The Oklahoma City Thunder entered the decade set up better than practically any other team in basketball. They had three young stars in Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and James Harden. Yes, they had the new big three in Miami to deal with, but for the most part, the path to a championship, or championships, seemed quite clear. The conference was partially in decline. Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki were still winning, yes, but that wouldn’t continue for 10 more years. Steve Nash and Tim Duncan were getting up there in age too. Once those guys moved into their twilight years, the Thunder were going to be the league’s next best team. With its next best players.
For the most part, the last sentence was correct.
OKC will exit the decade with zero of those three players – Durant, Harden and Westbrook – on their roster. One they traded away for nothing, one left for nothing because the first one was traded for nothing, and the last, somehow, was traded for much more value than the first two.
Oh, and somehow the two that were traded away ended up on the same team.
Not how OKC planned it.
The Thunder’s trade of Westbrook to the Houston Rockets for Chris Paul, the Rockets’ first round picks in 2024 and 2026 (Both are protected 1-4) and the right to swap picks in 2021 and 2025 concludes their big three era, which ended with zero championships and just one NBA Finals appearance, despite all three of those players winning a MVP at some point in the decade. It will go down as one of the biggest NBA tragedies ever.
Practically nothing will make-up for that. Despite his promise and potential, it won’t be Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. It likely won’t be the insane bevy of draft picks they’ve landed from the trades of Paul George and Westbrook. It won’t be the extra year of Westbrook’s contract that the Thunder shed in return for CP3’s own albatross.
But if you’re evaluating OKC’s moves in a vacuum, in a place where they have an incredibly overvalued, pure travesty of an asset in Westbrook, then it’s really not all that bad. Sure, the Thunder have to postpone a rebuild for likely three years due to CP3’s deal. But they got off of a contract that was actually worse. With Russ, you risk other guys developing bad habits and having their games changed by the way Russ plays. The Thunder got four first round picks in order to not have that happen.
OKC can, at worst, remain a semi-competitive team until the Paul deal is up while wisely using their draft picks to build for the post-CP3/SGA era. By then, the Thunder should be back and ready to go. And they’ll still have three years left of picks rolling in from the Clippers and Rockets.
How good will those picks be? I covered the Clippers side of that here. The Rockets picks, however, might be a different story.
Westbrook and Harden might have been the two unlikeliest players of the original OKC trio to end back up together. With Russ and Durant alone, it was successful for a couple seasons until Durant realized he could have much better and nicer things in life, which included a better basketball situation. With Harden and Durant alone, you would have been looking at possibly one of the most explosive, efficient and dynamic offensive duos ever. You want to talk about unstoppable? What happens when those two run a pick-and-roll? Or when both of their jumpers are cooking?
With Westbrook and Harden, it’s hard to find common ground. Both players dominate the basketball; they’re literally the top two players in the league when it comes to how much they have the ball in their hands. One can’t shoot it from beyond the arc, or shoot it like at all. The other doesn’t player defense; really neither of them do when the effort is poor. One is the most selfish player in the league because he wants to be. The other is one of the most selfish because he has to be.
I’m sure this is going to work out great.
That worked out well. Now Houston is going to try a player who fits even worse with Harden?
That’s why Houston mortgaging their future picks is a lot riskier than the Clippers mortgaging even more of their’s. Despite the Clippers’ extending a year extra, and being less protected, the Clippers have younger stars (Kawhi Leonard is barely 28 and Paul George is 29 while Harden is 29 and Westbrook is 30) and a more attractive place to play basketball. Despite them being the little brother Clippers, it’s still LA. It didn’t stop Kawhi from going there, and if they have the success they should have with their new superstar duo, then the Clippers won’t be the little brother anymore.
Plus, Westbrook is the type of player who’s likely to age horribly. He already can’t shoot; that won’t get any better. His insane, freakish athleticism has already caused him injuries, and as his body breaks down even further, it’ll reduce his availability and defensive impact. All of that on a massive four year, $170 million contract.
The Rockets dumped CP3 and had to move four first round picks for a worse player, and contract, to pair with Harden. That feels like complete incompetence, and was the opposite of everything I’ve preached about when it came to Westbrook’s deal: you don’t give up anything of value for it.
But at the same time, doesn’t it feel like Houston maybe got a tad better despite the chemistry concerns and misguided asset management? Doesn’t the rejuvenation of of part of the original OKC core get you a little excited? Doesn’t Westbrook make more of an impact than 34-year-old Chris Paul, who seems to be breaking down?
Westbrook brings impact. He brings oomph. He brings electricity. Will it work? Likely not. I can’t wait for the reports about the unhappiness of Westbrook in his role a month into the season. But if you’re Houston, and you just lost to Golden State, a team that was without arguably the best player in the league, in the second (!!!) round of the playoffs, practically anything is worth it at this point. Were there any real answers?