A year ago today at 7:26 p.m. Central Standard Time, something happened in the sports world that Thunder fans never thought was even imaginable.
Russell Westbrook was traded. To the Rockets nonetheless, the same team whose fan base has been responsible for the majority of Russ slander that was spread out across social media with it peaking during the 2017 season as Russ vs. Harden MVP debates dominated talk shows and timelines.
The trade was an anticipated gut punch as trade rumors surrounding Russ followed after the shocking Paul George trade took place in the middle of the night less than a week earlier. But just like a real-life gut punch, no amount of preparation will lessen the pain.
With the benefit of 50/50 hindsight, the trade looked like the right thing to do.
The Thunder got back a rejuvenated Chris Paul to help mentor their next franchise star in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
From a Front Office perspective, the Thunder got back a better player on a more manageable contract to move along with potentially four First Round picks. Two of them in 2024 and 2026 and the other two being swaps in 2021 and 2025.
There is a perfect chance those picks convert into lottery picks as the Rockets’ future looks cloudy at best with the inevitable departures of Mike D’Antoni and Daryl Morey. The team has $114M tied up in the 2022-23 season to just three players: a 33-year old James Harden making $47.4M, a 34-year old Westbrook making $47.1M, and a 34-year old Eric Gordon making $19.6M. All three without an opt-out clause either.
The trade looks better and better for the Thunder the older it gets as Sam Presti was able to turn one of the worst situations in the league into one of the best in just five days.
After two straight First Round exits and one of the highest luxury tax bills in league history, it looked like the ceiling for the Westbrook & George teams was reached. Presti had to find ways to improve this team as cost-efficiently as possible, but running it back for a third straight time with an aging duo who haven’t shown anything in the playoffs was setting up for another disappointing, frustrating and inconsistent season in Oklahoma City.
Now the Thunder sits pretty as they have one of the brightest futures in league with their infinite amount of draft picks that they own during the 2020s along with the flexibility of doing anything Presti wants.
The team can wait it out and have multiple shots to land another franchise player in the draft to pair with Shai, or they can package some of their picks and trade for that co-star. The possibilities are endless.
Funny enough, the Thunder are ahead of the Rockets in the standings currently sitting as the fifth seed while Houston is a spot below at six, as both teams sport a 40-24 record with the Thunder owning the tiebreaker.
Advanced analytics also love Chris Paul over Russell Westbrook this season as Paul has a better PER, TS, eFG, WS, BPM, VORP, and RAPTOR WAR. Westbrook has better per game averages and totals, but that can be the result of having a significantly higher USG% playing on a top pace team that averages five more possessions a game than the Thunder.
This trade was emotionally draining as Westbrook was the Thunder for its first decade in Oklahoma City when you think of the Thunder you feel of Russ. But from a pure basketball perspective, it was time for a fresh start for both parties, and Presti made the best of a bad situation.