Trade Grades: Thunder, Rockets Swap Stars in Russell Westbrook-Chris Paul Deal

The Oklahoma City Thunder facilitated another league-changing turn of events on Thursday, sending Russell Westbrook to the Houston Rockets for Chris Paul, Houston’s 2024 and 2026 first-round picks, and first-round pick swaps in 2021 and 2025, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. After dealing Paul George to the Clippers last week, the Thunder’s overhaul continues, with Oklahoma City cashing in on Westbrook to extract future draft capital. The Rockets, in turn, shake up their team with one huge swing, pairing Westbrook with James Harden to field a backcourt featuring two MVPs.

Thunder: A-

After dealing away Paul George for a historic haul of draft picks, it became clear that Oklahoma City’s next step would be moving Westbrook, a talismanic organizational figure whose individual arc was no longer in sync with the Thunder’s. All things considered, this is a pretty strong haul, netting two firsts, two swap options and a still-useful player on a less-weighty long-term contract in Paul. The Thunder have very clearly shifted into asset-accumulation mode, relying on their own ability to evaluate talent going forward while creating as many chances as possible to find value through the draft. 

Of course, adding draft choices always means taking on some risk. The actual outcomes of these picks are far in the future, and the real value of this deal will only be clear in the long run. Houston’s 2024 and 2026 first-rounders are top-four protected, and whether the 2021 and 2025 pick swaps will actually be of use are anyone’s guess. It’s just impossible to know what either team’s roster will look like in five years and beyond. But Oklahoma City has chosen to buy up long-term options, and if it can even find just one star-caliber player with all the picks it has accumulated, there’s a chance it’ll all be worth it.

For the record, here’s a list of all the first-round picks the Thunder now own—they’ve added eight first-rounders since the draft.

2020: Own first (if it falls between 1-20), Nuggets top-10 protected first (via this week’s Jerami Grant deal)

2021: Own first, Rockets pick swap (option), Heat unprotected first

2022: Own first (if it falls in the lottery), Clippers unprotected first

2023: Own first, Clippers pick swap (option), Heat lottery-protected first

2024: Own first, Clippers unprotected first, Houston top-four protected first

2025: Own first, Clippers pick swap (option), Rockets pick swap (option)

2026: Own first, Clippers unprotected first, Rockets top-four protected first

If that seems like a lot of draft picks, that’s because it is—in a maximized situation, the Thunder could have 15 first-rounders over the course of those six drafts. And while it’s certainly possible the Clippers and Rockets remain relevant enough in the long run to diminish the value of the haul, the logic itself is sound. The Thunder have created a substantial long-term cachet of picks they can either use or trade to advance their own agenda. The flexibility here is almost as crucial as the sheer volume of assets they’ve added.

Paul, 34, has two years left on his contract and a player option for the 2021-22 season (totaling nearly $124 million), and while his shooting percentages dipped this season, his statistical output as a whole has remained strong. It wouldn’t be crazy to see him traded again at some point, given he almost certainly won’t be too pleased trying to grandfather what might be quite an ambitious rebuild. The nature of his contract, of course, might make it difficult for the Thunder to actually deal him. But Paul still has plenty left in the tank, and with the way teams have aggressively compiled star power this summer, it’s fair to think that at some point, there will be suitors. His savvy, competitive drive and playmaking feel have not diminished. 

At any rate, he’ll be much easier for the Thunder to deal than the Rockets, whose top-heavy salary structure and win-now impetus made for a tricky calculus. The simple fact that his deal runs shorter and cheaper than Westbrook’s (who has four years and about $171 million left on his max contract) adds value for Oklahoma City in the event they’re forced to hold on to him long-term. The Thunder would have been unwise to risk holding on to Westbrook as he racked up additional mileage playing on a contract that seems destined to become a heavy negative toward the back end. Paul will depreciate, too, but you have to wonder if he’ll even be on the roster in a year’s time, anyhow—and it’s important to note that the war chest of draft picks can help to offload him if they choose. For now, they can roll out Paul, Danilo Gallinari, Steven Adams and the promising Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and still compete for a low-end playoff spot, while developing some of their younger talent.

The first three years of Westbrook’s deal are equal to the three years left on Paul’s, but passing along the heavy risk of Westbrook’s final year—a $47.1 million player option for a season in which he’ll turn 34 years old—while also adding draft value is commendable work by the Thunder and Sam Presti. OKC isn’t yet out of the luxury tax, but it likely isn't done dealing. Paul is a downgrade, but far from a zero, and a player they can explore moving again. It’s almost always impossible to tear down a team cleanly, and there are going to be some lean years ahead, but the Thunder are certainly going about this in a respectable fashion, in a situation that had gone beyond their control. It’s a long game here, and historically so.

Rockets: C+

This is a pretty massive bet by the Rockets, who seem to find new ways to up the ante every summer under Daryl Morey. Make no mistake about it: the Rockets are paying a heavy price to keep pace in a summer where the rest of the Western Conference got better. Varying reports of tumultuous chemistry between Harden and Paul aside, Houston is certainly upgrading here in a vacuum—Westbrook is younger, still in his prime, and while he comes with serious warts, he’s a player with the individual ability to push the Rockets even closer to the top in what looks to be a wide-open title race. But Houston is making a potentially significant long-term sacrifice in order to keep up, and doing so via a transactional stroke that certainly has the potential to backfire.

Harden and Westbrook’s history together in Oklahoma City is nice, and the latter had reportedly earmarked Houston as his preferred landing spot. ESPN reports both players are “enthusiastic.” But most all-superstar marriages begin with a honeymoon. The Rockets aren’t re-pairing two rising young talents who began their careers together—they’re conjoining two high-powered, high-usage, high-maintenance superstars who’ve grown used to playing the game a certain way. There’s no way around the fact that at some point, this could become a combustible situation. Westbrook has never been one to take a back seat. This isn’t going to be as simple as staggering their minutes correctly, just as that was never the case with Harden and Paul.

To be fair, the Rockets won 65 and 53 games the last two seasons with those two together. Even when it didn’t work, Houston got results. This is the NBA’s only pairing of MVP winners, and their contracts run concurrently at least through 2021-22, after which both hold pricy player options. The Rockets have a definite timetable to try this out, and a host of role players on the roster who’ve been battle-tested. Houston may need to get even more creative from here—Eric Gordon and Clint Capela could still be flipped to upgrade the roster—but it’s not impossible that this can work. The bigger question is whether it’ll work in the playoffs, where the Rockets have run aground for the entirety of the Harden era, falling short in two conference finals. The Warriors might not be the same threat, but the Clippers, Lakers, Trail Blazers, Nuggets and Jazz are all gunning hard for a Finals spot right now. Adding Westbrook and his checkered history of late-clock and late-game decision-making isn’t exactly a fix for what’s ailed Houston.

The bigger cost here may come in the form of draft picks, and while the top-four protections will help guard Houston against the greatest degree of missed opportunity in potential future lottery scenarios, what the Rockets have done may well stunt the early stages of the post-Harden (and now, post-Westbrook) era, whenever it may come. Both could be gone by 2022 or 2023, and if the Rockets aren’t careful, they could become a lottery team with nothing in the cupboard if they mishandle this. The 2021 swap may not matter, but the 2024, 2025 and 2026 drafts are now mostly out of their control. It’s the price Houston chose to pay for another shot at a title, and to shuffle the deck for maximum impact going into a pivotal season. If the Rockets win it all with Harden and Westbrook together, this move will look defensible. Fall short, and they may well just be kicking the can down the road with a little extra oomph. There’s logic here for Houston, but it’s not without significant downside. “At least they’re trying something different” is never the most comforting way to qualify a serious gamble.

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