Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13): As free agency winds down, the league is still feeling the effects of Kawhi Leonard's decision to join the LA Clippers along with Paul George, whom they acquired from the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for a massive bounty.
The last big domino to fall? Russell Westbrook.
Reports have surfaced that the team is now open to trading their franchise player as they get set to shift into a full rebuild. He's owed just over $170 million over the next four seasons, including a whopping $47 million in the final year of his deal in 2022-23.
That's a ton of money for a point guard on the wrong side of 30.
Let's start with a simple question: would you trade for Russell Westbrook?
Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles): It depends on the situation. Westbrook can definitely still make a difference, but whether or not a team with him as the first or second-best player can legitimately compete is a different discussion, which makes it an obviously risky move with the amount of money he's still owed at his age.
Carlan Gay (@TheCarlanGay): I hate sitting on the fence and I'll make it clear that I'm the biggest of Westbrook supporters, but it really does depend on the situation.
In saying that, a rebuilding team with young pieces is not calling Sam Presti's phone for Westbrook, so maybe we should just agree to eliminate the teams outside of the playoff race. This is about the teams on the cusp of championship contender status - so my answer is yes.
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Adams: I'd trade for him. I think that price tag is obviously massive, but I also think it's blocking most from giving credit where it's due... Westbrook is still a really, really good player.
Gay: I get the money issue but what you're really trying to do when you get Russ is compete for the next two seasons. He can do that. The league is setting up to look totally different again in two years.
Rafferty: But don't you both think there's a pretty obvious ceiling if Westbrook is the first or second-best player on a team?
Gay: I mean, as a younger version of himself he was on a team that made the Finals. Later he was on a team that was one game away from the Finals. I get the dude has faults, but there's a lot of positives that come with him that we ignore because it gets a reaction on social media to make fun of Westbrook's jumpshot.
Adams: Two things:
- Yes, but the same thing can be said for all but maybe 8-9 players in the entire league
- It's OK to have a ceiling. Not every team is legitimately out there competing to win the whole thing. There are different levels of winning and Westbrook can make a team more relevant, even if that ceiling is short of winning the whole thing.
Pascal Siakam was just the second-best player on a championship team.
Rafferty: The league is very different now, though. Like, do you see the Miami Heat with Westbrook and Jimmy Butler competing next season? What about the Houston Rockets with him? It's just tough to find a situation in which adding him makes a team a legit contender.
Saying Siakam was the second-best player on a championship team is simplifying it greatly, by the way. The Raptors were much deeper than any team that's going to acquire Westbrook.
Adams: I'm glad you brought up the Heat.
That team is the perfect example of how there are different levels of winning. Would a Butler/Westbrook pairing bring another title to South Beach? Almost certainly not. Would a Butler/Westbrook pairing give that team a shot to reach a Conference Final? No guarantees, but at least they'd have a puncher's chance.
Gay: The league may be different but one thing remains the same... you need stars to compete. Westbrook is a star and pairing him with a Jimmy Butler in Miami or Karl-Anthony Towns in Minnesota gets you closer to a championship. The rest of the roster can fall into place after that but it starts with finding superstar talent. That doesn't grow on trees.
Adams: Also... injuries happen. You never bank on them. You certainly never root for them. But we just saw what can happen and if there's a lesson to be learned from 2018-19, it's that you don't throw away seasons and assume anything. In the East, the 76ers aren't exactly a modicum of health. In theory, that's one of the teams you're punching up at from where Miami would sit.
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Rafferty: I guess what I'm saying is that despite Westbrook probably being underrated at this point, there aren't many teams that can outright trade for him because of his salary and he hasn't done enough in the last two postseasons to make me believe that he can still be a driving force on a team looking to compete for a title.
Adams: The last two playoff appearances certainly left much to be desired. I can't nor won't deny that.
Gay: That was also in the West against tougher competition. He was on a team that was expected to be beat. Let's not act like the Thunder were No. 1 seeds losing to 8 seeds here. Did he underachieve? Yes. But in a different conference next to a different side kick, maybe things are better.
If Westbrook ended up in Miami, every team in the East would have flaws. There's no clear cut favourite. That's why if you're a Miami, who just signed a big named free agent, it's worth swinging for the fences and trading for Westbrook. They've never been shy about spending money in South Beach, so who's to say they stop there?
Rafferty: There's no clear cut favorite in the East? I think the 76ers and Bucks are, whether the Heat get Westbrook or not.
Gay: If you say the 76ers AND Bucks, that's two teams, which proves my point. There's no clear cut favourite in the East.
Adams: Detroit is another team that makes sense to me. I'm oddly fascinated by the thought of Westbrook and Blake Griffin, even if they are essentially two different versions of the same player, aging with gaudy numbers overly dependent on athleticism owed big money. And yet... both made All-NBA teams last season!
You know how many teams in the East have a pair of All-NBA guys next season? Right now it's zero. There would be almost zero shooting in place and the thought of Westbrook and Derrick Rose sharing a backcourt brings up so many questions I don't even know where to begin. But that's an experiment I really want to see.
Gay: First time two MVPs are in a backcourt together? Interesting...
Adams: I know we're focusing on how he might impact a team next year, but the trickiest part of trading for Westbrook is beyond next season.
Rafferty: But I think it all relates. The reason I was hammering the idea of there being no clear team next season that would be a legit contender with him is because it's probably only going to go downhill from there.
Gay: Why look beyond that? Who knows what the league will look like at that point. If you're a GM you might not even have a job by then. So if I'm a GM looking at trade for Russ, it's a two year window. That's how you have to approach it. Too much changes nowadays in the league. Six days ago Russ wasn't even on the market.
Adams: You have to look beyond that because he makes so much money that it's impossible to plan or build around him. Try telling the Washington Wizards not to look beyond this season staring at John Wall's albatross.
Gay: Wall is hurt. That's why people were saying his contract is bad.
Russ has every chance of being the same guy he is now in four years. We're all speculating, we really don't know, we can just guess. You want to complain about his shooting, Jason Kidd figured it out later in life.
Adams: I'm glad you brought up Jason Kidd because if you didn't, I was.
Westbrook shot 43% overall from the field last year as a 30-year-old. At the same age, Jason Kidd shot 38%. After turning 30, Kidd shot 39% overall for the rest of his career. Granted, he turned into a good 3-point shooter but he couldn't finish AT ALL inside either.
Gay: Jason Kidd wasn't near the athlete that Russ is.
Rafferty: The pull-ups need to go for Westbrook. He shot 32% on catch-and-shoot 3s last season and 26% on pull-up 3s.
He shot more pull-up 3s than catch-and-shoot 3s, too.
Gay: I agree pull-ups got to go. But is that why you won't trade for him?
Rafferty: His shot selection at this point of his career with his weaknesses has to be factored in, yes.
Adams: Westbrook shot over 50% on drives last season, better than he had in any of the previous five years. He shot better on drives than Damian Lillard, Kemba Walker, Donovan Mitchell and Zach LaVine, to name a few. If he cuts down on those pull-ups and focuses on 1) driving and 2) becoming a passable 3-point shooter on catch-and-shoots, he can still be an incredibly effective player.
Gay: Russ is about winning and he'll do anything to do so. In a good organisation with a championship coach, some of those bad habits won't be tolerated like it has been in OKC with coaches who, let's face it, let Russ do whatever he's wanted.
Adams: I will say, it feels like we've been having conversations about Westbrook's shot selection and bad habits for years now. At some point, perhaps you just are who you are, similar to what we just witnessed with Carmelo Anthony. I do think being on a new team with new coaches might work wonders for holding him more accountable.
Gay: Should he go there, we're giving Erik Spoelstra and the Heat staff no credit if Russ's shot selection is why we won't trade for an All-NBA player.
Rafferty: It's not the only reason. I just said it has to be factored in.
Gay: Give me another.
Rafferty: The amount of money that's remaining on his contract and how his efficiency has taken a sizable hit in each of the last two seasons.
I'm not saying he's not capable of making a positive impact in the right situation. There are just some clear warning signs.
Gay: A large part of his efficiency dip is tied to his shot selection and recklessness on offence and not being held accountable by a coach. Again, if he goes to Miami and I'm the Heat GM, I believe in my staff to get the best out of Westbrook. I also believe in Jimmy Butler, who isn't shy about letting guys know they're screwing up, and that my players will hold him accountable.
Raw superstar talent doesn't grow on trees. With Russ and Jimmy, you're close to a championship. At the end of the day, that's what this game is about - winning. Trust in your staff, and if you're a good GM you figure out a way to build a team around them to win. Anyone who's afraid to acquire a superstar probably hasn't won a title and probably never will.
Adams: One more piece that gets ignored in all of the talk about Westbrook's shooting woes and decision making and playoff failures... he's an incredibly willing passer. We sometimes collectively get so lost in what he can't do that we lose sight of what he can do. Does he stat-hunt? Yes. Is there some noise to his gaudy assist totals? You betcha.
But here's something to think about. Among the top 25 in drives per game last season, only two players passed on over 50% of them: Westbrook and Chris Paul.
That guy puts pressure on a D like few can and despite the reputation, is beyond capable of lifting up those around him. I'm not even a big Westbrook guy but it feels like the obituaries to his status as an All-Star caliber player are a bit premature.
If I'm Miami or Detroit, I'd do it. If I'm Orlando or even San Antonio, I might think about it.
Gay: Whoever ends up with Westbrook will be happier to have him then living life without him.
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