The only way to fully understand the trade that sent Russell Westbrook from the Oklahoma City Thunder to the Houston Rockets is to admit one team is currently all the way in and the other has temporarily bowed out.
How badly did the Rockets want Westbrook? They were willing to send Chris Paul, two protected first-round picks (2024 and 2026, both protected Nos. 1-4) and two pick swaps (2021 and 2025) to the Thunder.
“We’re excited to have Russell Westbrook,” Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta told Houston’s Fox 26. “I would watch him play for Oklahoma City, and he’s so athletic. At the same time, this franchise just had the two years with the most wins it’s ever had in consecutive years, and we wouldn’t have accomplished that without Chris Paul. Chris Paul is unbelievable, and he’s gonna be sadly missed.”
The Rockets sense blood in the water of the NBA’s Western Conference now that Golden State has undergone series change. They have watched the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers jack themselves up. And they are speeding forward to take their place in the conference heirarchy. Now they have the best backcourt in the league by reuniting Westbrook with James Harden. They both are former MVPs. How can you top that?
The Thunder are definitely rebuilding and have stockpiled an assortment of high picks in the deals sending Westbrook and Paul George away. Paul, 34, has three years, $124 million left on his deal. If the Thunder held onto him they’d be facing an $85.5 million payout over the 2021 and 2022 seasons. And that didn’t make sense.
Consider that the core of the Thunder lineup is now Paul, Steven Adams, Danilo Gallinari and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
Like Anthony Davis and George, Westbrook begged to be traded to either Miami or Houston. He can see what’s going on in Oklahoma City and frankly he didn’t have the patience to deal with it.
Thunder general manager Sam Presti complied. And now Presti is trying to accommodate Paul’s camp by dealing him, a transaction which will make the Thunder only richer in the futures market.
By trading George, Westbrook and Jerami Grant, the Thunder have accumulated at least 12 first-round picks over the next seven years, including two next season. If played correctly, the Thunder could be ready to compete again in two to three years.
“People [within the league] knew they were going to do something pretty profound,” one GM told NBA.com. “What they got for George was more than a king’s ransom. And if they end up trading Russell for all the tea in China, it will be the same deal again, right?”
According to ESPN, Oklahoma City has acquired eight first-round picks since the NBA Draft. If Oklahoma City retains its own 2020 pick (top-20 protected to Philadelphia) and 2022 pick (lottery protected to Atlanta), it is now set up with 15 first-round picks and swap rights in four different seasons between 2020 and 2026.
“I said at the end of the year, ‘We’re never gonna stand pat,'” Fertitta said. “We’re always gonna try to get better. I think this makes us a better team. I hate to lose Chris Paul, but we felt like we did what we had to do to become a better team.
“I think it’ll be very interesting and fun. James and Russell wanted to play together. It ought to be fun this year.”
Westbrook has four years and $171 million remaining on his contract, with a player option in the final year of his deal that will pay him $47 million if he picks it up.
Westbrook departs OKC as its all-time leader in points (18,859); second in assists (6,897); third in rebounds (5,760) and steals (1,442); and fourth in games played (821). Westbrook won the MVP in 2016-17. He did it by being the first player since Oscar Robertson in 1962 to average a triple-double.
Westbook shattered Robertson’s mark of triple-doubles in a season with 42. He then averaged a triple-double twice more. He is tied for second with Magic Johnson at 138 career triple-doubles. Robertson leads with 181,.
Westbrook is also one of the 10 to record 15,000 points, 5,000 rebounds and 5,000 assists with a single franchise. Seven of whom are in the Hall of Fame. The two others – LeBron and Kobe – soon will be.
Now, the Rockets need to figure how out to keep Harden and Westbrook happy since the success of both depends primarily on having the ball. But Harden has struggled with his shooting in the last two postseasons and Westbrook certainly provides some insurance should that happen again this season.