Russell Westbrook trade grades: Rockets take huge gamble; Thunder lay foundation for rebuild

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Russell Westbrook trade grades: Rockets take huge gamble; Thunder lay foundation for rebuild

Russell Westbrook is a Rocket man, but this deal didn’t take a long, long time.

Less than a week after the Thunder traded Paul George to the Clippers, Oklahoma City sent Westbrook to the Rockets in exchange for Chris Paul plus multiple first-round picks and swaps, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Houston was reportedly searching for a third team as a Paul landing spot, but for now, he will be a member of the Thunder.

What does this trade mean for the Rockets and Thunder moving forward?

Here are the reported details of the deal and a breakdown of the short- and long-term ramifications for each side.

TRADE RUMORS: Will Chris Paul’s stay in OKC be short?

Russell Westbrook trade grades

Rockets receive: Russell Westbrook

Thunder receive: Chris Paul, future first-round picks (2024 and 2026), future pick swaps (2021 and 2025)

MORE: What happened last time Westbrook, Harden played together?

Rockets: C

The Rockets could have easily run it back for another year with James Harden and Paul leading the way, but general manager Daryl Morey opted to go all-in with Westbrook, Harden’s former Thunder teammate. Morey is the type of GM who likes to acquire as much talent as possible, then figure out the specifics later. This lines up perfectly with that strategy.

Westbrook earned a spot on the All-NBA Third Team for 2018-19 after averaging a triple-double for the third consecutive season (22.9 points, 11.1 rebounds and 10.7 assists). He remains one of the most ferocious, athletic drivers in the league, creating opportunities to score for himself and others. He shot a career-high 65 percent at the rim this past season and finished third in the NBA in drives behind Harden and DeMar DeRozan.

An elite rebounder at the guard position, Westbrook can go coast-to-coast and constantly put pressure on his opponents. He is a willing passer, and he should rack up plenty of assists with Harden, Eric Gordon and PJ Tucker on the perimeter and Clint Capela diving to the basket. Overall, despite his obvious flaws, Westbrook is clearly an impact player.

But it’s the nature of his flaws that makes this such a risky bet. His shooting has plummeted, even by his own standards. That’s a problem for a 3-point happy team like the Rockets.

While Westbrook is terrible on above-the-break 3-pointers (27.9 percent) in 2018-19, he actually was respectable from the corners (37.2 percent). He only took 51 total shots from the corners, though, and 359 above the break. That number needs to dip way down. Those crazy pull-ups with 20 seconds on the shot clock? Please stop.

There’s also the issue of whether Westbrook can cede the floor to Harden, and vice versa. They are both at their best with the ball. We’re talking about two guards with the highest single-season usage percentages in NBA history.

Harden will have to be a spot-up threat when Westbrook is initiating the offense. Harden only attempted 70 catch-and-shoot 3-pointers last season, but he did hit on 41.1 percent of them. (Westbrook was just under 32 percent on 166 such attempts.) At some point, these guys must throw in off-ball movement and cutting. They can’t treat every trip down to the wing or corner as a personal timeout.

MORE: NBA players react to Russell Westbrook-James Harden reunion

If anyone can steer Westbrook toward his offensive strengths, it’s Mike D’Antoni. The bigger question might be how Houston stops anyone. Paul topped all other point guards in ESPN’s Real Defensive Plus-Minus, and the Rockets’ defensive rating dropped nearly eight points per 100 possessions with Paul on the floor vs. off. Compare that to Westbrook, who finished 32nd in that same metric and saw the Thunder’s defense improve with him on the bench. It’s hard to envision Harden or Westbrook as anything more than solid defenders, so Tucker and Capela will have work to do.

Maybe Westbrook can truly change. He allowed George to spread his wings in OKC when he emerged as a legitimate MVP candidate, and Westbrook wasn’t a total sieve defensively. But he didn’t break his bad habits, and the Thunder flamed out in the first round again. Can a man who has been so particular about his approach, style, parking spot and pregame sandwiches for a decade learn to be less rigid?

Should this grand experiment fail, Morey will shoulder the blame. The Rockets would be stuck with Westbrook’s huge contract, which lasts a year beyond Paul’s and presents Westbrook with a whopping $47.1 million player option for 2022-23. If they start heading downhill early, those picks and swaps will loom large. (It’s crazy to think Houston had to tag those sweeteners onto Paul after signing him to a four-year deal just last summer.)

This trade isn’t an abomination. View it from Morey’s perspective, and it’s easier to understand why he did it. Westbrook is slightly underrated now because he is such an easy target.

But if this wasn’t a case of the Harden and Paul relationship being truly unsalvageable – ESPN’s Tim MacMahon says that didn’t factor into Houston’s decision – then it feels a bit too much like throwing something against a wall and hoping it sticks.

The previous Rockets core may have reached the NBA Finals with the Warriors out of the way. We’ll never know.

MORE: Rockets, Thunder see championship odds shift after trade

Thunder: A-

Westbrook leaves the Thunder with the most points, second-most assists and third-most rebounds in franchise history. The Thunder fans will certainly give him a standing ovation when he returns, and he can expect a statue outside of Chesapeake Energy Arena down the road. It’s a shame he couldn’t follow the Dirk Nowitzki path and wear the same uniform his entire career.

Sentiment aside, this was absolutely the right call by Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti. Concerns about Westbrook’s fit with a new team and his contract dinged his value, but Presti navigated through a trade negotiation without attaching an asset to Westbrook.

The Thunder now hold 15 first-round picks15 – over the next seven drafts when adding up their own plus the selections acquired via the George, Westbrook and Jerami Grant trades. Presti is going to be Mr. Steal Yo Pick for the next half-decade.

It’s possible the Clippers and Thunder picks never drop low enough to become prized prospects, but who knows where those teams will fall in the standings each season, or when the next steal of the draft will arrive? OKC can hope for a friendly bounce at future lottery drawings or use those first-rounders in other deals. Presti produced flexibility, and that’s exactly what any rebuilding team needs.

MORE: What trading Russell Westbrook means for Thunder’s rebuild

As for Paul, he isn’t the prime “Point God” seen during his Hornets and Clippers days. He is overpaid, but that doesn’t mean he can’t contribute to a winning team.

He averaged 15.6 points, 8.4 assists, 5.2 rebounds and 1.8 steals after the All-Star break last season. He scored 27 points (11-of-19 from the field), grabbed 11 rebounds and dished out six assists in the Rockets’ Game 6 loss to the Warriors, which eliminated Houston from the 2019 playoffs. There are some minutes left in those legs.

Paul could just be making a pit stop before another trade is executed. The Heat are a possibility for Paul, according to Wojnarowski, and Paul’s agent, Leon Rose, represents Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem. The connections are there.

Oklahoma City wants to avoid the luxury tax, so another move is coming, whether it involves Paul or another Thunder player. Fortunately for Presti, he has the picks to pull of any deal, big or small, should he consider it worthwhile.

Trading away two All-Stars in favor of a rebuild isn’t fun, especially when one of those players is an Oklahoma City icon. If it’s unavoidable, though, a return package of Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, seven first-rounders and four pick swaps should ease the pain.



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