Harden and Westbrook “expressed concern about the direction of the franchise through direct conversations or discussions with their representatives and the Rockets’ front office,” casting doubt on the dynamic duo’s future with the franchise.

Then, The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported that Westbrook “wants out of Houston,” after just one shortened season with the team.

The developments may have come off as surprising to some, especially those who have followed the Rockets as the organization has maneuvered through a change-filled offseason.

Factor in comments made by new Rockets head coach Stephen Silas, and things seem even more shocking.

“I kind of gave them my vision as far as how I wanted to play, and how I wanted them to be able to use their greatness in a way that will help the team win,” Silas said. “They were all about whatever’s best for the team to win.”

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While it’s easy to get caught up in what may have gone wrong in the past, or everything that NBA fans are learning about in the present, the most important piece of the situation comes when evaluating the future.

Westbrook reportedly wants out, and issues could arise if the team is unable to find a suitable trading partner in the shortest offseason the league has ever had.

Meanwhile, Harden was reportedly “locked in” for the upcoming season, and “remains committed” to the Rockets, according to Charania on November 11, 2020.

The latter part is important to note when evaluating next steps, as it would allow the Rockets the chance to trade Westbrook for either an established star or a rookie/younger talent to accompany Harden in Houston.

Teams know the Rockets aren’t in a complete rebuild if Harden sticks around, which affects any trade partner’s ability to negotiate with Houston’s front office in a not-so-dire situation.

On the other hand, Houston has about a month from the day the news broke to find a new home for Westbrook before the 2020-2021 regular season starts, if they even go down that route. Add in the impending 2020 NBA Draft on November 18, and things get even trickier.

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The easiest next step is to work things out with Westbrook and Harden behind the scenes and keep them in Houston for the upcoming season, allowing them the opportunity to see the organization’s new head coach and front office in action.

If things are deemed unsalvageable, the franchise will be forced to move quickly to find suitors in such a short span.

If the team decides to go with draft capital for their return in a trade for Westbrook, a team like the Charlotte Hornets could be in the running with the third overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft.

The Minnesota Timberwolves, holding the first overall and 17th overall picks, could also make a play on Westbrook, and could pair the former league MVP with Karl Anthony-Towns and the top choice from the 2020 NBA Draft if they’re looking for immediate success.

But, if the Rockets are more intent on trading for a higher-level player or a superstar to replace Westbrook, teams like the New Orleans Pelicans and Los Angeles Clippers could be in the running.

The Pelicans find themselves with loads of talent heading into the 2020-2021 regular season, with guard Jrue Holiday popping up in trade rumors involving numerous teams ahead of the 2020 NBA Draft.

With supporting players like Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart, along with the 13th overall pick in the draft at their disposal, they could make a splash with a deal for Westbrook. Team him up with future stars like Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram, and it could be a dream situation for the Rockets guard.

The Clippers provide an intriguing scenario, given the collapse that they went through against the Denver Nuggets in the 2020 Western Conference Semifinals, and the lackluster performance from star forward Paul George, Westbrook’s former teammate from Oklahoma City.

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The former partners-in-crime could each be dealt in a swap that sends Westbrook out to Hollywood, pairing him with Kawhi Leonard in the team’s pursuit of its first championship in franchise history.

Meanwhile, Harden would be allowed the chance to lead the team as its centerpiece, with George providing the potential for some support in Houston on Harden’s off-nights.

All in all, the noise could be just that: noise. It could lead to nothing, and the Rockets could move forward with a “business-as-usual” approach for the 2020-2021 regular season.

But, if things do pick up as expected, the NBA could be in for another highly-entertaining offseason before the schedule starts in late December, with Westbrook located at the center of the drama once again.

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