Rockets' 'Desperation' Gave OKC Perfect Opportunity to Reset a Year Early

Howard Beck@@HowardBeckNBA Senior WriterJuly 13, 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

LAS VEGAS  It's tempting, as the deftly Photoshopped images of Russell Westbrook and James Harden fill our Twitter timelines, to view the NBA's latest blockbuster through a purely sentimental lens.

As a reunion of friends, the renewal of a partnership. As a chance to recapture past glory. Even as a bit of poetic symmetry.

Once upon a time, the Houston Rockets extracted Harden from Oklahoma City, reviving one franchise while downgrading the other. Now it's Westbrook making the southward trek to join his former teammate, reforging old bonds, redistributing power once again.

The Rockets see the outline of a contender, powered by twin MVPs.

The Thunder are pondering the end of an eraseven years after a rousing Finals run with Harden, Westbrook and Kevin Durant.

The swap of Chris Paul for Westbrook (first reported by ESPN and confirmed by B/R) is not, however, an exercise in nostalgia. It's about desperation, power and ice-cold pragmatism.

The Thunder jettisoned the last of their superstars because it was the only rational thing to do after granting Paul George's trade request a few days prior and because Westbrook had taken them as far as he could, which wasn't nearly far enough.

The clock was already ticking loudly on the Westbrook era, with team officials quietly preparing to hit the reset button next summer, per sources, after one more run. George's surprise trade request simply accelerated the processand freed the Thunder to make the moves they knew were overdue for a team that couldn't win a playoff series.

Trading Westbrook two weeks ago might have sparked a ferocious backlash. Trading him now just comes across as common sense, a transactional sigh of resignation. But as rival executives see it, George's demand to be dealt to the Clippers was a gift for general manager Sam Presti, giving him the cover he needed to jettison the most popular player in the Thunder's 11-year history.

Presti capitalized on it all brilliantly. The George trade brought a massive cache of assetsfive first-round picks, two pick swaps, budding point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and forward Danilo Gallinari. The Westbrook deal netted two more first-round picks and two more swaps. And the Thunder will surely reroute Paul, perhaps to Miami, providing more tools to reshape their future.

No team drafted better than the SuperSonics/Thunder from 2007 to 2009, when Presti snared three future MVPs, plus Serge Ibaka. Now he has multiple (multiple, multiple) opportunities to replicate that haul or package all those picks into opportunistic trades for established stars.

And with lowered expectations, the Thunder also have the benefit of timeanother treasure plucked from the increasingly desperate Rockets, whose addition of Westbrook only amps up the pressure to win it all now. 

Chris Paul and James Harden saw both of their playoff runs in Houston ended by the Warriors each of the last two years.
Chris Paul and James Harden saw both of their playoff runs in Houston ended by the Warriors each of the last two years.Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

The Harden-Dwight Howard experiment imploded after three seasons, though the Rockets did make a conference finals. The Harden-Paul pairing only lasted two years, also with only a conference finals defeat to show for it. Carmelo Anthony made a sad cameo along the way.

Even in a post-Warriors world, the West remains daunting, with two emerging powers in Los Angeles and potent new rivals in Salt Lake City and Denver. The Rockets hit the summer capped-out, expensive and inflexible, with few options to improve and the 34-year-old Paul declining. Harden turns 30 next month.

Where was the Rockets' path to the Finals? There was none. So enter Westbrook, himself nearing 31, with a reputation for extreme ball dominance, horrific shot selection, occasional defense and a domineering personality that can suffocate a locker room.

"Desperation," observed several rival team officials and scouts, as word of the deal circulated Thursday afternoon here at the NBA Summer League. The move also left many puzzled. As in, why would Rockets GM Daryl Morey, the league's preeminent practitioner of analytics, bank so much on Westbrook—one of the least efficient stars in the league? And give up two first-round picks to get him?

Several speculated that the move was driven more by the Rockets' famously fiery and impatient owner, Tilman Fertitta. One rival executive called it "a 100 percent James Harden demand."

Asked if the Rockets were better or worse now, most of those polled by B/R said worse or about the same. Only one rival team official predicted the Rockets would be better, and only marginally so.

"One of the worst fits possible with Harden," texted one team's analytics director.

The Rockets, he added, would have been better off keeping their core intact, relying on roster continuity while other teams in the West are adjusting to radical changes. "Stand pat, and just as good a title shot as anyone," he said.

Although Paul is slowing down, he's still a highly effective shooter from both the mid-range and the arc, and he plays a controlled style that minimizes mistakes. He doesn't demand a lot of shots and played well off Harden.

Westbrook is the inverse—a high-usage, high-turnover guard who needs the ball to be effective and shoots poorly from everywhere. Westbrook and Harden own the top two usage rates over the last three seasons, per Basketball Reference. And Westbrook last season ranked 83rd in true-shooting percentage among the 84 players who averaged at least 15 points a game. But few players are as feared driving to the rim.

"Doesn't help their defense at all," a scout texted. "But their starting lineup is potent, to say the least."

The Rockets believeor at least hopethey will get the best of Westbrook, because of his friendship with Harden and a humbling recent history of playoff flameouts. After years of stubborn "now I do what I want" dominance, there's a sense Westbrook is finally ready to evolve.

"Russ needs a change [of scenery] to make the adjustments he needs to make," said a source who has worked with Westbrook.

Russell Westbrook ranks second in the NBA in usage rate over the last two seasons, while his new teammate, James Harden, ranks first.
Russell Westbrook ranks second in the NBA in usage rate over the last two seasons, while his new teammate, James Harden, ranks first.Alonzo Adams/Associated Press

The potential upside is there. Westbrook could rein himself in and see his shooting percentages rise with more prudent shot selection. The superior shooting in Houston could ease the pressure to launch so often. And his explosiveness remains a potent weapon, whether next to Harden or in alternate lineups when Harden rests.

But the risks, both short and long term, are significant.

Coach Mike D'Antoni is already on tenuous footing, with one year left on his deal, at an impasse in extension talks and with most of his staff having been pushed out by management this offseason. A headstrong Westbrook, who has defied all requests to reform his game, could be the breaking point for D'Antoni, long a champion of ball movement.

This could all end with an explosion of confetti or a bonfire in the locker room.

And then there's the contract/age matrix. Westbrook will make $38.5 million this season, with three more years beyond that, topping out at $47.1 million in 2022-23. There are signs his game is already declining, and guards who rely solely on athleticism historically do not age well. When their explosiveness goes, their game goes with it.

Which is all the more reason why, sentimentality aside, this was an easy call for the Thunder. In one week, they've gone from horrendously expensive (and underachieving) to cap-manageable, with a nice mix of promising prospects, capable vets, oodles of draft picks and countless options for reinventing themselves.

The Thunder can build organically, via the draft, as they did in the prior decade, or they can package any number of players and picks to snare the next wayward All-Star (or two).

Westbrook's departure marks a definitive end to this Thunder era that began with so much promise. When they lost the 2012 Finals (to LeBron James' Miami Heat), Durant and Westbrook were just 23 years old and Harden 22.

"This is something special here," Harden said at the time. "A dynasty could be, is being, built here."

Four months later, he'd be traded to Houston, an early casualty of the NBA's punitive new luxury tax and a small-market owner unwilling to pay it. Durant grew weary of Westbrook's ball dominance and walked away four summers later. Presti tried to extend the run with his 2017 trades for George and Anthony, but time, and a rapidly changing NBA landscape, always seemed to be conspiring against the Thunder.

It will be fashionable, in this moment, to look back and rue what might have been. But it's also worth appreciating what was: a 10-year run in which the Thunder, operating in the NBA's third-smallest market, made nine playoff appearances, including four trips to the conference finals and one to the Finals, while averaging 51.5 wins, the second-highest in the league.

In this time of player empowerment and rampant superstar migration, that is no small feat—and unlikely to be duplicated anytime soon.

The NBA's entire power structure has changed in the last two weeks, with free-agent defections and forced trades weakening Toronto, Golden State, Philadelphia, Boston, Oklahoma City and New Orleans while bolstering the Clippers, Lakers, Heat and Nets.

Which list the Rockets belong on remains an open question.

                                                     

Howard Beck, a senior writer for Bleacher Report, has been covering the NBA full time since 1997, including seven years on the Laker beat for the Los Angeles Daily News and nine years as a staff writer for the New York Times. His coverage was honored by APSE in 2016 and 2017, and by the Professional Basketball Writers Association in 2018.

Beck also hosts the Full 48 podcast, available on iTunes.

Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.


Minnesota's new president of basketball operations, Gersson Rosas, joins Howard Beck to discuss his vision for the Timberwolves, Karl-Anthony Towns' future and some of his most memorable deals while working in the Rockets' front office. All that and more on The Full 48.

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