The NBA’s wild offseason took another turn Thursday when the Oklahoma City Thunder traded Russell Westbrook, the 2017 MVP, to the Houston Rockets for veteran point guard Chris Paul and a haul of draft picks.
In addition to Paul, the Thunder will receive first-round picks in 2024 and 2026 plus the right to swap first-round picks in 2021 and 2025, with top-four protections on the picks. The trade was first reported by ESPN and confirmed by The Post.
Oklahoma City traded away its other all-star player, Paul George, last week, teaming him up with Kawhi Leonard on the Los Angeles Clippers. The Thunder also received a massive allotment of draft capital in that deal and now appears well-positioned to wheel and deal its way though an extensive rebuilding project.
For the Rockets, acquiring the 30-year-old Westbrook represents another big swing for a franchise still looking to provide enough help for James Harden to get to the NBA Finals. The trade could also alleviate locker-room issues following reports of tension last season between Harden and Paul.
The trade immediately raised questions as well about the possibly combustible chemistry, at least on the court, between Westbrook and Harden, the 2018 MVP. Both players are perennially among the league leaders in usage rate and Rockets Coach Mike D’Antoni will have his work cut out for him making sure his two star guards feel as if they’re getting the ball enough, which was rumored to be among Paul’s complaints.
In addition, Westbrook is a poor outside shooter — he shot just 29 percent from three-point range last season and has a career mark of 30.8 — and thus might not be much help when Harden drives into the paint and looks for an open teammate. Neither player is a well-regarded on-ball defender and thus Houston could have trouble slowing down opposing guards when both are on the floor.
Still, Westbrook and Harden can each create plenty of offense, and their pairing should put pressure on opposing defenses. In addition, Westbrook could take some of the workload off Harden, possibly even allowing for some Leonard-style “load management” in a way the older and more injury-prone Paul could not.
“I said at the end of the year we’re never going to stand pat,” Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta told Houston’s FOX 26. “We’re always going try to get better. I think this makes us a better team. I hate to lose Chris Paul, but we felt like we did what we had to do to become a better team.”
“James and Russell wanted to play together,” Fertitta added. “It ought to be fun this year.”
Westbrook and Harden squared off in youth-league games in their native Los Angeles and then spent three seasons as teammates in Oklahoma City after the Thunder made Harden the third pick in the 2009 draft. Westbrook was the team’s No. 4 pick the year before and went on to become a beloved athlete in Oklahoma City, all the more so after Kevin Durant left the Thunder for the rival Golden State Warriors as a 2016 free agent.
For his part, Paul built up some goodwill in Oklahoma City when he played there from 2005 to 2007, after his New Orleans Hornets were forced to temporarily relocate in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Houston is taking on one of the few NBA contracts potentially more onerous than that of the 34-year-old Paul, who is set to make annual salaries of approximately $38.5 million, $41.4 million and $44.2 million over the next three seasons. Westbrook has one more year than that on his deal, with the same annual salaries over the next three seasons, and a player option worth $47 million in 2022-23.
In the George trade, Oklahoma City received five first-round picks and the right to swap two more. Now the team could have a whopping 15 first-round picks over the next seven drafts, give or take some selections with protections related to where they fall in those drafts, plus several pick swaps.
It remains to be seen if Paul stays with the Thunder through a rebuilding project in which he could mentor talented young point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who came over in the George trade. Otherwise, Oklahoma City could try to move him to another team, although his contract could be an obstacle unless a buyout agreement is reached.
Alternatively, the Thunder might opt to dip into its war chest of draft picks to coax another team into taking Paul off its hands. The Athletic reported Thursday that Paul’s agent, Leon Rose, was set to discuss his client’s fate with Thunder General Manager Sam Presti, and that the Miami Heat could be a possible destination.
In other words, another major move could be in the offing for the NBA, which has barely recovered its breath from the surprise of George getting attached to Leonard’s blockbuster addition to the Clippersp.
Before that, the NBA’s headline-making offseason transactions included: Anthony Davis getting traded from the New Orleans Pelicans to the Los Angeles Lakers with Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram included in a package going the other way; Durant and Kyrie Irving signing with the Brooklyn Nets with Irving leaving the Boston Celtics and D’Angelo Russell going from the Nets to the Warriors; Kemba Walker leaving the Charlotte Hornets to join the Celtics; Al Horford leaving the Celtics to join the Philadelphia 76ers; Jimmy Butler defecting from the 76ers to the Heat; and the Indiana Pacers poaching Malcolm Brogdon from the Milwaukee Bucks.
“This League is crazy y’all. … But y’all already knew that!” Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young tweeted Thursday evening.
Free agent guard Jamal Crawford agreed, exclaiming on Twitter, “Craziest NBA summer by far. … And Summer just started a few [weeks] ago!! WOW.”
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