How the Harden, George and Westbrook deals keep benefiting OKC

How the Harden, George and Westbrook deals keep benefiting OKC

Paul George, Russell Westbrook and James Harden return to OKC for the first time as teammates. All three have been traded by the Thunder in blockbusters that continue to pay off for OKC.

Jon Hamm

By Jon Hamm

| Dec 21, 2023, 6:00am CST

Jon Hamm

By Jon Hamm

Dec 21, 2023, 6:00am CST

OKLAHOMA CITY — The red-hot LA Clippers play the Thunder for the first time this season. This time, they bring an additional familiar face. Or, perhaps, a familiar beard.

James Harden, Paul George, and Russell Westbrook return to OKC for the first time as teammates. All three were traded after stints in Thunder blue, and each trade netted OKC significant returns. If you’re not glued to Basketball Reference, you may not immediately remember how each trade fared for the Thunder.

More background will be in the Big Friendly Newsletter that is delivered on Saturday. (If you’re not subscribed yet, click here.) 

The OG James Harden

There was a time when the phrase “The James Harden Trade” referred to a single event. But since the COVID-19 pandemic, Harden has been moved around more than a UPS package at Christmas. The November trade that sent him to the West Coast was the fourth trade of his career.

The trade of 2012 was a flashpoint moment in the history of the Thunder and the NBA. This was also before teams made the “kitchen sink” trades that are standard now for premiere players. The Boston Celtics were a few months from wrangling multiple picks and pick swaps away from the Brooklyn Nets in a deal for aging stars Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. OKC’s return for Harden was rich for the times, but it’s a good example of NBA trade inflation.

In exchange for Harden (and other players needed to make the cap math work), the Rockets dealt guard Kevin Martin and rookie Jeremy Lamb to OKC. Houston also sent a unique pick they had acquired from the Raptors, protected in such a way that it was guaranteed to be a lottery pick when it was eventually conveyed. The selection had the potential to be as high as the second overall pick. The rest of the package included a top-20 protected pick via Dallas and a future second-round pick via Charlotte.

Martin, primarily a starter for the previous six seasons, slid into Harden’s old bench role. When his contract expired at season’s end, he agreed to a four-year deal with the Timberwolves. OKC worked with Minnesota to do a sign-and-trade transaction instead, which granted the Thunder a trade exception that ultimately went unused. Martin was productive but injury-prone in Minneapolis, and he was waived midway through the third season of the contract.

While Martin was a short-timer, the rest of the trade package was designed with the future in mind. That started with Lamb, whom the Rockets just drafted 12th overall a few months earlier. But the former UConn star couldn’t earn the trust of coach Scott Brooks on a team with championship aspirations. After his third season, he was traded to Charlotte for a future second-rounder. That pick was later sent to Denver at the 2016 trade deadline in a deal involving guard Randy Foye.

The pick via Dallas became Mitch McGary. After a promising start, one could say his NBA career went up in literal smoke. The second-round pick became Alex Abrines, whose stint in the NBA ended during his third season. The Spanish sharpshooter put his basketball career on hold to address his mental health

The Toronto pick was the real prize. At the time, the Raptors were in the NBA’s basement. On December 12, 2012, the Raptors fell to 4-19 on the season after a loss to Brooklyn. But the Raptors made a surprising turnaround, winning 30 of their remaining 59 games. OKC ended up with the 12th overall pick in a weak 2013 NBA draft.

The Thunder, like other teams, passed on raw 18-year-old Greek prospect Giannis Antetokounmpo. OKC instead drafted Steven Adams, who would become a fan favorite and a key piece to many Thunder squads.

Remnants of the Harden trade live on today. When Adams was traded to New Orleans in November 2020, OKC received several players and a future first-round pick from Denver. One of those players was Kenrich Williams. The draft pick, which became the 27th overall pick in the 2023 draft, was traded as part of the pick package to select Ousmane Dieng.

The Paul Geoge trade in the dead of night

Thunder fans who went to bed at a reasonable hour the night of Friday, July 5, 2019 had a rude awakening the next morning. After a pair of disappointing first-round exits, George requested a trade to the Clippers so he could team up with Kawhi Leonard. The Thunder had all of the leverage to negotiate a blockbuster return. 

It’s the trade that laid the foundation for the Thunder team turning heads today.

In case you just started following the NBA and were not aware, this is the deal that landed Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in OKC. The trade also included Danillo Galinari, who departed for Atlanta after the season. And though SGA is undoubtedly the headliner of the trade now, it was the draft capital OKC acquired that astonished folks at the time.

The first selection from the bounty became Tre Mann, courtesy of a pick via Miami. In 2022, the Clippers slipped into the play-in and eventually into the lottery as a result of a season ravaged by injury. LA coughed up the 12th overall pick in that draft, which OKC used to take Jalen Williams.

Just getting those players alone is a fantastic return. In the words of the late Billy Mays, “But wait, there’s more.”

The Thunder acquired an additional first-round pick from Miami in the trade. The two teams agreed to tweak the terms of the protections and now the pick is lottery-protected in 2025 and unprotected in 2026 if it does not convey. OKC also owns unprotected first-round picks from the Clippers in 2024 and 2026.


(It’s not part of this trade, but because OKC helped facilitate the fourth Harden trade the Thunder have the right to swap first-rounders in 2027 as well, effectively giving OKC control of LAC’s first-round picks for four straight seasons.)

Westbrook blasts off to Houston

Shortly after the George blockbuster trade, Westbrook was on the move as well. With a stated desire to team up again with Harden, the Thunder and Rockets agreed to a trade.

Westbrook went to Houston in exchange for Chris Paul and more draft capital. A pick swap in 2021 did not convey because the Rockets landed a pick within the top four selections. Another swap, protected 1 through 10, is in the pipeline for 2025. In between, the Thunder are set to receive picks from the Rockets in 2024 and 2026, but both are top-four protected.

At the time, Paul was seen as a distressed asset. He had three years and over $120 million remaining on his contract, one that Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta called the “worst that he’d ever seen in business or sports.” Paul revived his career in his lone season playing for the Thunder and was later traded in another deal to line up more assets down the road.


Share with your crowd

The latest from Jon Hamm

  • Thunder’s offseason restraint set up a trade for Gordon Hayward

  • Analyzing the Thunder’s summer salary cap outlook

  • Ranking the top five in-season trades in Thunder history

  • Thunder trade deadline roundtable: Naz Reid, anyone?

  • Why trade partners may want more than Thunder draft picks