Trade Analysis: Russell Westbrook to Houston, Chris Paul and picks to Oklahoma City

When Sam Presti hits the reset button, he hits it with about as much authority as anybody in the NBA. A week ago, the Thunder were deep into repeater tax hell but looking to keep their three best players together for another playoff run next season. Three consecutive disappointing first round losses had left Oklahoma City searching for answers and searching for avenues to save some cash, as ownership had paid top dollar for a team that hadn’t won a playoff series since Kevin Durant bolted for Golden State in 2016. Despite the relative lack of success, the team had convinced Paul George to stay in 2018 after trading for him the year prior and it looked like the Thunder would have a few years to figure things out; all it would take was one deep playoff run to justify all the spending and work they had put into the team.

Instead, Oklahoma City has moved on from their two stars and a role player in Jerami Grant and will be actively shopping the rest of their highly-paid core to shed salary and pick up as many future draft assets as possible. The moves started with the absolutely massive haul they got from the LA Clippers for George, continued early this week with the Grant trade to Denver, and became crystal clear on Thursday night, when they traded franchise icon Russell Westbrook to the Houston Rockets for Chris Paul.

The terms of the three trades, so that we have them at the outset:

On July 5, Oklahoma City agreed to trade Paul George to the LA Clippers for Danilo Gallinari, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and a whole bunch of draft picks: unprotected picks from Miami in 2021 and LA in 2022, 2024, and 2026, along with Miami’s 2023 protected pick and swap rights with the Clippers in 2023 and 2025.

On July 8, Oklahoma City traded Jerami Grant to the Denver Nuggets for a 2020 first-round pick, protected for the top ten selections for three years, converting to two second-rounders if it’s not conveyed by 2022.

On July 11, Oklahoma City traded Russell Westbrook to the Houston Rockets for Chris Paul and another bundle of picks: a 2021 pick swap, protected for the top four selections, a pair of top-four protected picks in 2024 and 2026, and another pick swap in 2025, this one top-20 protected.

The end result was three players out the door and three players in, alongside an historic haul of draft picks: four unprotected first-rounders and a further four protected firsts, plus swap rights all over the place with LA and Houston. The Thunder were saddled with a middling playoff contender with a massive wage bill this time last week; now, they have one of the brightest long-term futures in the league, even if that long-term future will more than a half-decade to really come to fruition.

The George trade was a no-brainer, even if it was followed by further moves that eroded the core of the team and eventually led to the departure of Westbrook. George asked to be moved to LA to team up with Kawhi Leonard and the Thunder were happy to accommodate him, particularly when it was clear the Clippers were willing to give up nearly every pick they were legally allowed to trade in order to make the deal happen.

Moving Grant to Denver might not have been Oklahoma City’s idea, as he would still have had value as the team transitioned away from the Westbrook-George era, but when the Nuggets came with a protected first-rounder that seems overwhelmingly likely to convey in 2020, the move made a lot of sense for the Thunder. Grant is on a very good contract and is still developing as an outside shooter on top of his athleticism, finishing, and defensive versatility. This sort of move is exactly what Denver should be doing with their trade exceptions, as I’ve written about in the past.

Westbrook’s exit cuts a little deeper because of what he means to the fans and how well he’s represented the club throughout his career. He was the Superstar Who Stayed after Durant left for the Warriors and was well on his way to being a career-long member of the organization and having a statue built outside their arena someday. Given how things have transpired, he’ll still get that statue and nobody will ever wear No. 0 for the franchise again, but it has to be a bitter pill for the people of Oklahoma City and the organization to have to trade him.

If the Thunder had to move Westbrook, this is exactly the sort of deal that made sense for them. In Paul, they have a player and contract that is just about as difficult to trade as Westbrook, plus they’ve picked up two firsts and two swap rights for their trouble. The gargantuan money both players make was always going to make trading them difficult, so Oklahoma City has done extremely well to flip Westbrook, who has $171 million left on his contract over the next four years, for Paul, who has $124 million left over three years. Westbrook is the better player at this point in their respective careers, but is he so much better that he offsets the extra $47 million and fetches two picks and two further swap rights? Houston obviously thinks so, even if the market across the rest of the league likely did not agree on that assessment.

We’ll have further clarification on just how far Paul’s market value as fallen, as the Thunder will likely look to move him once again. Miami has emerged as the odds-on favorite to be Paul’s next destination, as they’re doing everything within their power to compete after acquiring Jimmy Butler earlier this summer. They’ll have a lot of trouble trading for him with their hard cap issues, but they also have numerous salaries they can send back to Oklahoma City or to a third team that can add up to Paul’s $38.5 million salary. Adding draft compensation will be complicated for the Heat, since they have essentially nothing they can attach to trade for Paul, but they have a few young players who may be of interest to the Thunder as they embark on a multi-year rebuilding process. Then again, Miami might not be willing to give up significant assets for Paul, who was just traded as a deeply negative asset; the Heat also weren’t willing to give up a lot in a Westbrook swap, so it’s unlikely they’ll want to do the same for Paul, even if they get desperate.

Oklahoma City’s in full rebuild mode and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see other veterans moved for whatever assets the Thunder can acquire – Steven Adams should still have positive value on his contract with two years and $53.4 million left on his deal and Danilo Gallinari may ask his new employers to cut him loose with $22.6 million owed to him for the 2019-20 season before he hits free agency. Finding a new home for Dennis Schröder will be more difficult, as he’s wildly overpaid with $31 million left over the next two years, but the Thunder can also move him into a starting role this season in an attempt to drum up trade interest ahead of next summer, when teams will have lots of money and very few high-end free agents on which to spend that money.

From Houston’s side, this is a continuation of a lifelong Daryl Morey philosophy: get as much talent as possible, fit be damned. I’ve written more on the fit between Westbrook and James Harden over at The Basketball Writers, so I won’t repeat myself here, but the value play here is immensely interesting. In my writeup of the Mike Conley trade that brought him to Utah, I theorized that when the players are as good as Conley is, the value against their contracts doesn’t quite matter as much, as the scarcity of high-level players outweighs any negative value presented in a vacuum by their contract. That theory doesn’t quite apply to this trade because the Rockets gave up one of those players in Paul to get another in Westbrook, so it’s mostly a wash from that perspective, even if Westbrook is a better player than Paul despite being a slightly worse fit for Houston.

Quite frankly, the asset play in this trade is really, really bad for the Rockets. Westbrook is a marginal upgrade (at best, and he may not even be that) over Paul on the court, and trading for him just added another $47.1 million to their long-term obligations. For their trouble, Houston had to send Oklahoma City two very lightly protected firsts and two more pick swaps in a deal that just reeks of a desperate team willing to mortgage every ounce of their future. In any rational world, there’s absolutely no way that Westbrook over Paul is worth taking on all that extra money AND sending out two firsts and two pick swaps, but Houston fell into the same trap we’ve seen from many, many teams this offseason. Whether it was the draft or the trades and signings in early July, numerous desperate teams were taken advantage of by teams or agents willing to pounce on their desperation. We can add Houston’s name to that list, as they drastically overcompensated the Thunder in this deal in their attempt to slightly upgrade their overall roster talent.

I firmly believe Westbrook will make them better, but by how much and whether the trade is worth it in a vacuum is probably still going to come out against the Rockets overall. Then again, if he makes the team better and they make the Finals or win a title, then the pain on the back end with his extra year of pay and the picks they sent out won’t matter.