Years after the Russell Westbrook trade, the Thunder are still headed in the right direction

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It’s been three and a half seasons since the Oklahoma City Thunder traded their franchise player Russell Westbrook to Houston. 

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In that time, the Thunder have managed to reach the playoffs once – ironically losing to Westbrook and the Rockets in 2019-20. While the 2017 MVP has bounced from Houston to Washington, and now the Los Angeles Lakers the debate is still on as to who won the Westbrook trade, Houston or OKC?

We can debate the trade winner for weeks, but one thing that is certain is that the Thunder needed to move on from Westbrook, and begin to build a team that can once again make deep playoff runs.

The Trade 

On the surface, one might look at Russell Westbrook’s numbers with the Oklahoma City Thunder and wonder why a franchise would trade away a guy who was a nine-time All-Star and had just had three consecutive seasons averaging a triple-double.

To put it bluntly, the Thunder were not going to win with Westbrook as their main guy and needed to start from scratch again. Another reason why the Thunder wanted to move Westbrook was his salary – he was owed $171.1 million over the next four seasons and set to earn a whopping $47.1 million in 2022-23, the final year of his contract.

On July 12, 2019, the Thunder sent Westbrook to Houston to join forces with former teammate James Harden. In return, the Thunder received Chris Paul, first-round picks in 2024 and 2026 and the right to swap first-rounders in 2021 and 2025. The Westbrook deal was preceded by Paul George being shipped to the Clippers. All in all, OKC received seven additional first-round picks lined up through 2026 — plus four pick swaps — via deals for Paul George and later Chris Paul.

Sam Presti had essentially created a clean slate for himself to rebuild a new roster.

From a sentimental standpoint, this was a blow to the Thunder fans who had watched Westbrook blossom and had seen him reach an NBA Finals alongside Harden and Kevin Durant. The last man remaining from that trio was now gone, but the dream of building another strong contender in the West was alive.

(NBA Getty Images)

The Rebuild 

Presti began accumulating assets, at one stage owning 36 draft picks – 18 first-rounders and 18 second-rounders – over the course of a few years. The Thunder’s moves in the summer of 2021 would be crucial to laying the foundation for the future.  

MORE: A guide to Oklahoma’s future draft picks

At that summer’s draft, the organization selected Josh Giddey, the prodigious talent from Melbourne, Australia, with the sixth overall pick. The 2021 NBL (Australian pro league) Rookie of the Year averaged 10.9 points, 7.6 assists, 7.3 rebounds and 1.1 steals in 28 games with the Adelaide 36ers. In Giddey, the Thunder believe they have the player who could be their point guard of the future.

Next, they signed Shai Gilgeous Alexander to a long-term deal worth $172 million over five years.

Those two moves have become the cornerstones for the Thunder moving forward.

Speaking at the team’s media day prior to the season, Gilgeous-Alexander quashed notions that the Thunder rebuild may put extra pressure on him, especially given his contract. 

“Take it one day at a time,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “You can only be present. You can only take it a day at a time, try to get better every single day in whatever area you want to, and then it’ll work itself out over time. I feel like that’s had success for my career so far, and I’ll probably take the same approach with the team.”

Both players are at very early stages in their careers – Giddey being the second-youngest player in the NBA when he entered the league at 18,  and Gilgeous-Alexander is just 23. 

Oklahoma City also flipped its 16th pick in the 2021 draft into two more future first-rounders in a deal with, surprise surprise, the Houston Rockets. 

(NBA Getty Images)

The Future 

Oklahoma City is still a few seasons away from this rebuild project bearing fruit, but so far Presti’s gamble on taking Giddey so high is paying off.

Through his first 22 games, Giddey is averaging 10.5 points, 6.7 rebounds and 5.9 assists. He was named Western Conference Rookie of the Month for October/November to boot. 

Gilgeous-Alexander is performing at a high rate, and the team is also getting a solid contribution from Luguentz Dort, who is averaging 17.5 points per game and is also young at 22. 

Given the assets they have accumulated, Oklahoma City is also in a good position to leverage any trades for an established player to team up with Giddey and Gilgeous-Alexander to add some experience to the roster. This is still early in the rebuild so there will be some growing pains which is to be expected. 

The Thunder are also in a good position to land a free agent if their young core continues to shine – a player who could add depth and experience to balance out the youth and learning curve. The list of free agents in 2022 and 2023  is one that the Thunder will be keeping an eye on. 

OKC doesn’t have a definitive timeline of when it expects to once again be a playoff team. Sam Presti is definitely playing the long game here, but logic dictates that if they once again make a shrewd draft choice in 2022, coupled with the improvement and growth of their current core, it will certainly – at the very least –  make them exciting to watch until they become a contender in the Western Conference once more.



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