The second-winningest team of the past decade is changing directions. After sending Paul George to the Clippers for an overflowing treasure chest of assets, and closing Monday’s deal to send forward Jerami Grant to the Nuggets for a first-round pick, it’s clear that Oklahoma City is taking a new tack. You don’t ship out a talented, productive, and versatile forward who just shot 39 percent from 3-point land on nearly 300 attempts and can defend five positions if you’re trying to figure out a way to win next season. You do it because you want to dramatically reduce your luxury-tax bill, get within hailing distance of avoiding the dreaded repeater tax, and continue to stuff that treasure chest.
You do it because now has become less important than later; you do it because, at this point, there’s really no now to speak of. For the past 10 years, Oklahoma City has been consistently in the running for championships. But while the race for the 2020 NBA championship might include more entrants than ever before, the Thunder have stepped back from the starting line.
Which brings us to Russell Westbrook, with whom the Thunder have begun “talking about the next steps” in his future Hall of Fame career, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Oklahoma City is now publicly open to taking trade offers involving Westbrook, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic. That’s what you do when your reality has inverted, suddenly and violently.
Westbrook and the Thunder “both understand that the time has likely come to explore trade possibilities,” is how Woj put it after George’s shocking westward migration. Neither of the first two iterations of the Russ-PG Thunder won 50 games, and both dashed on the rocks of the opening round of the playoffs; even if George hadn’t gone westward, this still might have been inevitable.
Despite massive payrolls and marquee headlining talent, the Westbrook-George Thunder won three total games in two postseasons. As a capped-out team without the financial flexibility to add significant talent this summer, their prospects of improving on those finishes seemed dim. Now, with two starters out the door and Oklahoma City’s competitive timeline more in line with the development of 20-year-old Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, 19-year-old draftee Darius Bazley, and a crop of prospects still working on making varsity, it seems like Damian Lillard might have been waving goodbye to an entire era at the end of his first-round series with OKC. Thunder beat reporter Royce Young suggested that a full-scale reboot triggered by trading Westbrook “appears to be the most likely scenario,” and that was before the Grant deal made clear Oklahoma City’s preference for slashing costs and kicking the competitive can down the road.
Finding the right trade partner for Westbrook promises to be, um, tricky. Suitors for players set to make $171.1 million over the next four seasons are tough to come by. (Should Westbrook decide not to exercise his $47 million player option for 2022-23, when he’ll be 33 years old and entering his 15th season, the total outlay would be $124.1 million for the previous three seasons—a relative pittance!) That’s especially true at this stage of free agency; right now, only the Mavericks and Hawks have significant salary cap space. But this is Russell Westbrook, after all. There will be suitors.
Sam Amick and Brett Dawson of The Athletic reported that the Heat and Pistons—two teams that have one bona fide star (Jimmy Butler and Blake Griffin, respectively) and are looking to add another—“are very real possibilities as potential landing spots” for Westbrook. Deals built around point guards Reggie Jackson and Goran Dragic, whose deals both expire after this season, with other salary ballast (guys like Tony Snell and Langston Galloway from Detroit, or Dion Waiters and James Johnson from Miami) and rookie-contract prospects (the Pistons’ Luke Kennard or Sekou Doumbouya; Bam Adebayo or Tyler Herro of the Heat) could help the Thunder clear the decks. Finding the right balance could be tough, but for Miami and Detroit—two teams eager to rise up the Eastern Conference hierarchy who lack the means to sign another blue-chipper—it could be worth it. (We probably shouldn’t hold our breath for OKC to welcome Jackson back with open arms, though.)
ESPN’s Tim MacMahon reported that the forever star-starved Rockets are interested in Westbrook, too, though a Rockets source characterized such a deal as a “long shot.” It’d be hard for Houston to put together a trade package that would save Oklahoma City money and provide the draft-capital goodies that general manager Sam Presti is looking to hoard. It’d be even tougher to do so while keeping together a core that could give Houston a real shot to compete for its first NBA Finals berth in a quarter-century. Would moving some combination of Chris Paul, Clint Capela, and/or Eric Gordon in a Westbrook deal—perhaps one that would include center Steven Adams, who struggled to make an impact against Portland in the playoffs and is owed more than $53 million over the next two seasons—meaningfully improve Houston’s title odds? How would Westbrook fare alongside Paul or James Harden, two high-usage guards who score and shoot more efficiently than the 2017 MVP?
Other matches seem murky at best. The Magic just spent big to remain playoff-competitive, bringing back Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross and bringing in Al-Farouq Aminu. Their plan at the point consists of veteran caretaker D.J. Augustin and the eternal mystery that is Markelle Fultz. A big swing like this—maybe something built around Aaron Gordon and Mo Bamba?—feels like it’d be out of character for Orlando, and maybe not the best fit for all parties involved. The Knicks seem like a fit after going through another star-less free-agency period, but their spate of post-Netspocalypse signings ate up their cap space and loaded their roster with contracts they can’t trade until December 15. (Dealing young players and future picks for an about-to-be-31-year-old guard on a supermax deal would also seem to directly contradict New York’s stated preference for a slow-and-steady, youth-focused rebuild, though how closely the Knicks would stick to that plan in the face of a potential deal would remain to be seen.)
The Suns just spent $51 million on Ricky Rubio, and appear to be conducting transactions using some rare form of chaos math; I wouldn’t presume to hazard a guess on whether they’d be in or out on a Russ deal. Westbrook might profile as a supercharged pick-and-roll partner for Karl-Anthony Towns in Minnesota, and could bring the fringe benefit of allowing the Timberwolves to move on from Andrew Wiggins—Presti does love young, long, athletic wings who have yet to put it all together!—but would new Wolves boss Gersson Rosas be eager to bring in another hard-nosed, high-usage perimeter player who’d take the ball out of KAT’s hands after the last such run didn’t end so hot?
Building around Westbrook has never been easy, and it doesn’t seem like it will get any simpler as he moves into his mid-30s on legs that have seen more than their fair share of wear and tear. Last season, Westbrook showed a greater willingness to cede offensive responsibility to an MVP-level costar, posting his lowest usage rate since his sophomore campaign, but that didn’t translate into increased offensive efficiency for the eight-time All-Star. Instead, Westbrook slogged through one of the worst shooting seasons in league history.
He can cash in at the basket, taking 40 percent of his shots at the rim and shooting a career-best 63 percent there, according to Cleaning the Glass. Even so: Only nine other players have ever had a usage rate as high, and a true shooting percentage as low, as Westbrook managed last season. It’s tough to bet on an explosiveness-reliant player without a bankable jumper remaining an elite point-producer into his mid-30s. Westbrook’s defensive issues—his gambling can create turnovers, but can also require teammates to clean up for him—complicate matters further.
All that said—and it seems odd to say this about a player who was just named to his eighth All-NBA team—it feels like the pendulum has swung a bit too far on Westbrook. Yes, he’s a difficult piece to build around, but he’s also one of the most forceful players in the sport. Maybe he’s not the ideal centerpiece of a championship contender in the modern NBA, but he’s a relentless driver, a top-flight pick-and-roll facilitator, and a hard-charging leader; he can still give defenses fits, and he can still make a team better. Some team is going to bet on him giving it that boost before training camp opens in September. It’ll be fascinating to learn who, and what they’re willing to give up to get him.