Winners, Losers, Takeaways from Shocking Russell Westbrook-Chris Paul Trade

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistJuly 12, 2019

HOUSTON, TX - FEBRUARY 09:  Chris Paul #3 of the Houston Rockets drives to the basket defended by Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first half at Toyota Center on February 9, 2019 in Houston, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
Tim Warner/Getty Images

As soon as the Oklahoma City Thunder traded Paul George to the Los Angeles Clippers, it was only a matter of time before Russell Westbrook would be moved, too. At that point, it only made sense for general manager Sam Presti to tear the Thunder down fully and rebuild from scratch.

The part nobody expected, though, was for this to be the trade.

ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski and Royce Young reported Thursday evening that the Thunder agreed to send Westbrook to the Houston Rockets for Chris Paul, two future first-round picks (2024 and 2026) and two future pick swaps (2021 and 2025).

Westbrook now reunites with James Harden, his Oklahoma City teammate from 2009 through 2012. Paul's supposedly unmovable three-year, $124.1 million contract is in Oklahoma City now, where it may or may not stay. There's a lot to sort through on all sides, but here are the initial winners and losers.

    

Winner: Russell Westbrook

Aaron Gash/Associated Press

Westbrook signed a five-year, $205 million extension with the Thunder in September 2017, just over a year after Kevin Durant left for the Golden State Warriors. It was a statement of his loyalty to the small market that drafted him, of his intention to stay there the rest of his career.

Things change, however. And when Oklahoma City was put in an impossible position with George last week, it made sense for both Westbrook and the Thunder to decide it was time to move on, as well.

Now, Westbrook upgrades from a Thunder team going nowhere to a Rockets team with every intention of staying in the title mix. He gets to play with Harden again, and Houston still has a solid supporting cast including Clint Capela, Eric Gordon and PJ Tucker. How all those pieces will fit together is a valid question, but this is clearly a better situation for Westbrook than staying in Oklahoma City would have been.

     

Loser: Mike D'Antoni

Tyler Kaufman/Associated Press

The man who will be charged with making the Harden-Westbrook combination work is D'Antoni, who has plenty of other things to worry about as it stands.

He's on a lame-duck contract after negotiations on an extension with the Rockets broke down. Almost his entire coaching staff was pulled out from under him this spring, including well-regarded assistants Jeff Bzdelik (fired) and Roy Rogers (mutual agreement to part ways). His future in Houston is very much up in the air.

And now, there will be more pressure on him than ever to make an awkward pairing of superstars fit.

Paul, for all his injury-related question marks, can still shoot. Westbrook just had his worst shooting season since 2010, hitting just 29 percent of his three-pointers. With so much of D'Antoni's philosophy built on marksmanship, the fit is far from perfect. And with Harden and Westbrook both under contract for years to come, the head coach will be the fall guy if they underperform together.

     

Winner: Sam Presti

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

The Thunder general manager turned an unenviable situation—two superstars, including an 11-year pillar of his franchise, wanting out—into an incredible foundation for a rebuild. In the George trade last week, he received promising young guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander from the Clippers along with veteran forward Danilo Gallinari and a slew of first-round picks. He added even more picks and swaps to that collection with the Westbrook-for-Paul trade, along with a protected first-rounder from the Denver Nuggets in the Jerami Grant trade.

This is what Presti's collection of future picks looks like as of now:

Of course, there's no guarantee any of the players he drafts with those picks will be close to as good as Westbrook or George. It's highly likely they won't be. But the collection gives him the flexibility to go any way he wants with this rebuild.

If he wants to pair Paul with another star (let's say the Washington Wizards change their minds about making Bradley Beal available, for example), he'll have as much to offer as anybody. If he wants to go young and build through the draft, well, he did that once before with the Durant-Westbrook-Harden-Serge Ibaka run. And he still has parts to sell off for more picks if he wants to go that way, including Gallinari and center Steven Adams.

The Thunder won't be contending in the next few years, but they're in a great spot for the future thanks to Presti's smart and aggressive dealmaking.

      

Loser: Chris Paul

Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

For all the talk of Paul and Harden clashing in Houston, the Rockets still had enough talent on paper to contend in the wide-open Western Conference. Paul's new team does not, nor is it trying to win a title right now.

Paul does have a history in Oklahoma City—the Hornets played their home games there for the first two years of his career from 2005-07 while their arena in New Orleans was unusable in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. But for where he is in his career, 34 years old with just one Western Conference Finals appearance to his name, this is a downgraded basketball situation for him. His best hope is for Presti to turn around and flip him to another contender—if he can find one willing to take his contract.

      

Winner: Daryl Morey

Pat Sullivan/Associated Press

Four times in his impressive career as Rockets general manager, Morey has defied the odds and brought a superstar to Houston.

In October 2012, he pounced on Oklahoma City's reluctance to pay Harden and landed a future MVP. The following summer, he lured Dwight Howard away from the Los Angeles Lakers to pair with Harden. When that duo ran its course, he pivoted and engineered a trade for Paul from the Clippers, building a 65-win team that took the Warriors to seven games in the 2018 Western Conference Finals. And now, he's landed Westbrook for an aging, oft-injured version of Paul.

Morey gave up a lot of draft picks in this trade. But with all the organizational turmoil in Houston—including D'Antoni's situation and owner Tilman Fertitta's potential reluctance to go into the luxury tax—there's a chance he won't still be there by the time the future picks owed to the Thunder come around.

If he chooses to leave down the road, Morey could get almost any NBA front-office job he wants, and he'll bring with him a reputation as one of the boldest, most innovative general managers of his time who can never be counted out when it comes to landing big stars. That reputation is only bolstered by Thursday's deal for Westbrook.

This is a flawed trade for the Rockets. But it's a fantastic trade for Morey.

      

Loser: Miami Heat

MIAMI, FL - MARCH 26: Pat Riley, President of the Miami Heat, addresses the crowd during the jersey retirement ceremony for Chris Bosh at halftime of the game against the Orlando Magic on March 26, 2019 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE T
Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

Since Friday, the Heat had been the team most prominently linked to Westbrook in trade talks with the Thunder, and Wojnarowski reported the point guard was open to playing in Miami. Heat president Pat Riley already made one big splash this summer, landing Jimmy Butler in a sign-and-trade with the Philadelphia 76ers. Adding Westbrook would have given the Heat two stars, vaulting them into the contender conversation in the Eastern Conference.

Now, Westbrook is off the board, and the Heat will likely enter the season with their roster as presently constructed: Butler surrounded by a collection of decent-to-good players without much hope of breaking into the top tier in the East.

However, an interesting wrinkle here is the Heat as a possible candidate to trade for Paul if Oklahoma City decides to reroute him. They have the salaries to send back and match Paul's giant contract, and the asking price in terms of draft picks and young assets will be much lower for the 34-year-old Paul than for the 30-year-old Westbrook.

But that's all hypothetical at this point. Right now, Miami is on the outside of the party for Eastern Conference contention.

      

Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is currently based in Portland. Follow him on Twitter at @highkin.

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