What’s next for the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder after agreeing to swap All-Star point guards Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul?
The Rockets are reuniting Westbrook with James Harden in a talented backcourt that has some question marks, while the Thunder continue to stockpile draft assets for the future following the Paul George deal.
How will Harden and Westbrook work? Should OKC hold on to CP3? And what is the best star duo in the league now?
Our NBA Insiders answer the big questions following Thursday’s blockbuster trade and look ahead for each franchise.
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1. What’s your initial reaction to this trade?
Bobby Marks: Any contract can be traded in the NBA — even if that player is Chris Paul and he’s owed $120 million over the next three seasons.
Andrew Han: It’s Wee-Bey’s reaction.gif. Paul and Westbrook are household names in the superstar division, but both are on the wrong side of 30. And while Paul is three and a half years older, Westbrook’s contract runs one season longer (ending on a $47 million player option in 2022-23). So the age disparity merits two picks and two pick swaps for OKC despite the extra year in salary? The ledger doesn’t feel like it completely balances for Daryl Morey.
André Snellings: First: “I love this game!”
Second: The pairing of two record-setting, ball-dominant players initially seemed like a questionable plan for the Rockets. But the more I think about it, the more I can see the upside in this deal for both teams.
Nick Friedell: Two teams are moving around two awful deals. I still can’t believe the Rockets gave Paul that max extension. Woof. The lesson here is: Never say any deal is completely untradable. There’s always a way.
Tim Bontemps: My initial reaction to the trade was the one that accompanied the pop that went through the crowd at Cox Pavilion during Las Vegas Summer League play: “Wow!”
It’s incredible that Westbrook and Paul were flipped for each other, particularly at this cost. Houston needing to include four draft assets here shows how fast things change in the NBA. Meanwhile, seven years after Oklahoma City essentially chose Westbrook over Harden, the two of them are reunited again in Houston in what should be a truly fascinating partnership.
2. How did the Rockets do in this deal?
Marks: Status quo. The Rockets entered the day in the second tier of the Western Conference behind Denver, both teams from Los Angeles, Utah and possibly Portland. Houston will be in the same position even after acquiring Westbrook. One thing you learn from working in a front office is that you often value players because they are not on your team. In this case, Houston clearly had a strong desire to shake up the roster, even if that leads to the same results as last season.
Han: The fulcrum lies in the belief that Westbrook is a more complementary star to Harden than Paul. If so, then the Rockets might have overpaid but successfully secured the younger star. A question of fit remains nebulous at best, especially when the drumbeat of Houston throughout the past season was that it was a hamstring away from defeating a dynastic team in Golden State. In a season where the Hamptons Five reign has ended, dismantling the Harden-Paul duo doesn’t merely rest on the hope that a banner will be raised in Clutch City — it’s a mandate.
Bontemps: It was clear that the Harden-Paul combination had run its course, but there are questions about this Westbrook-Harden fit. As one scout in Vegas said, they are arguably the two most ball-dominant players in the league — and now they are playing in the same backcourt. Westbrook also wouldn’t quite seem to fit the way Houston plays, given he is a career 30.8 percent 3-point shooter and has shot under 30 percent in four of the past five seasons. But Rockets general manager Daryl Morey has always believed in getting stars and figuring the rest out later.
Friedell: With Paul flopping all over the floor as his skills continue to diminish, the Rockets would have had little chance to win next season. They’re better with Westbrook — but I’m not sure how much. He really struggled with his shot at times in the postseason. They’d better win next season because — just like Paul — Westbrook’s skills are only going to diminish from here.
Also, that’s a lot of picks and pick swaps to move a guy you never should have extended for max money in the first place.
Snellings: I think the Rockets have potentially hit the jackpot with this trade. The best ability in basketball is availability. Paul has missed 48 regular-season games and a crucial Game 7 during his two seasons with the Rockets. They were a championship-caliber team when he was healthy, but it was difficult to depend on Paul to be available when needed.
Still, this move only works if Harden has fully bought into the idea of playing more off the ball. Westbrook isn’t an off-ball threat, but he could be excellent at running the show and creating offense in Houston. Harden should be nigh unguardable as an off-guard who can operate against unbalanced defenses.
Adrian Wojnarowski breaks down how the Russell Westbrook-Chris Paul trade came to be, and how it will affect Paul’s future.
3. How did the Thunder do in this deal?
Bontemps: The Thunder continue to have a great week. In a series of trades, they have accumulated eight first-round picks over the next seven seasons to go along with four other pick swaps. Toss in the fact that the Thunder will now all but certainly keep their own protected picks in 2020 and 2022, and one could argue OKC has netted 10 first-round picks in three transactions — a truly stunning haul.
In surveying people here in Vegas, no one expects Paul to remain in a Thunder uniform for long. The initial thought among league executives was that the Miami Heat — who also were interested in Westbrook — are a logical landing spot.
Han: Don’t trade with Sam Presti — at least not in the immediate future. The overseer of OKC has had a run of adroit arbitrage like few others in the past few weeks. With George and now Westbrook, the Thunder front office managed to take distressed stars, send them to preferred destinations and return a trove of assets for their trouble. And while Oklahoma City just accepted a series of picks for Chris Paul, would anyone be surprised if it somehow onboarded even more picks when Paul is sent to an eventual self-styled contender?
Friedell: I like what they got back. That’s a lot of assets in return for Westbrook, who was never going to live up to his deal. The Thunder took advantage of Houston’s desperation to make some kind of trade happen. There’s no reason to keep Paul in OKC — just move him and get more assets and picks. Hope a star becomes available on the trade market down the line and package a bunch of those assets together and then you can get a real reset going.
Snellings: The Thunder did well, and they should be able to flip Paul to another team for additional value. Paul’s contract, while huge, is a year shorter than Westbrook’s, and he is still able to compete at a high level when healthy. He would make sense on a team that has All-NBA talent and sees itself as being an impact player away. The Heat, Timberwolves, Pistons and Magic have the assets to put together an attractive offer for him.
Marks: The Thunder get an A-plus for two factors: They turned the $170 million Westbrook contract into four draft assets (two first-rounders and two swap rights) and now have Paul to move in a future trade. Yes, there is not a great appetite for the $120 million left on Paul’s contract, but if the Thunder can parlay Paul into expiring contracts (think Miami) and maybe a future draft asset, Oklahoma City could wipe its finances clean and start to rebuild through the draft.
4. Fact or fiction: The Durant/Westbrook/Harden era in OKC was a success
Han: Fact. The OKC trio injected a level of basketball fanaticism where many were unsure of the level of sustainment in the region. And while the foregone conclusion that a Durant-Westbrook-Harden-led Thunder team would be Finals regulars proved naive, to judge success and failure simply by the number of rings one can display seems equally reductive.
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Friedell: Fiction. The Thunder didn’t win a title. The league has always been a bottom-line business in that regard: Did you win a ‘ship or not? They had Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, James Harden and Serge Ibaka all in their primes and still couldn’t do it. Now they have a boatload of picks while the draft remains unpredictable. They had the stars that teams dream about and still couldn’t get it done. Wins are nice but they fade. Championships last forever. The Thunder swung big — they just missed.
Bontemps: Fact. This one is easy. Would the Thunder have loved to win a title? Sure. But there have been plenty of teams over the years that came close to winning and didn’t. You can’t look at this run as anything but a massive success. Oklahoma City has been a relevant NBA franchise for more than a decade. The Thunder made it to one Finals and three conference finals, and very easily could’ve won multiple championships had a few breaks gone their way. In that same period, teams such as the Charlotte Hornets, Minnesota Timberwolves and Sacramento Kings haven’t won a single playoff series. Think fans of those teams would switch places with Thunder fans? In a heartbeat.
Marks: Fiction. Someday there will be a 30 for 30 on what could have been in Oklahoma City if it had kept the 2012 NBA Finals team together. Instead, we are left wondering if the tenure of OKC’s Big Three was cut prematurely.
Snellings: Fact. The Thunder building a team through the draft that could consistently compete was an accomplishment given where they started. While a championship is the ultimate goal, they made a Finals appearance, famously came within a game of knocking off the only 73-win team in history and had two different players win the MVP and another finish top-3 in the vote while wearing their uniform. They had the potential to do more, but what they did accomplish was a success.
5. What is the best star duo in the NBA now?
Snellings: LeBron James and Anthony Davis. They have the most talent, the most size and their games should mesh best together. But this is not a game of 2-on-2, and at this point there are quite a few teams that absolutely have the potential to beat them out for this season’s championship. I love this game!
Marks: Flip a coin between the team two teams in Los Angeles: LeBron James/Anthony Davis vs. Kawhi Leonard/Paul George.
Han: Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. If the league continues to shift toward a wing-oriented game, it would stand to reason that the best two-way wing players for the upcoming season would amount to the best duo. Leonard just proved he’s capable of leading a title contender with on-the-fly chemistry and George is coming off of a third-place MVP season despite shoulder woes. An argument can be made for the other duo in Los Angeles, but the perimeter emphasis of the league swings in the favor of the Clippers.
Friedell: Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. If they stay healthy, they complement the rest of that Clippers roster so well. The defensive ability on that team will be fun to watch every night, on top of the fact that Leonard, George and Lou Williams all have the ability to get a bucket when needed. That team is going to be awesome.
Bontemps: LeBron James and Anthony Davis. If Paul George wasn’t coming off surgery on both shoulders, he and Kawhi Leonard would be in the conversation, but that’s about it. I caught a lot of flack last week for saying James wasn’t among the top five players in the league — but I had Davis fifth and James sixth. Nobody else in the NBA can match having two of the six best players in the sport — particularly when James and Davis, assuming both are healthy, should be a perfect fit together offensively.