In just under a week’s time the Oklahoma City Thunder have bid farewell to both of the franchise’s stars. Last week it was Paul George, who was traded to the LA Clippers in a move that LA needed to complete in order to ensure the signing of Kawhi Leonard. And Thursday night the other shoe dropped, with it being reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski that Russell Westbrook was being traded to the Houston Rockets.
In exchange for Westbrook, Oklahoma City received another All-Star point guard in Chris Paul. Draft picks were also included in the deal, with the Thunder receiving first-round picks in 2024 and 2026 and swaps of first-round picks in 2021 and 2025. With the moves made this summer, including Jerami Grant being traded to Denver, Thunder GM Sam Presti has added a total of eight first-round picks (and four pick swaps) for the 2020-26 drafts.
Westbrook will be reunited with former Thunder teammate James Harden in Houston, and according to multiple reports both players pushed for this deal to happen. Harden and Westbrook finished the 2018-19 season ranked in the top ten in usage percentage, with “The Beard” leading the NBA at 40.5% and Westbrook tenth (30.9%). So the obvious question here is the following: how will Mike D’Antoni get these two to work together in his system?
Harden has led the NBA in scoring each of the last two seasons, and he accounted for 36.1 points per night in 2018-19. The runner-up in the MVP voting, he also accounted for 7.5 assists, 6.6 rebounds, 2.0 steals, 4.8 three-pointers and 5.0 turnovers per game with shooting splits of 44.2% from the field, 36.8% from three and 87.9% from the foul line. It goes without saying that this isn’t the same Harden that Westbrook played alongside in Oklahoma City. In his three seasons with the Thunder Harden’s highest usage percentage was 21.6% (2011-12). In each of the last five Harden’s had a usage of at least 31.3%, topping out at 40.5% last season.
As for Westbrook, the keys for him will be his knees and his shot. He did play in 73 regular season games in 2018-19, but the 2017 NBA MVP has undergone multiple surgical procedures on his right knee since Patrick Beverley crashed into him during the 2013 NBA Playoffs. It's with noting that he’s played in at least 80 games three of the last four regular seasons, and Westbrook appeared in 73 games in 2018-19. The arthroscopic procedure he underwent last September short-circuited his preseason preparation, and that turned out to be a bigger deal than anyone expected.
Despite averaging a triple-double for the third consecutive season, Westbrook put together arguably his worst season with regards to his shot. Finishing the year with averages of 22.9 points, 11.1 rebounds, 10.7 assists, 1.9 steals, 1.6 three-pointers and 4.5 turnovers per game, Westbrook shot 42.8% from the field, 29.0% from three and 65.6% from the foul line. He isn’t a prolific perimeter shooter, making less than 30% of his three-point attempts in four of the last five seasons, but Houston will need Westbrook to bounce back from a rough 2018-19 if this deal is to work out.
And Westbrook’s perimeter shooting means that the guys who will play off of he and Harden, most notably Eric Gordon, Austin Rivers and PJ Tucker, are of high importance when it comes to their ability to make shots off the catch.
On the other side of this deal, Oklahoma City has now retooled its rotation with Paul joining Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari (both acquired in the George deal). Will Paul remain with the team, or will he, agent Leon Rose and Presti work together to find a different situation? If CP3 stays he’ll be a good mentor for Gilgeous-Alexander, who played well during his rookie season with the Clippers. And Paul also stands to have the ball in his hands more than he did in Houston, with Harden initiating the offense quite often. Paul’s usage last season was 22.5%, his lowest since the 2010-11 campaign (21.1% as a member of the then-New Orleans Hornets).
While the usage can partially be explained by the presence of Harden, there’s also the injury factor to consider. He played in 58 games, averaging 15.6 points, 8.2 assists, 4.6 rebounds, 2.0 steals, 2.2 three-pointers and 2.6 turnovers in 32.0 minutes per. Since playing in all 82 games during the 2014-15 season, Paul’s played in 74, 61, 58 and 58 regular season game. Gilgeous-Alexander will obviously play plenty, and — as of right now — Dennis Schröder is still on the roster, so Oklahoma City will have players available to absorb minutes. But the injury concerns are legitimate, especially when taking into consideration the fact that Paul is owed some $124 million over the final three years of his deal (player option for 2021-22).
Another player who will likely be impacted by this deal, especially if Paul and SGA are used on the court together, is Terrance Ferguson. Ferguson started 74 games last season, averaging 6.9 points 1.9 rebounds, 1.0 assists and 1.4 three-pointers per game, He has the size and length needed to be used at either the two or the three, with the latter being likely in lineups that include Paul and Gilgeous-Alexander. Of the returnees on the Oklahoma City roster Ferguson’s probably the best shooter, but he shot just 36.6% from three in 2018-19.
The balance that needs to be achieved between Harden and Westbrook, and how that will impact the other scoring options on that roster, is the biggest storyline in this deal. But it was made clear shortly after the team’s elimination from the postseason that Houston was looking to make a big move. Will it work out? Daryl Morey and company are gambling that it will, as the team included two first-round picks and agreed to swap two others.
As for Oklahoma City, the full answer regarding the fantasy impact of this deal won’t be learned until a decision is made on Paul. If he stays, he’ll start on a team that aims to remain part of the playoff conversation. If he goes, Gilgeous-Alexander will have the ball in his hands even more as OKC embarks on a new era.