A wild offseason in the NBA got even crazier last Thursday when the Houston Rockets traded Chris Paul, two first-round draft picks and two more pick swaps to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Russell Westbrook.
This is a stunner, a deal that will make an improved Western Conference even more compelling. It’s not often that you see two superstars and future Hall of Famers traded for one another in sports.
Paul and Westbrook are two of the most dynamic and polarizing guards in the game, making this one of the most fascinating swaps in league history — on top of all the dramatic free agent moves this summer.
The big winner here? Some suggest it’s the Rockets and general manager Daryl Morey, who unloaded Paul, a fading, 34-year-old superstar seen as a bad teammate who couldn’t co-exist with James Harden.
The Rockets now have the two recent MVPs in the same backcourt. Westbrook won Most Valuable Player in 2017 and has averaged a triple-double three years in a row. Harden won MVP in 2018 and has led the league in scoring two years in a row.
I don’t see it as any great coup for Houston, which now has two of the more overrated players in the sport in the same backcourt. Oh, Westbrook and Harden will put on a show, ringing up triple-doubles and gaudy statistics and getting plenty of national TV time, but they have rarely played at their top level when it really mattered, in big playoff games.
How does this make the Rockets appreciably better? If Harden couldn’t play nice with Paul, how will he thrive with Westbrook, a player who has never played off the ball and demands it in his hands. This isn’t Kevin Durant blending in with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, it’s two notorious gunners trying to win together.
It won’t work, not in the playoffs when it becomes more of a half-court game and you can’t rely on the 3-point shot and ball-hogging guards to carry you. Ask the Warriors, who struggled without Durant in the Finals, or the Rockets, who fell short two years in a row when a team built around Harden fell on its face in the clutch against Golden State — this time with Durant out.
Westbrook is a terrible 3-point shooter, statistically the least accurate of any player who shot a significant number last season. He has shot under 30 percent from behind the arc in four of the last five seasons. But he hasn’t stopped firing them up. He’s even worse in the playoffs.
The Thunder have lost in the first round three years in a row since Durant left, making Westbrook the clear focus of the offense. In those three playoffs, Westbrook shot 38 percent. He had games of 11 for 31 5-21, 5-20 5-17, 6-23 and 10-28 in playoff losses.
Westbrook is a flawed star, albeit a relentless competitor who puts his body on the line on a nightly basis. But he’s 30 and has taken a bigger pounding than most players his age. He and Harden will both be over 30 next season. They’re in their late primes.
This deal smacks as desperation by a Rockets franchise that was embarrassed in the playoffs this past season and needs to win right away, to counter what the Clippers and Lakers have done and take advantage of the Warriors falling back while Harden is still on top of his game.
The Rockets also need to justify the flawed basketball vision of coach Mike D’Antoni, whose contract extension is evidently no longer perceived as a priority by upper management in Houston.
I think it’s a house of cards, ready to crumple. Paul has never made the Finals and isn’t a great teammate, but he’s a better all-around player than Westbrook. How does this make Houston better? The Lakers and Clippers are better. I think the Nuggets and Blazers are better. In a playoff series, I’d still take the Warriors with Curry and Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.
The Thunder are the winner here. They were ready to rebuild after Paul George demanded a trade to join Kawhi Leonard with the Clippers. They were happy to unload Westbrook, who has $170 million left on his contract. GM Sam Presti has now picked up eight future first-round picks this offseason. Oklahoma City could wheel Paul and picks for even more assets that will make them a contender down the road.
The Thunder made the Finals seven years ago with Harden, Durant and Westbrook. They haven’t been back. They chose to keep Westbrook over Harden after the ’12 Finals, a mistake in retrospect. They watched Durant walk away to the Warriors three years ago. Now the last of the Big Three is gone, and they’re still waiting for their first title. But at least they’ve made the wise decision to move on from Westbrook, the statistical superstar.
I could see the Rockets missing the playoffs. Think about it: The Warriors will make it. So will the Lakers and Clippers. Denver and Portland are playoff teams. Utah is a solid playoff team that could ascend to the top four. That’s six. I’d never rule out the Spurs. The Pelicans are a threat with Zion Williamson.
Westbrook-Harden is an experiment that could blow up in the Rockets’ faces. Westbrook might get frustrated deferring to Harden and playing off the ball. The Rockets shoot more 3s than any team and he’s a bad 3-point shooter. He takes a lot of bad shots and that isn’t likely to change. Westbrook had Paul George and couldn’t get out of the first round. You could argue that George is a more complete player than Harden.
I’m sure TNT and ESPN will inundate us with Houston games next season, because fans can’t get enough of Westbrook’s triple-doubles and Harden’s 3-point barrages and 50-point performances. Come next spring, when LeBron James and Leonard and Nikola Jokic are winning in the playoffs, they’ll be reminded that it’s a show that doesn’t work when the lights are at their brightest — in the playoffs.
Jerry Sullivan is a sports columnist with over 30 years experience in Western New York, as well as the host of The Jerry Sullivan Show from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. weekdays on 1270 AM The Fan. Follow him on Twitter @ByJerrySullivan or respond via email at email@example.com.