And there it is. We knew Russell Westbrook was going to be traded, it was just a matter of where and when and a cheeky Woj Bomb on a Friday arvo cleared all that up. Russell Westbrook to the Rockets, Chris Paul and two future first rounders (plus two potential pick swaps) to the Thunder in return. In recent times it had become to seem more and more likely that Russ ended up with the Miami Heat but in the end Daryl Morey just couldn’t help himself.
Why was it so inevitable that Russ had to be traded? Because OKC came into free agency with the plan to lessen their luxury tax bill whilst still remaining competitive in the hope that the same group could, with proper health and better luck, finally make a playoff run in the post-Durant years. But things change quickly in the NBA and when Paul George dropped the line that he’d been offered the chance to return home to Los Angeles and team up with Kawhi Leonard, well, the old plan went up in flames.
It’s all about being flexible and opportunistic in this league. OKC could have gambled on a potentially unmotivated Paul George and trusted him to keep on doing what he does for the rest of his contract and he probably would have, no worries there. But there were already doubts about this team and here was the opportunity of a lifetime to play the bargaining game with the Clips. OKC were only trading PG but the Clippers needed PG in order to sign Kawhi so they were paying for double. What that means is two starting calibre players as well as a gluttony of future picks heading the Thunder’s way. A haul arguably bigger than what the Pelicans got for Anthony Davis. Certainly bigger than what OKC paid for George in the first place.
But it also meant hitting reset on this team. Paul George was their best player. They were determined to lessen their wage bill before this trade and now there was their best player gone and they were still over the luxury tax. They might still have run it back with Russ and been a fringe playoff team however that was never likely to happen thanks to three subsequent moves:
1) Trading Jerami Grant to the Denver Nuggets for a future pick, essentially weakening their team in favour of assets down the line
2) Allowing free agent acquisitions Alec Burks and Mike Muscala to re-evaluate their agreements, basically admitting that their plans had changed – Muscala opted to stay while Burks signed with the Golden State Warriors instead
3) The emerging ‘sources’ chat that Russell Westbrook was open to a trade away and that the Thunder were working to facilitate that
Yeah, that third one was a bit of a dead giveaway.
Westbrook remains an absolute legend of OKC Thunder basketball and this wasn’t about the dumb yarn that players don’t want to play with Russ. There was some of that involved with Kevin Durant but we know that he’s a prickly character. James Harden left because of his own playing role (and now they’re reunited!). Carmelo Anthony was a much bigger problem himself. Paul George made sure to specifically shout out Russ in his farewell statement. On the contrary, NBA dudes love Russell Westbrook because he typifies their ultimate version of what a pro athlete is. He’s all drive, all confidence, all determination, all energy. Where sometimes the analytics approach is seen to undermine the qualities that athletes best perceive in themselves, Russell Westbrook goes the complete other way and highlights those attributes.
Unfortunately though he’s coming off a terrible season of shooting and while the rest of his offensive output is top tier, if you can’t shoot then you’re a bit of a problem in the modern NBA. OKC had tried to win by giving Westbrook the keys to the car and that brought out the best and the worst in him while combining for three straight first round playoff exits. They would have loved to have another go with the Russ + PG formula but that one went out of the window when George requested a trade back home and thanks to the haul of assets they got in return the Thunder and Russell Westbrook were no longer on the same trajectory. It’s as simple as that, really. He wants to win and they couldn’t offer him that but in the interests of doing right by the team’s favourite son they did what they could to find the best solution moving forwards.
For a while that was shaping up to be the Miami Heat. Jimmy Butler and Russell Westbrook on the same team could have been something delicious (unless you’re an error prone rookie) and Pat Riley is the kind of boss who’d maybe have a think on that. But there was the slight issue that OKC controls Miami’s 2021 and 2023 first round picks and wouldn’t want to improve that team too much, plus it meant Miami had no decent picks left to swap. Still, they have young players on decent money and could have made it work. Teams like Orlando, Detroit, and New York could have been interesting options too… but Russ’ monster contract was always going to limit his market.
How do you deal a monster contract for a point guard who might be nearing the end of their prime? By taking back a monster contract for a point guard who might be nearing the end of their prime, of course. Westbrook’s preference was always a move to the Houston Rockets to reunite with his old mate Harden and the Rockets had been floating the idea of retooling their squad since the end of the playoffs. What’s weird about that is they really didn’t have to. They were so close as it was. If it weren’t for injuries and bad luck over the last couple seasons then they might have already won a title. They’re a team that just needs to hang around, especially as the league has gotten so much more parity over the last couple weeks. More competition, sure, but more parity too. Daryl Morey just couldn’t help himself though. There was a big deal out there and he couldn’t not make it… although it’ll be curious to see if more stories emerge in the coming days about Harden and Paul’s broken relationship.
Hence the Thunder, who had a very diminished market for Westbrook, were able to not only trade the dude in what was effectively just a player swap but they also got all the draft assets back in return – controlling four years of Houston picks despite taking on the cheaper contract (thanks to CP3 having one less year). Either there was some crazy competition for Russ which we never knew about, either Chris Paul is way more washed than we realise, or Sam Presti just pulled another ace out of the pack. Say what you want for the way he’s had to gut his team lately but he’s gotten the goods back in response. They now have fifteen first round picks including three pick swaps across the next seven drafts. This is a team that got to where they’ve been on the back of three consecutive drafts in which they selected a future MVP: Kevin Durant in 2007, Russell Westbrook in 2008, and James Harden in 2009. Also let’s not forget the role that Serge Ibaka unwittingly played in all this.
For the Rockets, they now have an extremely fascinating test on their hands. Westbrook is not an easy fit for their offence – he loves a pull-up two and he sucks at making threes. He’s a brilliant distributor but has a tendency to get selfish sometimes and that was fair enough on OKC but alongside James Harden… not so much. Which means this is also a test of how Russ is able to cope/thrive in a new environment. Those two stars are tight though, they were mates even before the OKC days. And the Rockets did pick up a point guard four years younger than the one they had which brings their championship window more in line with Harden’s prime as The Beard is about to turn 30 in August. It’s a spanner in the works for Houston but they’re pretty used to that by this point.
As for OKC, they don’t actually save any current dollars on this deal. CP3’s contract expires in 2022 so there’s $47 million or so the following season that they get off their books however if they’re serious about getting under the tax, and they clearly are, then there’s at least one more deal to be done and the obvious candidate would be Dennis Schroder. It might take lumping a pick alongside him to make it happen but he’d take them under.
Alternatively they could maybe parse the market for CP3 interest… however you’ve gotta remember that this team doesn’t need to tank. They have a little bit of a situation next season where they lose their first round pick to Philadelphia if it doesn’t land inside the top twenty but they still have Denver’s pick (likely a late first rounder). With pick swaps in place, there are only two of the next seven years where OKC’s own pick is unhedged. The season where Westbrook earns $47m is the first season that OKC get Houston’s pick, top four protected. These draft picks are excellent trade bait and they’re excellent potential players and the bulk of them depend on the fortunes of other teams which means bottoming out for OKC is pretty unnecessary, especially when they already have the makings of a decent core of players. Sean Marks just orchestrated a top-down rebuild at Brooklyn with minimal draft assets. OKC can take that cultural rebuild approach to their team and still get draft picks. (Side note: super interested to see how Billy Donovan goes as coach without having to (rightfully) defer to Westbrook’s tendencies).
If that’s the way they choose to do this then currently they have a starting five that’d include Chris Paul, Danilo Gallinari, and Steven Adams. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a hugely promising guard coming off his rookie season, he could be starting. Possibly alongside Andre Roberson if he’s fit to go. Terrance Ferguson, Deonte Burton, and Hamidou Diallo are hoped to make strides while there’s some buzz around this Darius Dazley fella. Nerlens Noel is back. Mike Muscala is another big fella. It’s not a great roster but if they can add one or two more shooters then you never know.
Chris Paul did once play in Oklahoma City before, too. Back when he was in New Orleans the year after Hurricane Katrina. The prospect of him chucking up lobs to Steven Adams is a pretty enticing one… not to mention that Steve’s rebounding numbers (or maybe CP3’s rebounding numbers) are about to go through the roof without Westbrook out there. Adams is a player who benefits from great players around him since he’s not a create-his-own-offence type. Give him spacing and creativity and that brings out his best. Paul and Gallinari can both shoot to a high percentage. It’s a funky little fit if things stay this way… although Miami are already hovering around Chris Paul’s availability and his agent’s gonna hash some things out with OKC in the coming days. See how it goes there.
Whatever happens next, this is the end of an era for the Oklahoma City Thunder. The last player drafted by the Seattle Supersonics has left them. For the first time the Thunder will embark on an NBA season without Russell Westbrook and depending on what happens with Chris Paul this small-market team could be taking on a complete rebuild without a superstar in tow. There’s salary still to be shed and a Steven Adams trade isn’t out of the picture yet – although the marketplace for big men on big contracts is almost non-existent – because you know that Sam Presti’s always working. But this is a different kind of work now. This is uncharted territory. The Houston Rockets just keep on with the same trajectory regardless of this trade but for the Thunder everything changes now. Best pour one out for the Russell Westbrook Years because, mate, they might not have always been successful but they were always a bundle of fun.
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