Westbrook is the new Rocket man

Russell Westbrook was the 2017 Most Valuable Player.
Russell Westbrook was the 2017 Most Valuable Player.

Oklahoma trade reunites him with Harden, the duo who led them to 2012 NBA Finals

NEW YORK • The National Basketball Association's (NBA) wild off-season took another turn on Thursday as the Oklahoma City Thunder traded Russell Westbrook, the 2017 Most Valuable Player (MVP), to the Houston Rockets for fellow veteran guard Chris Paul plus draft picks.

The trade was first reported by ESPN and confirmed by The New York Post, and is the latest blockbuster move amid major changes for NBA stars and clubs.

Oklahoma City, who lost in the first round of the play-offs for a third straight year, are continuing to stockpile draft picks, just as they did in trades that sent their other All-Star player, Paul George to the Los Angeles Clippers and Jerami Grant to the Denver Nuggets.

Adding first-round picks in 2024 and 2026 plus the right to swop first-round picks in 2021 and 2025, with top-four protections on the picks, they now appear to have the necessary draft capital to wheel and deal their way though an extensive rebuilding project.

For the Rockets, acquiring the 30-year-old Westbrook is another big swing for a team still looking to provide enough help for last year's MVP, guard James Harden.

Houston have been eliminated from the play-offs by the Golden State Warriors in four of the past five seasons, and last made the NBA Finals in 1995.

The trade could also alleviate locker-room issues, following reports of tension last season between Harden, 29, and Paul, 34.

Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta believes the new guard pairing "makes us a better team".

He told local TV channel Fox 26: "It'll be very interesting and fun. James and Russell wanted to play together.

"We're excited to have Russell . I would watch him play for Oklahoma City, and he's so athletic.

"I hate to lose Chris Paul, but we felt like we did what we had to do to become a better team."

The Rockets, though, are taking on one of the few contracts potentially more onerous than that of Paul.

He is set to make annual salaries of approximately US$38.5 million (S$52.3 million), US$41.4 million and US$44.2 million in the next three seasons.

Westbrook has one more year than that on his deal, with the same annual salaries over the next three seasons before costing his team US$47 million in 2022-23.

Harden and Westbrook played together in a backcourt for the Thunder for three seasons.

Along with Kevin Durant, they led the team to an NBA Finals appearance in 2012, losing to the Miami Heat.

Since Harden and Westbrook last played together, Harden has led the NBA in scoring the past two seasons, averaging 36.1 points this past campaign.

Fellow All-Star Westbrook has averaged triple-doubles for the past three terms. In the most recent campaign, he produced 22.9 points and career highs of 11.1 rebounds and 10.7 assists.

Together, they form a super pairing as potent as any in the Western Conference, which now includes:

LA Clippers: Kawhi Leonard, this year's NBA Finals MVP, and George.

LA Lakers: LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

Add improved teams in the Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz and Portland Trail Blazers, while not discounting the Warriors, NBA finalists for the past five years, and the West next season figures to be up for grabs.

WASHINGTON POST, NYTIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 13, 2019, with the headline 'Westbrook is the new Rocket man'. Print Edition | Subscribe