It’s possible to be both incredible and insufficient, spectacular and frustrating, iconic and outdated. Russell Westbrook is proof.
He’s helped guide the Oklahoma City Thunder to nine playoffs in the past 10 seasons — including four Western Conference Finals appearances and one Finals run. He’s an MVP who averaged a triple-double for a season, three years in a row. He’s the star who stayed while Kevin Durant left, a fan-favourite origin story immediately recognizable to those who follow teams such as the Toronto Raptors.
He hasn’t led OKC to a Finals since 2012, helming rosters that fell victim to injuries, staggering opponents who went on to hang banners like the 2014 San Antonio Spurs and 2016 Golden State Warriors, or were at least one bench performer shy. Over those last three Durant-less triple-double seasons, the Thunder have won four playoff games and zero series.
For 11 years, he’s been the link between these simultaneous and contrasting truths about the Thunder organization. Westbrook’s highs, his freestyling, manic, narcissistic style of play, peak with OKC coming up short. Perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise then that circumstance will, likely, force an end to their partnership.
Kawhi Leonard’s decision to join the Los Angeles Clippers — as long as Paul George accompanied him to form the latest parity shifting starry team up — led to the latter being shipped out of Oklahoma City for a king’s ransom worth of draft assets, and signalled a shift in focus toward the future that put in bold the writing that already existed faintly on the walls: Westbrook’s Thunder days are numbered.
The question is where does one of the league’s great solo-stars belong in an NBA run by big-name duos?
Westbrook, 30, is a point guard whose play is predicated on explosive athleticism. He’s also entering the second year of a five-year, $206-million supermax contract that will pay him $47 million when he’s 34 and that explosiveness could sputter.
Maybe the cost could be ignored, or at least, rationalized as a future manager’s problem, if Westbrook’s on-court numbers weren’t likely to regress. But they already are.
Despite the gaudy triple-double boxscore average, Westbrook’s efficiency plummeted last year, shooting 32 per cent from mid-range and 29 per cent from three, while his points per shot attempt sunk to around one — the lowest since his third season.
Still, at least three teams — the Detroit Pistons, Miami Heat and Houston Rockets — have reportedly expressed interest in trading for him, and cases could be made for deals featuring the Orlando Magic and New York Knicks.
Among them, Knicks noise can most easily be dismissed. After missing on big-name free agents like Durant and Leonard, New York’s off-season mandate appears to be focused on acquiring serviceable players on short-term contracts — the kind that would be easy to move to a contender for young players or draft picks when the trade deadline rolls around.
Westbrook doesn’t make the Knicks competitive enough to be relevant, he doesn’t fit an RJ Barrett future, nor would his contract be easy to flip. The only reason he could end up playing under Madison Square Garden’s lights is because the Knicks are poorly managed — historically compelling — but a faint outline of a long-term plan exists for New York, there’s no reason to think they’ll change course until the exact moment owner James Dolan derails the project.
Orlando and Detroit’s rationales to go all-in on Westbrook are stronger: they’re both Eastern Conference teams mired in mediocrity that could be looking to make a leap into something approaching a playoff round win. Neither fit, contractually or on the court, is clean.
Without a third team involved, the Pistons would likely be forced to part with Andre Drummond to make the money line up. Drummond’s strengths and flaws would be redundant, both short and long-term in OKC next to Steven Adams. They’re both old-school bigs who don’t space the floor, get out in transition, or create their own shot but do collect rebounds and contest shots.
But even the longest version of his tenure could be limited, given that Drummond can become a free agent as soon as 2020 if he declines his $28.7-million player option, freeing up the Thunder’s future cap outlook far quicker than if they kept Westbrook on the books.
Pairing Westbrook with Blake Griffin in Detroit would be league-altering in 2015. Four years in the NBA, though, is a lifetime. Committing an average of over $72 million to that duo until 2022 would massively restrict who could join them in the Motor City, without any reassurance that combining two limited shooters who are best with the ball in their hands likely pushes Detroit beyond a fourth-seed and first-round exit.
Maybe that’s enough. Not every team can be in the title conversation. Maybe the show Westbrook puts on is worth the price tag. For a team like the Magic, who have long sought a talented point guard to steer the ship, entertaining first- or second-round exits might be enough of an achievement until Westbrook’s contract runs out.
There’s some appeal in what a Westbrook-Nikola Vucevic pick-and-roll could accomplish and an Orlando trade package would likely offer long-term asset appeal, if it featured Aaron Gordon or Evan Fournier to make the salaries match. Gordon has shown flashes of a three-point shot over the last two seasons and at 23 could fit into a future made of OKC’s hoard of picks.
Houston can’t make as compelling of a long-term offer, with any deal — outside of one including Clint Capela — just accelerating how fast the Thunder can open up cap space, nor does adding Westbrook fit any part of what James Harden and Co. do.
The Rockets were pioneers of the analytics era, of pace-and-space, of gaming every possession to yield maximal returns. Westbrook is a shoot-your-shot star rebelling against that trend. Each time he sprints headlong down the court is an analytics rebuttal, there’s no obvious calculus, no care heeded for effective field goal percentage. He is a style of play unto himself.
The West may be more open than it’s been in half a decade, and Rockets general manager Daryl Morey has spent his career pursuing stars under the belief that landing as many elite players as possible is the path to championship glory. But does a Westbrook-Harden-Chris Paul trio lead him down that path, or get him lost before he’s started?
Out of any potential landing spot, the one with the most chatter behind it — for whatever that’s worth after the Kawhi social-media saga — is Miami.
In addition to Westbrook’s reported interest in the franchise, the cost-benefit equation for the Heat is simple: Miami acquired one star this off-season in Jimmy Butler and two stars are better than one.
A Butler-Westbrook combination would at the very least win regular season games as a heavily diluted variation of Durant and Westbrook.
It’s possible Miami can leverage Oklahoma City’s now publicly known desire to part ways with Westbrook into a trade without losing multiple young assets. The Heat are as sensible a suitor as either Detroit or Orlando — entertaining but at least one rung below the conference’s elite — and, maybe, an interesting playoff team if their young players take leaps and injury luck is on their side.
It’s possible for a player to be an upgrade on most rosters and be a bad fit. It’s possible for a player to have MVP-level talent and limited trade value. It’s possible for a team to make a blockbuster trade and not scratch the title conversation. Westbrook, a man of dualities with no surefire partner in a league run by duos, is proof.