The Oklahoma City Thunder didn’t want to trade Russell Westbrook, exactly. They signed him to a five-year, $205 million supermax contract extension in 2017 with the intention of building a championship team around him, Paul George and Steven Adams. One year ago, the mere existence of that core felt like a minor miracle, borne of general manager Sam Presti’s bold trade for George and a season spent showing the superstar that Oklahoma City could feel like home. For a front office that had executed perhaps the greatest rebuilding job in NBA history — drafting Kevin Durant, Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and James Harden in three years — and seen it dissolve after a Finals loss, a blockbuster trade, devastating injuries and heartbreaking losses, George represented a second chance. After George asked out, Presti had to sacrifice Westbrook to get a third.
There is something deeply strange about Westbrook reuniting with Harden as a member of the Houston Rockets and Chris Paul going back to the place where he played in 2005-06 as a member of the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets. Westbrook was a rookie in the Thunder’s first season. It feels almost metaphorical: As the organization turns the page on its first 11 years, Paul returns as a reminder of what life was like before the city had its own team. Now, as then, Paul might not be around for long. This time, though, the franchise is on solid ground.
Along with Paul, the Thunder acquired the Rockets’ first-round picks in 2024 and 2026 (both top-four protected) and swap rights in 2021 and 2025, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Combine that with their haul from the Los Angeles Clippers in the George trade and the first-rounder they got from the Denver Nuggets for Jerami Grant, and they have acquired eight first-round picks and four pick swaps this offseason. If they choose, they can trade Paul, Adams and Danilo Gallinari and bottom out. Their collection of future picks, however, means that they don’t necessarily have to.
Given that Westbrook will make $47 million in 2022-23 and is coming off an abysmal shooting season, my initial reaction to this trade was stunned disbelief. Paul, of course, will be making $44.2 million in 2021-22 and reportedly had issues with Harden last season, but are the Rockets sure that Westbrook will make them materially better? At the very least, his presence likely necessitates a stylistic shift, as he will not do them any good by standing on the perimeter while Harden isolates. Whether that shift was overdue anyway is a matter of opinion, as are the relative merits of these two point guards as leaders.
Even if Westbrook fits better in Houston than I anticipate, I will have questions about them sending away all those picks and swaps. On the Thunder’s side of the deal, I have fewer questions. This is an organization that has tried to accommodate Westbrook for years, prioritizing athleticism and length and speed at the expense of spacing, passing and unpredictability. Oklahoma City at times looked like an elite team last season, but it was on the strength of its team defense and George’s phenomenal efficiency. We saw what The Westbrook Show looked like in 2016-17: As spectacular as it could be, the Thunder had a league-average offense and were not going anywhere. It would have been pointless to revisit that. The only thing I’m curious about is what other offers were on the table, and how Oklahoma City weighed the draft compensation from the Rockets against more potential salary-cap relief from other organizations.
When players change teams, they often talk about needing a fresh start. In this case, the Thunder needed one as much as their franchise player did. No longer will they have to try to work the margins to find players who complement Westbrook, and no longer will they have to ask themselves if simply doing what they do, but better, will ever be good enough. Even in the best of times, Oklahoma City has run a relatively unimaginative offense, and the roster has needed more wings who can both shoot and play defense so the coach doesn’t have to sacrifice one for the other. No one knows what the next era of Thunder basketball will look like, but Presti has ensured that he will be able to build something entirely new. The last time he was in this position, it worked out pretty well.