NBA

Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, and the NBA’s Endless Summer

The blockbuster swap of Hall of Fame point guards is a fitting capper on a league-altering summer.

WE WERE SO CLOSE. All the big free agent fish had been landed. The Summer League in Vegas is ongoing, but with a number of the big names not playing, it isn’t exactly capturing the basketball zeitgeist. The wave of the 24/7 NBA news cycle had crested and was beginning to recede. All of us were ready for the brief hibernation from the league the dog days of summer typically engender. Then, Daryl Morey decided he’d go ahead and do this to the league:

The news broke Thursday night future Hall of Fame point guards Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul would be swapped, with Oklahoma City also receiving two future protected first-round picks and options on two additional pick swaps from Houston. There are a ton of angles to this thing, but I’ve already written about a bazillion words this week, so I’m going to keep it brief today. Let’s get started.

Once the Thunder traded Paul George for every Clippers’ draft pick not nailed down, it became a fait accompli Westbrook would be next out the door. The question on everyone’s mind was, what is his value? Westbrook’s contract is one of the very worst in the league, a supermax with four years remaining for a 30-year-old point guard with a long history of knee issues who is tremendously reliant on athleticism to be effective. He remains one of the best 10-15 players in the league, but even so, Russ represents a difficult financial, cultural, and strategic fit for nearly every team in the league. On his podcast, ESPN’s Zach Lowe went so far as to say he didn’t think a team trading for Westbrook should include an asset for him; that is, he perceived Westbrook’s trade value as a net negative, and the return should reflect it.

Well, Houston saw it differently. Giving up two first-rounders far enough in the future to where Harden could be in the post-prime phase of his career is a massive risk, and the two pick swaps just feel like OKC GM Sam Presti rubbing it in. Russ is younger and a more valuable player at this moment than CP3, but he also has one additional year on his deal, so Paul represents somewhat of a more movable contract. [More on that in a moment.] For the second time in a week, OKC found a hyper-motivated buyer and extracted a premium, even as they sent out the best player in both deals and kicked off a deep rebuild in the process. Houston’s front office swore up and down the reported issues between Paul and James Harden were a complete fabrication, but seeing the price they paid to separate the two in order to bring in a new star of questionable fit and overall value more or less serves as confirmation something was rotten in their locker room. Perhaps they make the move anyway because they needed to upgrade their talent level and this was about the only way left to do it, but would they have given up so much if they weren’t desperate?

It was reported Miami was part of the trade talks as a destination for both players as well. Allegedly, the teams looked at building a three-way trade which would send Paul to Miami, but couldn’t agree on the parameters, so OKC and Houston went it alone. Miami still appears to be in pursuit of Paul, and Presti may look to re-route the Point God as a separate transaction. This makes a lot of sense for the respective timelines of both Miami and OKC, as the 34-year-old Paul has no business toiling away for a Thunder team in the midst of tearing the building down to the studs, while the Heat are forever star-hunting, damn the torpedoes and luxury tax implications. Miami remains hard-capped, making any deal a financial challenge, but a potential trade would likely center around Goran Dragic’s expiring contract ($19.2 million in ’19-’20), and probably Kelly Olynyk, who is under contract for the next two years with the second year being a player option. The sticking point will probably be Justise Winslow, who would make the deal work financially but is too good of an asset to sacrifice for a contract as lousy as Paul’s. OKC could sweeten the pot with one or more of their bounty of picks, but after sending away all of their best players, they may be hesitant to immediately start dealing from a future which hasn’t even begun yet. In any case, even after everything that’s happened over the last two weeks, the point guard carousel still hasn’t stopped turning, so stay tuned for the next league-shaking transaction.

Houston, as is its custom, is pushing all its chips to the center of the table once again. The financial aspect is hardly worth discussing on their end. Their future is mortgaged even further than it was before, and the gamble will either pay off with a championship, or Daryl Morey will lose his job. There’s no real in-between. From a basketball perspective, it’s a much more fascinating move. Pairing two elite scorers and playmakers (as well as former OKC teammates) in Westbrook and Harden comes with obvious benefits, but the potential pitfalls in terms of fit and chemistry are staggering. The “there’s only one ball” argument is reductive, but redundant skill sets can lead to diminishing returns. And any way you slice it, Usage Rate is a thing that exists, and these two stars are responsible for the two highest single-season Usage Rates in the history of the league. Taking the ball out of either player’s hands will inevitably sap some of their historic production (in terms of pure volume, at least; efficiency may be a different matter), and leaving nothing but scraps for the remaining offensive players can tend to have a deleterious effect on the overall ecosystem. [Think about playing pick-up ball with the most unconscionable gunner you’ve ever encountered. Is it fun playing with him? Do you try as hard when you know you’re never going to touch the ball? Do you press too much on the rare occasion the ball does find you? Now picture that, but with two of those dudes on your team.]

Harden is undoubtedly the better overall player at this phase of each player’s career, so the optimal configuration has the ball in his hands most of the time. Problem is, this puts Russ off-ball, where he is both lackadaisical and the worst high-volume three-point shooter in the history of the NBA, so there are obvious concerns about defenses sagging off him to put more pressure on Harden. The alternative is to have Harden spot up off of Westbrook, which makes some sense because Harden is the superior shooter of the two, but if we’ve learned anything about Houston over the last few years, it’s that their offense is at its best when The Beard is at the controls. Why mothball one of the most effective offenses in history for any reason?

The counter to this argument is Houston has run into problems in the playoffs because opposing defenses figure them out over a long series, so maybe having some counters and different looks would make them a tougher out in the postseason. I suppose it’s possible, but it’s unclear if the juice is worth the squeeze. The other argument for the pairing is, with some of their ballhandling responsibilities sloughed off to the other, maybe both Harden and Westbrook will commit to better defensive effort than they have shown over the last few years. There’s no proof of concept here — remember, these two last played together seven years ago, or roughly three lifetimes in NBA years — but it’s a way to sell the move, if one were so inclined.

Overall, I question the fit, but Houston is better than they were yesterday, I guess? It’s easy to forget the team they already had was a top-tier contender the last few years. They’ve had bad luck and bad timing (and the misfortune to keep running into Golden State), but if you could simulate these past three years a few thousand times on a computer, there are definitely a bunch of times in there where the Rockets win the title, so it’s not like they’re far away or their gambles thus far have been foolish. Do I think this move makes them the favorite? No. The Clippers still hold the distinction until further notice. But they did successfully retool to where they’re still in the game and the locker room should be a more peaceful place, so mission accomplished on that front.

Now for the love of God, can we have some damn peace and quiet?

Top Photo Credit: USA TODAY Sports

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