Breaking Down Some of the NBA’s Big Moves and How AutoSTATS Could Help the Thunder Replenish

By: Parker Kaplan and Taylor Bechtold | August 8, 2019

Los Angeles Clippers sign Kawhi Leonard for three years, $103 million; acquire Paul George from the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, first-round picks in 2021, ’22, ’24 and ’26, a conditional first-round pick in ’23 and the right to swap first-round picks in ’23 and ’25.

July 5, 2019: A day that no Californian will soon forget. 

Aside from the massive 7.1-magnitude earthquake that shook the state, the Clippers pulled a late-night stunner by landing both Leonard and George. In what’s been the most exciting and unpredictable NBA free agency period in recent memory, these have been perhaps the most surprising moves of all.

After leading Toronto to its first title in his lone season as a Raptor, Leonard became the most sought-after player in the world when free agency opened on June 30. 

At the same time, while countless other free agents transferred across the league, no one expected George to be part of the historic movement given that he signed a four-year contract with the Thunder roughly one year earlier.

In 2018, George told NBA.com: “If ya’ll didn’t quite get it, let me say it again: I’m here to stay.” After saying that, the Oklahoma City crowd erupted in wild celebration as George repeated, “I’m here to stay.”

Kawhi Leonard and Paul George

Now the Los Angeles natives join the 48-win Clippers and expectations couldn’t be higher. In fact, the additions immediately position Los Angeles as the favorites to win the 2019-20 title, vaulting them from +1600 odds to +350 (the crosstown-rival Lakers are second at +400). 

You may be wondering how two players can cause such a seismic shift in the NBA landscape? Using data easily accessible on Stats Perform’s STATS PASS, we can take a look at just how much these stars bring to the table.

Leonard averaged 26.6 points and 7.3 rebounds in his 60 games last season, while George had 28 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 4.1 assists per game over 77 contests. George finished third in the league MVP voting while Leonard averaged 30.5 points and 9.1 boards in the postseason on the way to his second NBA Finals MVP award. 

Among small forwards that played at least 50 games in 2018-19, only Kevin Durant (8.4) of the Golden State Warriors had a higher +/- per game than George (6.4) and Leonard (5.9). 

George and Leonard have earned the reputation as two of the league’s most elite defenders, but they space the floor with range on offense too. Among players that averaged at least 25 points last season, only Golden State’s Stephen Curry (43.7%) had a higher 3-point percentage than George (38.6%) and Leonard (37.1%).

But it remains to be seen how effective George will be if he takes a backseat to Leonard in the Clippers’ offense. That was the case when he became Westbrook’s sidekick in his first season with the Thunder in 2017-18. That year, George had only a 23.1% usage rate when Westbrook was on the floor compared to a 36.2 mark when Westbrook was not on the floor. As a result, he finished with a scoring average of 21.9 – his lowest in a full season since 2013-14. 

With Westbrook having one of the worst shooting seasons of his career in 2018-19, George became more assertive – whether it be by design or necessity (or both) – as his usage rate became more balanced at 28.0% with Westbrook on the court and 32.6 when Westbrook was off. 

George With Westbrook On Court

SeasonUsage Rate %Effective Field Goal %Free-Throws Made Rate
2017-1823.153.323.6
2018-1928.054.627.4

George Without Westbrook On Court

SeasonUsage Rate %Effective Field Goal %3-Point Attempt Rate
2017-1836.248.542.4
2018-1932.649.147.5

Perhaps it was no accident then that George was one of the favorites for the MVP award before injuring his right shoulder in late February. He still ended up averaging career-highs in points, rebounds and 3-point field goals (3.8).

Though he has tweeted that he’s now fully healthy after undergoing offseason surgeries on both shoulders, George could be in line for a slow start much like his first season in Oklahoma City as he attempts to find his footing alongside Leonard. 

Nevertheless, the Clippers’ future has never looked brighter after enduring decades of tough luck and scrutiny as the Lakers’ ‘little brother.’

Houston Rockets acquire Russell Westbrook from the Thunder in exchange for Chris Paul, the right to swap first-round picks in 2021 and ’25, conditional first-round picks in ’24 and ’26 and cash.

In another unforeseen shakeup, the Rockets made a move to reunite Westbrook and James Harden after they played three seasons together in Oklahoma City from 2009-12. With the long-dominant Warriors no longer favorites, the former MVPs could benefit significantly from a newly leveled playing field in the West. 

Russell Westbrook

But at first glance, the trade seems to present more questions than answers. For example: How will Westbrook and Harden coexist when they’ve grown accustomed to and thrived with high individual usage rates? Will Westbrook be a downgrade for Houston’s 3-point-reliant offense compared to Paul? All in all, what does Westbrook bring to the Rockets that CP3 did not?

Things were different the last time Westbrook and Harden played together. Harden served as a valuable reserve off the bench, winning the Sixth Man of the Year Award while averaging 16.8 points in his third and final season in Oklahoma City. His 49.1 field-goal percentage and 39.0 3-point shooting percentage from that season still stand as career highs.

After being traded to Houston prior to the 2012-13 season, Harden has started every game he’s played in, averaged a league-best 29 points, won an MVP in 2017-18 and been named to five All-NBA first teams.  

Since his first season with the Rockets, Harden is second only to Westbrook in PAR (points+assists+rebounds) per game. Uncoincidentally, they’ve also averaged the highest usage percentages since 2014-15 (among those with at least 250 games) with Westbrook at 35.4 and Harden at 35. Harden also posted the second-highest single-season usage rate since 2014-15 at 40.7% last season. (Westbrook finished at 41.8% during his 2016-17 MVP season)

Both guards have skyrocketed into stardom, as noted by their back-to-back MVP campaigns. They’ve also grown accustomed to controlling their team’s tempo by dominating the ball on offense, which could present chemistry problems. 

At the same time, Houston has led the NBA in 3-point attempts per game the past three seasons while shooting roughly 36 percent. During that span, Westbrook has shot far more threes than Paul (1320-1036) at a significantly less efficient rate (31.5%-38.1%).

You don’t need to watch Westbrook play for long to notice that 3s are not his strong suit. He has the lowest 3-point percentage in the league among those who have attempted at least 1,000 since 2013.       

What Westbrook lacks in shooting efficiency, he makes up for with superb athleticism and relentless attacks to the rim. No guard comes close to the rebound or assist totals the two-time scoring champion has racked up while averaging a triple-double in each of the past three seasons. 

Another area where CP3 outshines Westbrook is ball security. Paul’s 3.98 career assist-to-turnover ratio is nearly double Westbrook’s 2.07 mark, meaning he gets about two more assists for every turnover. Houston coach Mike D’Antoni will need to key-in on ball security, given that Harden and Westbrook led the league in turnovers per game last season with 5.0 and 4.5, respectively.

With the Warriors dynasty perhaps at its most vulnerable, the Rockets are hoping to finally get over the hump and earn a trip to the NBA Finals that has eluded them since 1994-95. Harden and Westbrook will likely have to figure out how to share the ball and bring the best out of each other to get that done.  

Oklahoma City acquires eight first-round draft picks between 2021-26 over three trades from July 8-16.

So where do the departures of George and Westbrook leave the once title-hungry Thunder? 

In midst of the wildly rapid player movement, Oklahoma City was forced to undergo an aggressive rebuild primarily centered around the return from three big trades. 

Thunder general manager Sam Presti managed to acquire a conditional first-round pick in 2020 from the Denver Nuggets in exchange for forward Jerami Grant. He then added several more first-round selections, the right to better other picks through swaps and promising young guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in the Westbrook and George deals.

When it’s all said and done the Thunder could have as many as 15 first-round selections over the next seven years. And with Oklahoma City unlikely to become a major free-agent destination overnight, Presti has sent a message that the team will be built back up in the same manner that led to its run of nine playoff appearances in 11 years and one NBA Finals trip – through the draft. 

One of the few certainties during a time when the roster turnover rate is massive is securing rising stars on rookie deals or trading for upcoming players early in their careers. Eventually, the Thunder could be well-stocked with such prospects – if they’re able to be responsible and maximize their assets during what looks to be the league’s best-positioned rebuild.

Along those lines, Stats Perform’s groundbreaking AutoSTATS is changing the way teams are able to evaluate prospects. The AI-enabled technology can collect college – and potentially high school and international – tracking data that previously didn’t exist, enhancing an organization’s ability to analyze players.  

With an envious amount of selections at its disposal over the next several years, Oklahoma City – or a club with similar goals – could certainly gain from the arrival of AutoSTATS as it looks to make the most of future draft capital.