The NBA just does not stop. The Thunder and Rockets were both looking for trade partners for their disgruntled point guards, and they ultimately decided to just trade them for each other:
The Oklahoma City Thunder have agreed to trade Russell Westbrook to the Houston Rockets for Chris Paul, first-round picks in 2024 and 2026, pick swaps in 2021 and 2025, league sources tell ESPN.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) July 12, 2019
It’s easy to see why both teams pulled the trigger. The Rockets are all in on winning a title with James Harden, and they’ve given him a legit running mate in Westbrook. With Kevin Durant now residing in Brooklyn, their road to the NBA Finals has never been clearer.
Meanwhile, the Thunder continue to sell off assets for a rebuild and have now built up an impressive war chest of future first-round picks. Add the two firsts from the Rockets to the five they secured from the Clippers – not to mention four possible pick swaps! – and GM Sam Presti has to be salivating about the future of his franchise.
Still, this trade does create a lot of questions on the basketball side, particularly from a fantasy perspective. Let’s break down what it means for both teams in 2019.
What does this trade mean for the Rockets?
Harden and Russell Westbrook have been arguably the best two players in DFS over the past few seasons. Westbrook’s average of 61.02 DraftKings points per game over the past three years ranks first in the league, while Harden’s average of 58.81 ranks second. They’ve also been among the best values over that time frame, with Westbrook averaging a Plus/Minus of +3.35 and Harden averaging a Plus/Minus of +2.01 (per the Trends tool).
Putting those two players together is undoubtedly going to result in reduced fantasy outputs for both. After all, there’s only one ball, and these guys are used to having it in their hands a whole lot. Last year, Harden ranked first in the league in usage rate and fourth in assist rate, while Westbrook was 10th in usage and first in assist rate. Overall, both players ranked in the top four in touches per game and top three in time of possession.
It will be interesting to see how head coach Mike D’Antoni chooses to dole out the touches for these players. Harden has developed into one of the best isolation scorers in the history of the league. His ability to score at a high rate and volume is virtually unmatched. He averaged .414 points per touch last season, which was much higher than everyone else who finished top 10 in touches per game:
- Nikola Jokic: .214 points per touch
- Westbrook: .252 points per touch
- Blake Griffin: .277 points per touch
- Ben Simmons: .194 points per touch
- Joel Embiid: .316 points per touch
- Jrue Holiday: .246 points per touch
- LeBron James: .322 points per touch
- Kemba Walker: .303 points per touch
- Luka Doncic: .253 points per touch
Keeping the ball in Harden’s hands as much as possible has proven to be an effective offensive strategy.
Unfortunately, Westbrook could not be a worse fit off the ball next to Harden. He shot just 32.2% in catch-and-shoot situations last season, including just 31.9% from 3-point range. Those 3-point numbers in particular are concerning. The Rockets ranked first in the league in 3-point attempts per game by a wide margin last season, and Westbrook is coming off two straight seasons where he shot below 30% from 3. Harden drawing extra defenders away from him could help, but Westbrook still shot just 32.6% on 3s that were considered “wide open” last season (per NBA.com).
Quite simply, if Westbrook doesn’t have the ball in his hands, he’s not a particularly effective offensive player.
That creates a delicate situation. It’s tempting to say that the offense would be smoother with Westbrook serving as the primary ball-handler, but how often do you actually want to take the ball out of Harden’s hands?
Luckily, both players should still see plenty of playing time apart during the season, and that should be where both players thrive. Chris Paul saw a usage bump of +5.8% with Harden off the court last season, resulting in an average of 1.38 DraftKings points per minute. Westbrook should be able to duplicate those numbers at a bare minimum, and he could easily exceed 1.5 DraftKings points per minute. If D’Antoni chooses to stagger their minutes, Westbrook could be looking at approximately 12 minutes per game without Harden. That should be enough to keep his fantasy value afloat.
The same goes for Harden. He was dominant all season, but he increased his usage rate to a ridiculous 45.1% when playing without CP3 last season. He averaged 1.75 DraftKings points per minute, which represented a drastic increase from his average with Paul (1.39 points per minute).
D’Antoni has been one of the best offensive coaches in basketball since his time in Phoenix, so expect him to figure out a way to maximize the offensive potential for both players this season. They likely won’t average over 60 DraftKings points per game again, but they should remain strong options on a night-to-night basis. The fact that both players reportedly want to play together also means they should be flexible to try and make it work.
That said, it’s hard to see either player putting up a completely dominant season barring an injury, which likely makes them overpriced in the MVP betting market.
What does this mean for the Thunder?
It will be interesting to see if the Thunder plan to hold on to Paul or try and ship him out as soon as possible. His contract is very unappealing at the moment, but he could easily rebuild his trade value if he plays well after escaping Harden’s shadow.
Paul is clearly on the decline, but he’s still capable of running an efficient offense. The Rockets averaged 109.1 points per 100 possessions with Paul on the court and Harden off the court last season, and they limited opponents to an average of 102.6 points per 100 possessions. Those are elite numbers.
The bigger question is if his body can hold up over the course of a full season. He’s missed extended periods of time over each of the past two seasons, and that was with Harden handling a monster workload.
Outside of Paul, Dennis Schroder is another candidate for a boost in fantasy value. He was excellent last season with Westbrook and George off the court, averaging 1.22 DraftKings points per minute. He also dominated the basketball – he led the team with a usage rate of 37.2% — so expect him to pick up some of the offensive slack.
The Thunder are still very much a work in progress – and they could continue to sell off assets during the season – but they should still provide some DFS value. Paul in particular could be an elite target early in the season if DraftKings and FanDuel aren’t aggressive in pricing up his salary.
The Thunder could also be an interesting team to target if you believe CP3 can stay healthy. Their win total will undoubtedly take a hit after trading away Westbrook, but CP3 could make them a more efficient unit when he’s actually on the court.
Pictured: Houston Rockets guard Chris Paul (3)and Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0)
Photo Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports