The Rockets have agreed on a deal to acquire Russell Westbrook from the Thunder, at the cost of Chris Paul, a first-round pick in 2024 and 2026 (both protected nos. 1-4), and pick swaps in 2021 and 2025. Here we break down the winners and losers of this blockbuster trade.
Loser: Chris Paul
Danny Chau: Life—and I cannot stress this enough—comes at you fast. The 2018-19 Houston Rockets’ season felt like CP3’s last best chance at attaining the NBA championship, an honor that continues to elude the future Hall of Famer. But the team fell short, not in small part due to Paul, who battled through injuries for a significant portion of the campaign, playing the worst basketball of his career in his age-33 season. Now, he will enter Year 2 of his four-year, $160 million deal considered less as a franchise-altering cornerstone and more as a nebulous money pit.
Floodgates have been installed in the trade and buyout markets to account for all the mouthwatering around the league; there are assuredly plenty of teams (here’s looking at you, Lakers) that can still use a player like Paul—a steady, legendarily high-IQ point guard who can control tempo, create his own offense off the dribble, and consistently hit 3s, even at 34. Thunder GM Sam Presti will reportedly confer with Paul and his agent about possible next steps. According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Miami Heat may have interest in trading for Paul, and they certainly have the contracts to pull off a deal. A trade is probably the most tenable way of getting CP3 out of OKC. As a reminder, Paul has up to $124 million left on his contract, which could complicate buyout negotiations. It would be somewhat ironic for CP3—the NBPA president who famously helped negotiate a new labor deal in 2016 that increased his max earning potential—to take less than he was originally owed to get away from the youth movement in OKC. But that would be the cost of finally being able to unite with LeBron James on the Lakers … if that is indeed what happens. Playing on a contender that just so happens to employ your best friend might be priceless, but still: It’s clear that a certain chapter of Paul’s exemplary career has been shut. Welcome to the other side.
Winner: Russell Westbrook
Paolo Uggetti: In the aftermath of the massive trade the Clippers made to pair Paul George with Kawhi Leonard, two things became clear: Westbrook’s time in Oklahoma City was over, and Presti, with five future picks in the bag (including the pick Denver sent for Jerami Grant), was now able to afford to send his franchise player, the beloved figure of OKC basketball, to a place he wanted to go.
It turns out Westbrook wasn’t interested in becoming a coastal elite in Miami, but rather that he wanted to reunite with Harden a few hundred miles south of Oklahoma. The Durant-Harden-Westbrook Thunder era comes to a close with Houston being the recipient of two of the three.
Westbrook doesn’t just get his desired location and his desired running mate; he also gets a legitimate title shot. While this may change Houston’s style (uh, can Russ avoid shooting 100 midrange jumpers a game?), the Rockets now have a younger, more explosive player to put next to Harden. The result? A title window that seemed to be closing, even with the breakup of the Warriors, is now wide open.
There are concerns about fit and usage, but for now, Westbrook may have his best shot at a title since 2016. It was either this or playing out his career as the face of the Thunder without any rings.
Winner: Mike D’Antoni
Chau: This could be D’Antoni’s greatest challenge yet, and as one of Il Baffo’s most devout supporters/apologists, I am overjoyed. This is the man who, in mind-meld with Steve Nash, forged a revolution in Phoenix. The dreamcaster in the backdrop of Linsanity. The mastermind who transformed James Harden into a legitimate point guard, and then, over the past two seasons, found a way to harmonize Harden’s unconventional gifts with those of the archetypal traditional point guard’s in Paul. Now, he’ll have to run it back, except with someone who might just be CP3’s stylistic opposite.
It’s been a long seven years since Westbrook and Harden were teammates. The order of operations were so different; Harden was a secondary creator who exploited defenses by spotting up in the fringes of the gravitational field Westbrook conjured on his demolition runs to the basket. But now, they are both MVPs on equal footing, and Russ—who, to his credit, ceded a bit of control to Paul George last season—will likely have to be the one changing his game to fit around the Beard, and not the other way around. Westbrook hasn’t consistently worked on his off-ball game in years because he hasn’t needed to; Harden is so effective in isolation that he had a streak of 304 consecutive unassisted points last season.
D’Antoni is a notorious enabler, but there is always an underlying structure that keeps his offenses coherent. Perhaps for the first time in Westbrook’s career, he will be forced to adapt to a role that isn’t microcosmic force. Something’s got to give, and I, perhaps foolishly, believe D’Antoni is the man to suss it all out.
Winner: Daryl Morey
Uggetti: No one likes stars more than Morey. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s got nothing on the man who has now traded for James Harden, Chris Paul, and Russell Westbrook.
To Morey, chemistry is less valuable than star power. But oddly enough, this move may address both. The Paul-Harden relationship had soured in their second season together. According to an ESPN report last month, Paul’s grating personality had worn on Harden. The Rockets MVP also didn’t appreciate the fact that Paul, now in the late stages of his career, couldn’t beat his man as often. To rectify the situation, Morey has replaced Paul with one of Harden’s best friends and favorite former teammates. But even if there was no preexisting relationship, Morey is sticking to his ethos that you get star players and figure everything out later. The Paul era in Houston may have ended on a bad note, but the star-obsessed approach did work at first: The Rockets were a game away from dethroning the Warriors and making the NBA Finals.
The title race is wide open next season, and while Thunder GM Sam Presti busies himself by investing in the future, Morey cares only about the here and now. The beauty (and the pain) is that both could be right, and both could be wrong.
Winner: Sam Presti
Chau: In 2007, a fresh-faced Presti, who’d cut his teeth as a front-office underling in San Antonio, was given a tabula rasa in Seattle (and Oklahoma City, very, very soon after). The rest is history: Kevin Durant. Westbrook. Harden. Serge Ibaka. He struck gold in the draft at just about every turn for three seasons. Plenty of turbulence in the ensuing decade, to say the least, but you can’t win them all. And more importantly, when you realize you can’t win it all, you bite the bullet and take the necessary measures.
More than a decade later, Presti has seemingly willed his team back to a blank slate. The Thunder as we’ve known them have completely disintegrated. What’s left is a team that will have the helpful bonus of eight additional first-round draft picks from 2020 until 2026. From there, Presti just has to hope the talent accumulation runs as smoothly as it did the first time.
This will gnaw at the sides of Thunder fans for some time—not just because of Westbrook’s departure, but because of the once-and-future empire-to-be that is now lost to history. Presti, to his credit, did what a front-office head honcho has to in an ever-accelerating transactional league. It doesn’t look like much, materially, at the moment. But it will soon, for better or worse.
Winner: James Harden, the Player; Loser: James Harden, the Point Guard
Uggetti: Harden did everything he could to will the Rockets back from the brink of the lottery last season. With Houston struggling to start 2018-19, and offseason fliers like Carmelo Anthony and Michael Carter-Williams failing left and right, Harden carried the team back to relevance by ripping off 32 straight games of 30 points. But it was a tough watch. Seeing the reigning MVP grind a defense down s-l-o-w-l-y with an array of stationary jab steps and stepbacks and moves designed to draw fouls was grating. With Westbrook next to him, Harden theoretically won’t have to do it again.
However, Westbrook’s presence also means Harden could see less of the ball. By now we know that Russ will be Russ. This means it’s up to Harden to make adjustments and play as well off the ball as he does on the ball—similar to how he did at the start of his career to fit into OKC’s backcourt with Westbrook. In theory, Westbrook’s drive-and-kick game should open up space and shots for Harden, but will Harden be OK with not getting to wait 20 seconds before side-stepping into a 3?
The answer to that question is that he should be. This may have just ended any chance Harden had at another MVP, but it’s also a perfect way for him to age into his 30s. Less of a load will do wonders to Harden’s odometer as he tries to extend his prime and title window.
Loser: Rockets Fans
Chau: There might not have been a more rabid, vitriolic NBA fan base on the internet over the past two seasons than Rockets fans when it came to the matter of Westbrook. If one didn’t know any better, one could have easily seen the great Harden-Westbrook debate of 2017 as the battle for the soul of basketball. (The case for Harden ruining basketball came later.) Well, this is a fitting bit of comeuppance. At least they seem to be handling it with some levity.
Loser: The Rockets’ Sponsorship Opportunities
Uggetti: I have a confession to make: I think James Harden was great on the State Farm ads and I don’t care who knows it. Chris Paul, on the other hand, felt forced. (Remember Cliff Paul?) It’s a good thing the car insurance company won’t have to think about making them work well together on a commercial shoot anytime in the near future.
Right after the season crashed and burned again for the Rockets, there were reports that Harden and Paul were not getting along. They were eerily similar to the reports that followed Paul’s exit from the Clippers before the franchise turned itself into a Kawhi destination. Morey and Paul denied the most recent reports, but maybe the clues to the dysfunction were actually in the State Farm ads all along.
Harden makes a mess and then deflects blame. Paul is upset, but Harden won’t admit he did it. Sounds like a relationship problem—or a backcourt-mates problem when one doesn’t pass the ball. I mean, look at this:
You don’t think Paul made this face about 100 times this season when Harden took his sweet time to launch another stepback 3? State Farm, I am urging you to please release all the tapes.
Losers: The Rest of the West
Uggetti: There was some hope that Westbrook would end up in Miami. Russ and Jimmy Butler on the Heat would have given the league another NBA Jam duo and the East another pseudo-contender. And while there’s still a chance that one max-salaried point guard in this trade ends up in Miami, the pairing of Westbrook and Harden will make the West, already full of contenders, that much harder. After two weeks of free agency, there are now seven teams that will go into next season thinking they can get to the Finals (Rockets, Lakers, Clippers, Jazz, Trail Blazers, Nuggets, and Warriors) and about twice as many teams that think they can make it to the playoffs. It will be a bloodbath, especially because the stakes are already colossal for several of the contenders. The Lakers, Clippers, and now Rockets have all mortgaged their futures. The Jazz will pay Bojan Bogdanovic over $70 million, and the Warriors sent away two of their core veterans in order to usher in a new era with … D’Angelo Russell. I mean, the Blazers talked themselves into Hassan Whiteside for crying out loud.