"I know what we need to do," James Harden said in May. "I know exactly what we need to do. We’ll figure it out this summer.”
That answer came at the end of Houston's second-consecutive playoff loss to the Warriors. Two months later—on the heels of multiple reports of internal dysfunction and subsequent denials from players and management—34-year-old point guard Chris Paul is on the Thunder. More amazingly, 30-year-old point guard Russell Westbrook is now on the Houston Rockets.
Thursday night, Houston agreed to trade Paul for Westbrook, while also sending the Thunder two first-round picks (2024 and 2026, both protected for 1-4), and the rights to swap picks in 2021 and 2025. The deal represents a more substantial haul than most insiders expected Westbrook to command on the open market. It's another reminder that Rockets GM Daryl Morey isn't afraid to take risks, and it's the perfect coda to a 10-day tornado of offseason activity that has turned the entire league upside down. Of all the summer changes that will look like a 13-year-old's Twitter photoshops brought to life—Anthony Davis on the Lakers, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard on the Clippers, Kemba Walker on the Celtics—nothing in next year's NBA will be stranger than seeing Russell Westbrook on the Rockets.
So now to some natural follow-up questions: How did this happen? Why did this trade make sense for either side? And can it work?
The deal makes sense for Houston if the team had given up on Paul as a superstar. On Thursday night ESPN cited a Rockets source who said that tension between Paul and Harden did not play a role in the decision to pursue Westbrook. Maybe that's true, maybe it's not. Whatever the case, the Western Conference has looked wide open all summer, and the Rockets' nucleus was well-positioned to make another run. Running it back would have made sense. That the Rockets went another direction is either a sign that Paul's return would have been complicated in the locker room, or that the team didn't have faith in what he could provide on the court. It could be a little of column A, a little of column B.
Paul's numbers regressed across the board last season and his health is now an annual concern. He's missed at least 20 games in each of the past three seasons, and at 34 years old, he's well past the age when most star point guards start to decline. If Morey and Houston’s front office weren't sure about the future with Paul, they had to also know that options for moving him would only be more elusive as the years passed. So that's one way to explain what happened Thursday. This was a bet against Paul's future next to Harden, and while an innefficent star like Westbrook isn't necessarily a dream fit by Moreyball standards, he's worlds better than anyone else Houston might have gotten for Paul.
A second way to read this move: after fireworks consumed the league for the past few weeks, Westbrook to the Rockets was the afterglow. This move wasn't as exciting as brand new empires in L.A. or Brooklyn, and in some ways, it's depressing for everyone involved. The stars here are older, and the empires look like they're fading. Paul seems to be ending a Hall-of-Fame career as a cast-off, Westbrook goes to Houston where he'll have to embrace a reduced role, and millions of Rockets fans will have to spend the next 72 hours deleting 24 months' worth of tweets about the 2017 MVP race.
All the ambition elsewhere in the NBA yielded to desperation in OKC and Houston. On the Thunder side, rebuilding became the only attractive path available the minute Paul George approached GM Sam Presti and requested a trade. Trading Westbrook—and getting picks for him, no less—helps accelerate that process and makes the new era official. Presti now enters the next with a truly obscene collection of draft assets. He also enters the next few years without any stars to anchor the new era and no guarantees that any of those draft assets will yield anyone remotely comparable to the stars that made this team relevant for the past decade. The Thunder already hit the jackpot once; doing it again, even with all those picks, will be really difficult.
On Houston's side, Morey and the Rockets entered this offseason with urgency that was hard to explain. Again, the Rockets played the Warriors close two years in a row, and they were in position to bring almost everyone back. Why, then, was it worthwhile to try to gut the supporting cast and pursue a far-fetched sign-and-trade for Jimmy Butler? And then two weeks later... why Westbrook?
Westbrook's contract (four years, $171 million remaining) is no less daunting than Paul's (three years, $124 million). His jump-shooting last season fell well below his career averages. His defense has been a problem for years. His decision-making, particularly in the playoffs, has been impossible to defend at various points over the past several seasons. The Rockets had a front row seat to that show two years ago, when Westbrook finished Game 5 of the Rockets-Thunder series by going 15-of-34 for 47 points, 5-of-18 from three, and 2 of 10 in the fourth quarter.
Isolating that 2017 performance might seem unfair, but that kind of game is generally how Westbrook ends every season. I like Westbrook more than his critics do and would argue his flaws don't mean he's anything less than a generation-defining player, but for a team that's trying to win a title, his value is a lot more complicated than the average All-NBA talent. His worst instincts have gone unchecked for years in OKC, and the holes in his game and the flaws in his approach have cost the Thunder at crucial times.
At 30 years old with plenty of clear weaknesses, it's fair to worry about declining explosion and wonder how much longer Westbrook will be able to rely on his strengths. As for Houston, the worry is that we'll look back at this trade as an impulsive shot in the dark near the end of a title window that never quite delivered on its promise. Moving Westbrook over the next few years won’t be much easier than moving Paul would have been; instead of revitalizing the current Rockets era, this could be the move that seals its fate.
But maybe this a buy-low gamble will work better than the critics can imagine right now. Westbrook isn't perfect, but there's still more good than bad. He’s one of the most physically gifted players the NBA has seen this century, he brings unparalleled energy every night, and his arrival could very easily provide the kind of jolt that helps the Rockets win 55 games and finish at the top of the West next season. He and Harden can platoon the same way Paul and Harden once did, but Westbrook's more explosive than Paul ever was. When Westbrook and Harden share the court together, Harden can be lethal off-ball threat as a shooter, or Westbrook can terrorize teams attacking closeouts as a secondary scorer. The partnership comes with questions about sharing the ball and adjusting to new roles, but nobody should underplay how many problems these two can create for defenses every night.
This will be the first time in years that Westbrook will enter a season with real shooters around him. His kick-outs to the perimeter should be more effective with Eric Gordon and PJ Tucker than they were with Alex Abrines and Jerami Grant, and that spacing should also give him plenty of room to crash into a wide-open lane to create offense at the rim. Particularly if Westbrook is healthier than he was last season—he seemed to spend the first half of the season shaking off some rust after September knee surgery—it's not inconceivable that he has a phenomenal year in Mike D'Antoni's system.
There will be questions for Houston to answer in the playoffs, but that was going to be true regardless of which star was playing next to Harden. The questions and doubts may be different with Westbrook in Paul's place—will teams respect Russ’ jumpshot? Will Russ find ways to impact the end of games with Harden dominating the ball?—but the central point is that Houston has more raw talent today than it did yesterday. This is a bet on starpower over fit, and particularly if the Rockets thought Paul was declining, it makes sense to gamble on moves that can raise the ceiling while Harden is still dominant. What's more, the Rockets surrendered multiple picks to get Westbrook, but they kept this year's first-rounder. They can still sign-and-trade Iman Shumpert later this summer, an option that would afford them flexibility to match salaries in trades for another rotation piece. Whatever happens, because this is Morey and the Rockets, it's a safe bet that changes on the margins will continue all the way through next year's playoffs.
The big change has already happened, of course. Harden said he knew exactly what needed to be done, and now Westbrook is on his way to Houston. That leads us to one, final way to explain the Rockets going forward.
There will be questions all year long about how much Westbrook can adapt his game to thrive off the ball, whether this plan can work in the playoffs, and how successful Houston can be. It's obvious that Westbrook will have to embrace a new role as he shifts from cornerstone to sidekick. But Harden comes with questions of his own. Before that press conference in May, he lost at home to the KD-less Warriors and finished 11-of-25 from the field. He was 7 for 12 from the free throw line, with six turnovers. It was another in a long line of playoff performances that are hard to explain and may be indicative of a flaw in approach as much as execution. In general, Harden has rarely been active as a threat without the ball in Houston, he can look strangely casual in big moments, his playoff offense can become shockingly one-dimensional considering how skilled he is as a scorer, and all along, Houston has indulged Harden’s whims in much the same way that OKC did with Westbrook.
It's understandable if the Rockets decided that adding Westbrook was a better alternative than running it back with another year of Paul battling injuries and needling his MVP teammate, but it's worth remembering that Paul couldn't possibly have been wrong about everything. If Houston wants to optimize its title chances during the rest of Harden's prime, Westbrook's probably not the only one who will have to evolve.