SALT LAKE CITY — The NBA’s wild offseason got even crazier late Thursday when it was reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski that the Oklahoma City Thunder had agreed to trade 2017 league MVP Russell Westbrook to the Houston Rockets for Chris Paul and draft picks.
The trade comes on the heels of the Thunder agreeing to send Paul George to the LA Clippers last week (that trade was finalized earlier this week). It has big ramifications for both Houston and Oklahoma City, but will it also change the landscape of the Western Conference and the Utah Jazz’s place in it?
Starting with the Rockets, they finished last season fourth in the West, beating the fifth-seeded Jazz in the first round of the playoffs before falling to the top-seeded Golden State Warriors in the second round.
After the season, it was reported by Yahoo’s Vincent Goodwill that Paul had demanded to be traded. Houston management denied the report, but other reports surfaced that general manager Daryl Morey wanted to make a big splash in the offseason (he always wants to), with Jimmy Butler a reported target even though the Rockets weren’t in financial position to do a deal for him assuming Paul wouldn’t be involved.
By acquiring Westbrook, however, Morey has indeed made a big move, which worked as two gigantic contracts were swapped (Westbrook is under contract until a player option in 2022 worth $47 million and Paul’s deal goes until a player option in 2021 worth $44.2 million).
The deal reunites Westbrook with 2018 MVP James Harden, as the two were teammates on the Thunder from 2009-2012. The big question of the deal becomes whether they can successfully play together (Harden came off the bench in Oklahoma City). They are both incredibly high-usage players who want the ball. Can they learn to share it while also involving their teammates?
On the other side of the ball, neither Westbrook nor Harden have been counted on to be good defensively. Will they be able to slow backcourts such as Portland’s Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum and Utah’s Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell?
All of that being said, the potential reward is high. Good teams have good backcourts, and Houston has the chance to have a great one if head coach Mike D’Antoni can figure out how to mesh Harden’s and Westbrook’s talents.
For Oklahoma City, the deal is an interesting one. The Thunder’s salary cap sheet was a disaster heading into the summer, especially for a squad that didn’t appear capable of truly contending, but moves made before Thursday for young players, expiring contracts and draft picks put them in better shape moving forward.
Perhaps Oklahoma City felt like it had to trade Westbrook after dealing George, but Paul’s contract isn’t in line with the other moves the Thunder have made, and his presence on the roster is counter to the idea of developing recently acquired young point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (acquired in the George trade after an excellent rookie season).
Will general manager Sam Presti try to trade Paul using draft picks as incentive for another team to take on his contract?
Another school of thought in Oklahoma City could be that while Presti has appeared headed for a rebuild, Paul, Steven Adams, Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari (acquired in the George trade) and some of the bench players make up a decent group. Is it good enough to make the playoffs in a stacked Western Conference?
Speaking of the West in general, does the trade change where teams might finish in the standings? Houston certainly got more interesting, but did it get better by replacing Paul with Westbrook? Are the Rockets now better than the Jazz after the strong past few weeks Utah has had? If so, will Houston challenge the two Los Angeles teams that have both formed All-Star duos? Where will the Warriors finish after the end of a special era? Who will claim the last playoff spots?
Maybe the biggest question at this point: Are there anymore blockbuster moves out there that will make this offseason even crazier?