Russell Westbrook Trade Primes OKC Thunder for Intriguing Rebuild

What a jaw-dropping week it’s been for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

If NBA Twitter wasn’t already in flames, it’s now incinerated.

First, OKC blindsided everyone by trading Paul George to the Los Angeles Clippers last Friday night for an avalanche of draft picks. (Four, actually, plus two favorable swaps.) Then it shipped out Jerami Grant for another first-round selection.

And lastly, in yet another league-shattering offseason move, the Thunder traded the heart of their franchise, Russell Westbrook. He’s headed to the Houston Rockets in exchange for Chris Paul, two first-round picks and two pick swaps.

Russ is now a Rocket alongside former Thunder star James Harden. PG-13 is now a Clipper alongside reigning MVP Kawhi Leonard. OKC is suddenly without both of its most valuable players from 2018-19, so Sam Presti is going all-in on a makeover with CP3 and tons of draft capital. 

We’ve seemingly reached the end of a long, prosperous era in OKC, including 10 straight playoff campaigns. But the upside is that the club now has a clear path to rebuild, and they are set up beautifully.

The summer of 2019 could mark the beginning of a successful transformation.

It made loads of sense for Sam Presti to aggressively pursue trade options for Westbrook. After the George move, Russ lacked an All-Star caliber running mate, so coach Billy Donovan’s roster was already out of the championship mix—if they were ever in it to begin with, seeing as how the Westbrook-George pairing netted consecutive first-round losses.

Jan 29, 2019; Orlando, FL, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Paul George (13) drives to the basket as Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0)t runs during the second quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

With six first-round picks, two pick swaps, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari coming their way in the LAC deal, it was the right time to embrace a rebuild.

There was an outside chance that the Thunder could have flipped a few of their newfound assets into a win-now contributor. Pairing another star or two with Russ would have kept OKC in the playoff mix, but it was more prudent for them to use their draft picks and youngsters to conduct a full-scale reconstruction.

Presti pulled off the Westbrook trade more quickly and easily than I thought he would. His overall value and impact don’t match the $170 million he’s owed, so there were only a select few teams that were even plausible destinations.

At 30 years old, Westbrook is already on the back end of his prime, and he’s coming off a woefully inefficient 2018-19 season. Russ shot 42.8 percent from the field, 29.0 percent from three-land and had a True Shooting (TS) percentage of 50.1. He also posted his lowest Offensive Box Plus/Minus (OBPM) mark (2.5) since 2009-10. Fortunately, he’s still one of the most lethal physical forces in the game.

Presti capitalized on Rockets’ general manager Daryl Morey trying to swing for the fences again. Houston fell short against the Golden State Warriors again last year, and after some assistant coaching staff house cleaning, they were also falling short in the white-hot Western Conference arms race. Acquiring Westbrook at least restacks the deck a little bit after Chris Paul clearly was no longer an elite two-way force last season.

Now that OKC bids a bittersweet farewell to Westbrook, their rebuilding phase can begin in earnest via:

  • Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
  • Danilo Gallinari
  • Chris Paul
  • Eight extra first-round picks from 2020-2026
  • Four pick swaps from 2021

That’s a treasure trove of long-term possibilities. Presti can use some of those picks on actual draftees, and he could eventually leverage some of them into trades for burgeoning stars who fit the timeline.

The sheer amount of picks gives the Thunder tremendous flexibility, and they might not be done dealing. Perhaps they’d still like to find a way to shed the contracts of Steven Adams ($53 million over the next two years) and Dennis Schroder ($31 million over the next two years).

Their rebuild won’t start with the 2020 draft, though. It already began with the arrival of Gilgeous-Alexander, who has the talent and the mindset to be the franchise’s point guard of the future. No one should underestimate SGA’s long-term upside, and he turns just 21 on Friday.

You always need to start a proper rebuild around at least one budding star, and Gilgeous-Alexander fits the bill.

Jan 28, 2019; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) drives to the basket against Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins (20) in the second half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

He’ll spend some time learning under CP3 over the next couple of seasons, which will be a tricky balance, as Paul certainly still deserves to play. But the Thunder will gradually give the youngster increasing responsibilities. Paul will supply star-caliber steadiness in the short term, unless OKC truly pulls off the unthinkable and can find a willing partner for his massive contract, which Adrian Wojnarowski reports might still be in play.

Either way, Gilgeous-Alexander offers star versatility down the road. He shouldn’t worry about trying to replace Westbrook or be an All-Star right away, however. He’s a starkly different player than most top-tier floor generals. SGA is a methodical playmaker who uses his length, timing and footwork to foil opponents rather than explosive athleticism.

He’ll build off the encouraging rookie season he had in LA. In just 26.5 minutes per game, he posted 10.8 points, 3.3. assists and 1.2 steals per game for the Clips. He also shot quite efficiently for a neophyte: 50.3 percent on two-pointers, 36.7 percent on three-pointers and 80.0 percent from the free-throw line.

Few guards his age have such an attractive combination of creativity, poise, dexterity and defensive potential. SGA’s size and skill level make him a multi-positional threat on both ends of the court.

His shot-creating bag is deep, and he uses it to get all the way to the hoop or create ample separation on jump-shots. Gilgeous-Alexander already has some of the best change-of-pace talents in the league; I don’t think there are 10 guards with a better hesitation move.

And once he gets near the basket, he’s confident finishing with either hand. He shot 55.7 percent within 10 feet of the hoop last season, including 63.1 percent within three feet.

Gilgeous-Alexander also capitalizes on size mismatches against smaller guards, using his 6’6” frame on post-ups and mid-range buckets. And although he isn’t a high-volume perimeter scorer, he delivers enough three-pointers to keep the offense flowing.

He improved his playmaking throughout his rookie year, gradually boosting his assists while decreasing his turnover rate. In pick-and-rolls, SGA is patient and uses his length to flip wraparound passes. It will take him a couple more years to become a well-rounded floor general, but he possesses solid foundational talent and vision:

In addition to relying on SGA as the primary shot-creator and facilitator, OKC will also build its defense around his positional interchangeability. He can check both 1’s and 2’s with varying success, and he could see 3 positions in his prime. For now, he’s a middle-tier defender with plenty of room to grow.

I’m not saying Gilgeous-Alexander will be the single-handed long-term savior. He will need help, and he’ll get it. The franchise will eventually need to lure the right stars to play next to him. But he’s an exciting, multidimensional piece to work with initially.

The Thunder have several other personnel evaluations to make throughout 2019-20 and beyond. Five players are free agents in 2020 (Gallinari, Andre Roberson, Patrick Patterson, Mike Muscala and Nerlens Noel), most of whom Presti will likely let walk, as they’re neither true needle movers nor developmental prospects. Meanwhile, Steven Adams and Dennis Schroder are on the books until 2021. If they don’t get moved before then, they will likely be gone in free agency as well.

That’s not a referendum on their ability, just the fact that both are likely too far ahead on the rebuild timeline unless things progress much faster than expected.

The Thunder will keep a closer eye on the likes of Terrance Ferguson, Hamidou Diallo and rookies Darius Bazley and Luguentz Dort. Ferguson and Diallo are restricted free agents in 2021, so OKC can retain them if either blossom. As for the rookies, Bazley is on a cost-friendly deal and Dort has a two-way contract. The latter is one of the best prospects to go unselected in the 2019 draft, and he could end up being a steal for Presti.

With a dynamic new backcourt, improved cap flexibility and a seemingly bottomless stockpile of draft resources, the Thunder are in a superb position to rebuild. We might even see them recapture the up-and-coming zeitgeist of those heady days a decade ago when Westbrook, Harden, Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka all suited up together.

The Westbrook chapter is officially closed, but OKC’s won’t have too many pages to turn before they’re back on their feet.