OKC Thunder: Westbrook to Houston, Paul to Thunder, at least for now

AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File

FILE - In this Monday, May 5, 2014 file photo, Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) drives against Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul (3) in the first quarter of Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinal NBA basketball playoff series in Oklahoma City. A person with knowledge of the situation says the Oklahoma City Thunder have traded Russell Westbrook to the Houston Rockets for Chris Paul, a shake up of top point guards and a move that reunites Westbrook with James Harden, Thursday, July 11, 2019.

Just maybe, two things happened Thursday evening.

One, perhaps the best point guard in Oklahoma City’s NBA history was put in line to be in uniform for the Thunder’s 2019-20 season opener. Two, Russell Westbrook was traded.

If that seems like a riddle, it’s not.

According to reports that surfaced Thursday evening from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Royce Young, Russell Westbrook has been traded to the Houston Rockets. In return, the Thunder will receive Chris Paul, who spent most of his first two seasons playing in Oklahoma City for the New Orleans Hornets, who were displaced in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

In addition to ESPN’s reporting, Houston owner Gus Fertitta confirmed the deal to local television affiliate Fox 26.

“We’re excited to have Russell Westbrook,” he said, before pivoting to salute Paul’s impact with the Rockets.

“Chris Paul is unbelievable and he’s gonna be sadly missed.”

Let's make a deal

Already the Thunder had received future first-round picks originating with the Los Angeles Clippers and Miami Heat for the 2021, 2022, 2023, 2024 and 2026 drafts via trading George, as well as the right to swap picks with the Clippers in the 2023 and 2025 drafts.

Oklahoma City had also received, trading Jerami Grant to the Denver Nuggets, the Nuggets’ first-round selection in the 2020 draft.

Thursday night, in addition to receiving Paul, the Thunder picked up the Rockets’ first-round selections in the 2024 and 2026 drafts, as well as the right to swap picks with Houston in the 2021 and 2025 drafts.

It is a lot to process and it’s entirely historic.

Since early Saturday morning, Oklahoma City has dealt three players — Paul George, Jerami Grant, Russell Westbrook — for three players — Shai Gilgeous Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, Chris Paul — while collecting seven first-round draft picks and the right to four draft swaps.

Three of those selections are completely unprotected.

The 2020 pick from Denver is top-10 protected. The 2023 pick from Miami is top-14 protected. The 2024 pick from Houston is top-14 protected and the 2026 pick from Houston is top-four protected.

Before the flurry of the past several days, OKC already owned a top-20 protected pick from Philadelphia for the 2020 draft and a top-14 protected pick from Atlanta for the 2022 draft.

Given the picks that originate with themselves, and should the Thunder be be in position to exercise all of their protected picks, they would conceivably have 15 first-round selections between the 2020 and 2026 drafts, as well as four years of swap rights.

Money matters

As to salary issues, the move is a first-, second-, and third-year wash. Both Paul and Westbrook are due 38.5 million next season.

However, while Westbrook’s contract runs through the 2022-23 season, paying out $132.7 million over its final three seasons, Paul’s runs through 2021-22, paying out $85.6 million over its final two.

Paul’s deal is just as expensive as Westbrook’s as long as they're parallel, but the Thunder can get out from under Paul’s a year sooner.

They could also deal Paul sooner than that.

Paul's plan?

According to reporting from the The Athletic, Paul’s agent, Leon Rose, plans to speak with OKC general manager Sam Presti to decide what happens next, and the Thunder would be amenable to trying to help Paul get to Miami, if he wanted to join Jimmy Butler with the Heat.

Should Paul stick with OKC, however, he could help the franchise on the court and in the pocketbook.

Given the acquisition of Gilgeous-Alexander, who may be the Thunder’s point guard of the future — he started 73 games as a Clipper rookie last season, averaging 10.8 points and 3.3 assists against 1.7 turnovers — Oklahoma City could be in position to shed Dennis Schroder before the season begins, a move that could get the Thunder payroll below the luxury tax threshold for the first time in seasons. And it could do that while maybe the game’s best point guard for most of the last 14 seasons, Paul, tutors Gilgeous-Alexander.

Paul is no stranger to OKC. His rookie and sophomore seasons in the NBA were largely spent at Chesapeake Energy Arena — then the Ford Center — playing for the Hornets.

In 2005-06, he averaged 16.1 points and 7.8 assists and was named rookie of the year. The next season, it was 17.3 points and 8.9 assists.

Paul then led the league in assists in four of the next eight seasons and in steals six of the next seven seasons.

This past season, Paul averaged 15.6 points and 8.2 assists against only 2.6 turnovers. He shot 35.8 percent from 3-point land and is a career 37 percent 3-point shooter.

Saying goodbye

Westbrook will arrive in Houston after 11 storied seasons in Oklahoma City, the last three historic in terms of individual achievement, averaging a triple-double in each.

When Westbrook first did it in his MVP season of 2016-17, he matched the feat of Oscar Robertson, who was the last man to average a triple-double during the 1961-62 season.

The Thunder may not be done making moves. Yet, if they are, they might have a hard time tanking in an attempt to harness their draft lottery potential.

They would have an aged but still effective point guard in Paul, one of the league’s better centers on both ends of the court in Steven Adams and Galinari, who isn’t quite an All-Star, but who averaged 19.8 points and 6.1 rebounds last season in Los Angeles, at power forward.

All of that, a rising star in Gilgeous-Alexander, and perhaps a revitalized, ready, healthy and hungry Andre Roberson.

If Paul could stay on the floor — he’s missed 24 games each of the last two seasons — it might be a team capable of remaining competitive, perhaps even playoff bound, even while the franchise remains in transition.

Meanwhile, fans will have to come to terms with saying goodbye to the Thunder’s only constant star.

Twice the world thought Westbrook would be leaving Oklahoma City and twice he elected to stay.

His loyalty did not produce playoff results, but it made him a prince with the fans, who watched Kevin Durant leave and James Harden force his departure, unable to come to terms with the Thunder after spending his first three seasons in OKC.

It’s a lot.

There could still be more.

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