With All-NBA partner Paul George gone to the Los Angeles Clippers, Russell Westbrook appears to be the latest Oklahoma City Thunder star bound to leave.
After Westbrook met with Thunder general manager Sam Presti over the weekend to discuss the 2017 Most Valuable Player’s future following George’s exit, the two sides are now “receptive toward trade calls,” per The Athletic’s Shams Charania.
This all sets in stone what ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported on Sunday — that Westbrook’s 11-year tenure with the only team he’s known may come to an end as soon as this summer, so long as the Thunder can find a viable landing spot for him.
Both Westbrook and Presti will work together throughout the process, Charania reported. Whether or not anyone actually calls will largely depend on the willingness of potential suitors to take on the four years and $171 million left on Westbrook’s supermax extension — and the hurdles interested parties may face in assembling salaries to match that figure so soon after a litany of recent free-agency signings.
Almost every serious contender already features a franchise floor general, and Westbrook does not fit the timeline for most rebuilding rosters, so we can remove the majority of the league from consideration for his services. Remaining small-market teams and stable front offices who understand they are more than a Westbrook away from a title will also be wary of dealing for a 30-year-old who has shot worse than 40 percent from the field in three straight first-round playoff exits.
Still, Westbrook has averaged a triple-double for three consecutive regular seasons and remains one of the NBA’s most dominant forces by sheer will. He could swing the fortunes of a handful of teams over the next four years. Here are five of them.
The Heat are Westbrook’s most logical landing spot, and sure enough they and the Detroit Pistons are “very real possibilities” for him, per The Athletic’s Sam Amick. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports that joining the Heat “appeals to Westbrook.”
Miami is always in the market for superstars, and there are rumors abound that 74-year-old team president Pat Riley is eager to build another competitive playoff team before his eventual retirement. The sign-and-trade acquisition of Jimmy Butler might accelerate his plan, and adding Westbrook would give coach Erik Spoelstra two of the NBA’s most competitive players to fit into a system that demands grit.
The Heat are already without meaningful cap space for the next two seasons, so acquiring Westbrook would not stall any immediate plans, although it would hinder their ability to chase what could be a talented 2021 free-agency class. They will have to decide whether they would rather wait two years to become truly relevant again or pay Westbrook’s surgically repaired knees $47 million in his age 34 season.
Riley has the assets to make a trade work now — namely Goran Dragic’s expiring contract and young building blocks Justise Winslow and Bam Adebayo. But there’s a catch. Oklahoma City already owns the Heat’s 2021 and 2023 first-round picks via the Clippers, so on top of not being able to acquire a draft asset until 2025, the Thunder might also be worsening those selections by sending Westbrook to Miami.
The Pistons are purgatory for sub-optimal max contracts. Like Westbrook, Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond were both good enough to secure mega-deals and not good enough to headline a title contender. Detroit might hold out hope that together they could find a path to contention, at least in the Eastern Conference.
And why not pay Westbrook if you have already committed to spending up to or above the salary cap for the next two seasons, and your history of success in free agency suggests that cap space will not help lure anyone better beyond 2021?
The Pistons have recent lottery picks and all their own future first-round selections to trade, along with a few expiring contracts, although that may require mending fences between OKC and Reggie Jackson or rerouting the former Thunder guard.
Westbrook is the highest-profile active Jordan Brand athlete, and the Hornets just so happen to be owned by His Airness. When Michael Jordan inducted Westbrook into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 2016, he said of Westbrook’s will, “If you can ever say, being that we’re so many years apart, that when I watch him play, I see a lot of resemblance of his passion for the game of basketball [to] the way I played.”
Jordan was a fan of Westbrook at UCLA and tried to move up in the lottery to draft him in 2008, but Presti was not willing to part with the No. 4 overall pick. Eleven years and eight All-Star appearances later, Jordan could finally get his man — the same summer star Hornets point guard Kemba Walker leaves in free agency.
Like Detroit, Charlotte has expiring contracts, along with its own recent and future first-round picks, to send in return for Westbrook. This would require Westbrook to sign off on spending the rest of his contract on a small-market team with little talent around him, which is not much different from the situation he is seeking to leave.
They already have two headstrong All-Star guards on the roster, it took a trade to the Rockets to truly free James Harden from Westbrook’s shadow in OKC, and Houston GM Daryl Morey has spent years outlining why Harden is more deserving of our praise than Westbrook. Yet, they are still among those interested in Westbrook even if acquiring him would be a “long shot,” according to ESPN’s Tim MacMahon.
Sure, Westbrook’s relentless penetration might open up opportunities for Houston’s plethora of shooters, including Harden, and we might even see a playmaking side of Westbrook that OKC coaches Scott Brooks and Billy Donovan never unlocked, but it is hard to see how his fiery nature would fit onto an already combustible team.
Westbrook, Harden and Chris Paul might be the most talented three-guard lineup in NBA history, but it would also be the most likely to result in a one-team brawl. Dealing Paul for Westbrook would make the money work and solve his reportedly “unsalvageable” partnership with Harden, but it would not make sense for Presti, who would then be committing to pay a probably unhappy Paul $44 million in 2022.
It is almost a prerequisite in NBA circles to say that Morey is a star-hunter and one of the NBA’s more creative trade-makers, but even he might not be savvy enough to pull this off, even if he sacrifices Clint Capela and a collection of draft picks.
New York Knicks
Having whiffed on Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and the host of NBA stars who changed teams this summer, it would be extremely Knicks to scrap their rebuilding efforts and chase Westbrook with no real plan for how to contend with him.
Having spent their salary cap space on Julius Randle, Bobby Portis, Taj Gibson, Elfrid Payton and Reggie Bullock, the Knicks would have to be among the teams waiting until Dec. 15 (when newly signed free agents are eligible to be traded) to complete a deal for Westbrook, but they have the collection of young talent, future draft compensation and easily movable contracts to acquire a max-salaried star.
How the Knicks would go about building around Westbrook’s $38.5 million salary this season is a mystery befitting a team working on decades worth of puzzling decisions. Still, they are as desperate as ever to make Madison Square Garden a destination again, and desperation is the difference between teams like the Dallas Mavericks, Orlando Magic, Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves potentially making calls for Westbrook and someone like the San Antonio Spurs never dialing.
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