What Kings Can Learn From End of Thunder After Russell Westbrook Trade

The Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets provided plenty of fodder for the hashtag-this-league crowd Thursday, reportedly trading point guards Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul for one another. 

Westbrook's inclusion in the reported deal marked an end of an era in Oklahoma City, with the last piece of a potential dynasty joining former Thunder stars James Harden (Houston), Kevin Durant (Brooklyn Nets) and Serge Ibaka (Toronto Raptors) in playing outside of OKC next season. After a five-game NBA Finals loss to the Miami Heat seven years ago, those four looked poised to form the nucleus of a team that could rule over the NBA for a decade. 

A little over four months after that loss, Oklahoma City traded Harden to the Rockets. In 2016, Durant joined the Warriors as a free agent days after Serge Ibaka was traded to the Orlando Magic. Now, the era officially is over, and its end offers a cautionary tale for the Kings.

The lesson? Keep your talent, even if it comes at a financial cost. 

Sacramento has its own stable of young talent that it hopes can develop into an Oklahoma City-esque core. Point guard De'Aaron Fox, 21, took a great leap forward in his second NBA season. Big man Marvin Bagley III, 20, is coming off a first-team All-Rookie year. Power forward Harry Giles, 20, showed flashes off the bench as a rookie in 2018-19.

Sharpshooter Buddy Hield, 26, is older than any of the Thunder's big four when Harden was traded, as is 26-year-old sixth man Bogdan Bogdanovic. But both players are a year away from restricted free agency, which is the same position Harden was in before he was traded. 

At the time of the deal, Harden was coming off of his third NBA season. He had just won the Sixth Man of the Year award, averaging 16.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists off the bench for the Thunder. Harden wasn't the sixth-most important player on Oklahoma City that season, however, playing the third-most minutes per game (31.4) and scoring the third-most points behind Durant and Westbrook. 

Eligible for an extension ahead of the final year of his rookie deal, Harden sought out a maximum contract. He was days away from the deadline to re-sign and the Thunder, fearing the looming luxury tax, reportedly wanted to pay Harden like a Sixth Man. 

Harden grew into a superstar, while the Thunder moved forward with a Durant-Ibaka-Westbrook core and made two more Western Conference finals. But they never again reached The Finals as luxury-tax bills grew more and more around the NBA. The Thunder dealt Ibaka days before Durant departed, hoping to clear enough salary-cap space to retain Durant and re-sign Westbrook to an extension. Westbrook got that extension, but now will finish it elsewhere.

Oklahoma City ultimately appeared to learn its own lesson, forking up one of the highest luxury-tax bills in NBA history last season with Paul George playing alongside Westbrook. But by then, it was too late, with only a first-round exit under their belt and both George and Westbrook now gone in the span of a week. 

The comparison is not perfect. The Kings have not had the same success as those Thunder teams, with Sacramento still searching for its first playoff appearance since 2006. Moreover, Fox and Bagley are the only players to even approach the heights of Durant, Westbrook, Harden and Ibaka. 

But these Kings quickly could become expensive, too. Hield and Bogdanovic will need new contracts next summer, and the Kings would sit just over $44 million below the luxury-tax line as things stand right now, according to Spotrac. It's difficult to envision each their two contracts combining for that total, but that space surely would diminish if the Kings made a trade similar to, say, the one that brought in Harrison Barnes last spring. The following summer is when Fox would be eligible for an extension, which -- assuming he continues along his trajectory -- could be pricey. 

None of the free-agent deals the Kings signed this summer are fully guaranteed beyond 2021 in order to provide maximum flexibility, but the salary cap and the luxury tax are not set past then, either. As long as those aren't, that means Sacramento has to be prepared to face a similar crossroads to what Oklahoma City did seven years ago. 

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It will be a good problem for general manager Vlade Divac to have if these Kings can reach the level of that Thunder team. That means Sacramento would be on the precipice of long-term contention, which has been the goal since DeMarcus Cousins was dealt to the New Orleans Pelicans during the 2017 NBA All-Star Game. 

Getting there might not require the Kings paying a cent of the luxury tax. But if it does, they'll only need to look at the end of Westbrook's tenure to Oklahoma City whether or not the alternative outweighs the financial cost. 

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