History tends to repeat itself and that’s no different in the NBA.
Just before Halloween in 2012, Sam Presti saw the writing on the wall. Months after his Oklahoma City Thunder were defeated in the NBA Finals in five games by the Miami Heat, Presti looked at the makeup of his roster and the realities of the salary cap and decided to make a change by blowing up his young core. Committed to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the newly crowned Sixth Man of the Year, James Harden, was identified by Presti as the odd man out and the 22-year-old ASU product was traded to the Houston Rockets for a package that included Kevin Martin and two first-round picks when a deal simply couldn’t be reached with the burgeoning star and his agent.
Much has changed over the interceding seven seasons.
So promising with the Thunder, Harden has lived up to those early expectations and exceeded them greatly with Houston, emerging into the game’s premier scorer with a pair of scoring titles and the 2018 Most Valuable Player Award. But despite his personal heroics, the Rockets have been unable to reach the NBA Finals, bowing out of the playoffs to the Golden State Warriors in four of the past five seasons including this past spring.
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In OKC, the makeover has been even more drastic. By 2016, Westbrook was the last man standing from the Thunder’s Western Conference championship team with Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins traded away and Durant signing with the Warriors as a free agent. To make up for Durant’s departure, Presti swung for the fences on a trade with the Indiana Pacers to bring aboard Paul George and convinced him to stay, with George signing a three-year deal in the summer of 2018. Still, even with the addition of PG13 (and the botched attempt at a Big 3 with the ill-fated Carmelo Anthony venture), the Thunder weren’t able to return to the Finals, either.
With both teams stuck at a crossroads, the Los Angeles Clippers helped to unstick both of them.
In order to attract Leonard to the red half of the Staples Center, the Clippers needed a second marquee star and Kawhi wanted George. To make sure of his acquistion, the Clippers presented the Thunder with a bully offer that they simply couldn’t refuse. In exchange for the 29-year-old George, the Clippers sent Hamilton, Ont.’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, veteran forward Danilo Gallinari and a whopping five first-round picks to the Thunder.
The acquisition of Leonard and George represented a seismic shift in the NBA, but nowhere more than in Oklahoma City. With Westbrook the last man standing from the dynasty that never was, Presti prepared to completely turn the page and looked back to an old trading partner to make it happen in Daryl Morey and the Rockets.
Though Presti had his decision thrust upon him by Steve Ballmer, Morey reached a similar conclusion about his club without external impetus – the Rockets in their current incarnation has gone as far as they could go. Even without Durant and with the Warriors at their most vulnerable in the 2019 playoffs, Golden State, once again, proved too high a mountain to climb and Houston fell without reaching the summit. Something had to change – well, one thing did because there was always going to be an albatross when it came to any potential changes.
Chris Paul is 34 years of age. In the past 10 years, he’s played 70 games or more just four times, missed on average 17 games a season and posted back-to-back years of 58 games played. He is set to be paid $40 million for the next three seasons. Paul is undoubtedly one of the finest point guards to play the game and can still compete at a high level, but his prime is behind him and his contract is so cumbersome that any kind of trade options to alleviate that burden would be limited...perhaps to only one player.
The Westbrook-for-Paul deal was a statement of intent for both of the Rockets and Thunder, but the intent from both clubs differs wildly. For Houston, it was one final attempt to turn Harden’s prime years into the franchise’s first title in 25 years by reuniting him with Westbrook. In Oklahoma City, it’s still competing for a playoff spot with an absolute bevy of first-round picks on the way and CP3 shepherding Gilgeous-Alexander to become the elite-level point guard his rookie season promised.
Will it pay off?
“It’s going to be scary, that’s all I can tell you,” Westbrook said during media day. “It’s going to be scary — not for us.”
But how is it going to work? Harden attempted 24.5 field goals a game last year, while Westbrook attempted 20.5. Both men are volume scorers and both need the ball, something that Mike D’Antonio knows and is already accommodating. Considering that Westbrook’s efficacy, especially from three (he shot only .290 from beyond the arc last season, his lowest mark since his second year in the league), appears to be waning, will teams give him open looks to double Harden? And if they do, is he still capable of making them pay?
Make no mistake, though, this duo – complemented by Eric Gordon – will be amongst the NBA’s most lethal and still score in droves. Westbrook marks a firm upgrade on an injury-prone Paul and gives the Rockets their best chance to emerge from what should be a hotly contested West, but worry remains that the personal rapport between Harden and Westbrook will be tested if things go sour on the court. If Morey’s roll of the dice works out, the Rockets could represent the biggest threat to the Dubs’ Western dominance in years.
As for Paul, there remains the question of whether or not he remains in Oklahoma City for the long haul. Upon the completion of the trade, there was widespread belief that Paul would refuse to report or the Thunder would attempt to immediately flip the nine-time All-Star elsewhere with the Miami Heat interested (and still might be), despite the stumbling block of his massive deal. But he will begin the season with the Thunder and Billy Donovan is experimenting with a three point-guard set with Paul alongside Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder.
"All three of those guys are really important and they're drivers of our offense because they're smart, they have a really good feel of how to play and they're unselfish," Donovan said after Paul’s preseason debut on October 8. "They've got to be the catalyst to moving the basketball. Putting them out there, my feeling was to get them comfortable playing with one another, get them playing with a good pace and tempo and speed, and I thought we came out to start the game playing like that."
The chances of Donovan using this regularly are slim, but it shows his interest in getting all three of his point guards accustomed to being out there with the others on the court at the same time. How he doles out his minutes going forward will be interesting. Here’s what we know – Schroder is a fine player and could start on some teams in the NBA, but he’s the lowest PG on the pecking order in OKC. Paul is the best point guard on the team at this moment and if more than one PG is on the court at the time, it will be Gilgeous-Alexander or Schroder shifting into a two-guard role – Gilgeous-Alexander did so last season with Patrick Beverley at the point with the Clippers. Still, Gilgeous-Alexander is the priority for the long term after showing true star potential in his rookie season. The Kentucky product is only 21 and will come of age – along with former Wildcats teammate Hamidou Diallo, Terence Ferguson and this past June’s first-round pick, Darius Bazley – as Presti uses his plethora of draft picks at the draft or in trades to strenghten the team down the line.
The Rockets and Thunder will now chart new territory on different paths this season. Western Conference rivals for years, Westbrook and Paul are now inexorably linked after a second blockbuster this decade between the two clubs. The stakes might be higher for Houston, but Oklahoma City must get this right, too.