By Huw Hopkins,Sky Sports News,
Houston Rockets legend Hakeem Olajuwon says the team’s new twin-MVP backcourt of James Harden and Russell Westbrook is ‘a wonderful combination’.
The Rockets offer one of the NBA’s most intriguing storylines this summer. Combining the 2017 and 2018 MVPs, two ball-dominant two guards that enjoy running the point, will give the team new life after frustrations seemingly boiled over between the Rockets’ leader Harden and the now-traded Chris Paul.
With Paul on the team, Houston came to within a game of beating the Golden State Warriors in 2018, but after losing to them again in six games in 2019, the window to win a championship had nearly shut. And yet, the Rockets’ general manager Daryl Morey trapped his fingers in whatever gap was left and made a hopeful trade with Oklahoma City that sent Paul to the Thunder in return for Russell Westbrook.
While nobody is quite sure how the new backcourt combination will fit together, the strong friendship that Harden and Westbrook share from their previous stint playing together in OKC will mean that teething problems can be worked on, without the additional pressure of a testy relationship that plagued Paul’s tenure with the team.
Rockets legend Hakeem Olajuwon, who led the franchise to back-to-back NBA championships in 1994 and 1995 and acts as an ambassador to the team today, also believes that the close bond between Westbrook and Harden will overcome any obstacles.
At his summer camp with the City of Birmingham Rockets Basketball Club, Olajuwon said: “I love Chris Paul, don’t get me wrong, but when I heard the news about Westbrook, I’m one of the biggest fans of Westbrook. I like him a lot. I like his explosiveness, aggressiveness, mid-range shots. I was very happy. I know they have a good relationship with James Harden, I think it’ll be a wonderful combination.”
For one of the game’s greatest centers, who ruled the NBA during an era that was dominated by some of the best big men of all time, the Harden-Westbrook system will be a far cry from what Olajuwon faced between the years of 1984 and 2002. But he still feels like he could have done well in the way basketball is played today.
He said: “The game of basketball is easy if you have these skills. The inside game is an advantage, and that advantage is still there today. My vision of basketball is inside-outside, even with the guards: if you can post the defender up, you have an advantage – just like Kyrie Irving, he has beautiful post moves. If you’re bigger than me, I’ll take you outside, if I’m bigger I’ll post you up. So the game today is easier than when I was playing.”
The reason he considers it easier is because the top names who play today include the likes of Harden, Westbrook, Paul, Irving, Steph Curry, and Damian Lillard – all guards. Even the likes of Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard are considered perimeter players, but when Olajuwon was winning MVPs, he had to face stars who stood alongside, or taller, than The Dream’s 7ft frame.
“I looked at my schedule for the year and I saw Shaquille O’Neal, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, and after that, I got my rest,” he said.
“Those guys, they were the pillars of their team, they would go to them a lot. Shot blockers, dominant big men, it was a battle, you had no advantage. You played against guys that can do everything you can do.
“I was very fortunate to play against all my contemporaries at that time. In 1986 against Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar], then Patrick, then David then Shaq, so I got a chance to face the toughest challenge.”
While the game has changed, Olajuwon still stays in touch with the NBA as an ambassador for the Houston Rockets, and he keeps up with young players coming through the ranks at camps like his own in Birmingham.
While he might be retired, and some of the 10-18 year-olds at his camp each summer will only have seen him on grainy YouTube videos, Olajuwon still understands better than most what it takes to be a winner, and he recognises signs of greatness in Harden and Westbrook and is excited for Houston’s year ahead.