Thunder win trade, but can Rockets win big with Russell Westbrook, James Harden?

Kurt Helin

Nobody pivots like Sam Presti.

One year ago, the Thunder GM won big getting Paul George to re-sign in Oklahoma City, pairing him with Russell Westbrook, and creating an interesting — if not quite as good as they imagined — team. It was a triumph of the small market. A year later George demands a trade to the Clippers (to go home and team up with Kawhi Leonard) and it forces Presti and the Thunder to pivot, which included bringing in Westbrook to have a conversation about what he wanted next. What he wanted was to get out.

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The blockbuster trade came down Thursday and Westbrook is now a member of the Rockets, paired with James Harden again. In the trade, the Thunder take on Chris Paul and get protected first-round picks in 2024 and 2026, and the rights to swap picks in 2021 and 2025.

Those picks are why the Thunder win this trade — in a swap of oversized contracts, the Thunder got the worse one but got a lot of compensation for it. Combined with what they got in the Paul George and Jeremi Grant trades, Oklahoma City has pivoted to rebuilding brilliantly and has a treasure chest of picks that makes Danny Ainge look like an amateur. (Paul will be traded again, maybe to Miami, and when all is said and done the Thunder will be out of the luxury tax and have a lot of picks.) Just how many draft picks do the Thunder have right now?


Maybe the Thunder won the trade on paper, but the Rockets believe they can win with this trade. As in a title.

Can they really?

In a vacuum, Westbrook is a better player right now than Chris Paul. He’s younger, more athletic, is more durable, puts up better numbers offensively, and has not shown the same decline in skills as CP3. Westbrook is unquestionably an upgrade at the point guard position for the Rockets.

Houston, however, is not in a vacuum, they already have James Harden dominating the ball and doing it better than anyone in the NBA. The league office continues to insist that only one ball be used at a time, and that gets to the big question about how far the Rockets can go with Westbrook and Harden (two players with the highest single-season usage rates in NBA history, and they were first and 10th in the league last year in usage rate).

The Rockets will be the ultimate version of “my turn, your turn” basketball. Rockets backers will point out that both are very good in isolation and can play off the ball. For example, Westbrook played off the ball more last season, particularly early on (when George was hot and establishing himself as an MVP candidate). That is true, however, Westbrook also shot 33 percent on catch-and-shoot threes last season. Not an impressive number. We already saw last year with the Thunder, when George had the ball teams helped off Westbrook, not afraid he could make them pay with a jump shot.

When Harden is off the ball, he tends to stand a lot out near halfcourt and conserve energy. He’s not going to be confused with Klay Thompson or J.J.  Redick the way he moves. That said, the man can shoot threes and will be someone defenses have to watch, but mostly Harden will just be watching.

The problem for lame-duck coach Mike D’Antoni and the Houston offense is spacing. With center Clint Capela paired with Westbrook and Harden, it only leaves a couple of guys (Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker) that are true catch-and-shoot threats. Defenses will collapse and help off non-shooters, clogging the lane.

Maybe it all comes together for Houston. Maybe “my turn, your turn” basketball works when you have two of the best isolation players in the game taking turns. Houston was the second-best team in the West the last two years and just upgraded at the point guard spot. They certainly are in the title contention mix in a West that has so many duos it feels like NBA Jam.

But it may be a lateral move for the Rockets — they got more talent, but we need to see the fit before fully buying into the Rockets as elite contenders who could knock off the Clippers/Jazz/Lakers.

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