“Just be yourself” is not universal advice. Being himself might’ve lost Russell Westbrook two superstar teammates in three years, if you subscribe to the idea that Westbrook’s dominant, frantic style of play pushed Kevin Durant away in 2016, and then Paul George last week, as Oklahoma City granted George’s request to be traded to the Clippers just one year after he committed to staying with the Thunder long-term. The Thunder, too, will now be forced to reevaluate what “being themselves” means. After making the playoffs nine times in the past 10 seasons, including four Western Conference finals appearances and one Finals run, the franchise’s proverbial hand is being forced. It’s time to rebuild. Bring it on down to Tankingville.
On Saturday, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported the inevitable: Westbrook’s camp is communicating with Thunder general manager Sam Presti about a possible trade before the 2019-20 season begins. “Both understand that the time has likely come to explore trade possibilities for Westbrook,” Wojnarowski wrote. But Westbrook, 30, isn’t nearly as attractive a trade chip as George. Brodie is entering the second year of his five-year, $206.8 million supermax contract, which will pay out $47 million in 2022-23 when Westbrook is 34 years old. ESPN’s Zach Lowe called Westbrook’s contract the second worst in the NBA in April, topped only by John Wall’s overweight, never-to-fly-again albatross of a deal. Even so, three teams—Detroit, Miami, and Houston—are reportedly interested in Westbrook. There’s a logical case to be made for each of those squads adding Westbrook, but I’m here to talk about a team that hasn’t been part of the Russ rumors. I’m here to be brave. Minnesota [breathe in, Wolves fans] needs to take a long look [breathe out, Wolves fans] at trading for Westbrook.
With the right trade package, Westbrook and Minnesota can keep each other relevant. (Yes, I realize this sounds like the second coming of the Jimmy Butler trade, and no, I don’t have mild heat stroke, and yes, I slept a full eight hours last night.) Last Saturday, Gersson Rosas, the Timberwolves’ new president of basketball operations, said the team will be active for the remainder of the summer: “We’re not done working. And we’re not done making moves.” In May, Rosas was hired away from Houston, where he served as vice president in one of the league’s more aggressive front offices.
Under Daryl Morey (who has been the GM in Houston since 2007), the Rockets have made win-now moves, including blockbuster trades for James Harden and Chris Paul. A Westbrook trade would technically be a win-now deal, but would also serve to preserve Minnesota’s relevance in a conference that seemingly formed multiple superteams overnight. The drawbacks are obvious: Westbrook’s contract gives Minnesota no cap flexibility, he’s coming off his most inefficient season in years, and he is seven years older than Karl-Anthony Towns. But Minnesota has to face a couple of harsh truths about its organization. The Wolves are already capped out for the foreseeable future, but with a roster that won’t win nearly as much as it would if they added Westbrook. His 2017-18 run (a “down” year for him) is still far superior to what current point guard Jeff Teague or current cap-space-sucker Andrew Wiggins can offer. There’s been little to no return on Minnesota’s, um, 15-year-long rebuild; even with a slew of young talent brought in during the past couple of years, the roster has not grown into an organically sourced success story like that of Milwaukee or Denver. Towns can’t lift a team by himself the way Giannis Antetokounmpo has, and his surrounding cast hasn’t supported him to the degree that Nikola Jokic’s has.
The pick-and-roll (and pick-and-pop) possibilities with Westbrook and Towns are fun to imagine, but trading for the former also would serve a crucial off-court function. Towns has grown up in a league in which stars requesting trades is normal. As Towns enters his prime, Minnesota can’t ignore the pressure to keep him happy. The Wolves are unlikely to significantly improve their roster in free agency; just last week, the Wolves missed out on signing D’Angelo Russell, who would’ve been the first big name to come from another franchise of his own free will since the early aughts. Outside of Minnesota, too, previous small-market wins have turned sour. Toronto banked on swooning Kawhi Leonard, yet even after winning a championship, he left. George perhaps gave Toronto the courage to trade for Leonard when he re-signed with Oklahoma City in 2018.
There are, of course, significant obstacles to trading for Westbrook. Because of NBA cap rules, the Wolves would need to send significant salary back to the Thunder in a Westbrook trade, which would likely (hopefully) mean offloading Wiggins’s gargantuan contract, and it’d certainly take quite the package to convince the Thunder to consider that. Minnesota has Teague on an expiring contract, which is enticing for a team hoping to clear the space for a fresh start, and Gorgui Dieng has just two years remaining on his deal. A young, promising player like Josh Okogie would fit the Thunder’s rebuild, as would Minnesota’s sixth overall 2019 draft pick, guard Jarrett Culver out of Texas Tech. (Though ideally, the 20-year-old would be kept as Westbrook insurance—the Wolves claimed point guard Tyrone Wallace off waivers on Monday, but they’ve yet to match the Grizzlies’ three-year, $28 million offer sheet for current backup Tyus Jones. Doing so would put Minnesota $750,000 to $1 million below the luxury tax, per Bobby Marks.)
Sacrificing Robert Covington—whose talent on defense might make him the real unicorn in Minnesota—would probably be a step too far for Wolves fans. And then there are draft picks, which is the dowry OKC really cares about. Minny owns all of its future picks, and would have to give a couple up to dump Wiggins.
Still, if Lowe considers Westbrook’s deal the second worst in the league, Wiggins’s can’t be too far behind. If the Wolves have a chance to unload it, they should pounce. The five-year, $147.7 million extension was thought to be a mistake long before it was signed; it’s since aged worse than frosted tips. Wiggins is owed significantly less money than Westbrook, and at 24, is significantly younger. But one is a former MVP and has averaged a triple-double for three consecutive seasons, and the other shows up one in every five nights. Westbrook is older, more expensive, and holds the potential to be more destructive, but even in the worst-case scenario he’d still be easier to trade away in a year than Wiggins would. If Minnesota’s roster is capped to the brim anyway, might as well make the next year or two a wild, Westbrookian ride.
The timing is opportune for the Wolves. The Thunder should want to be as bad as possible next season (they’ll keep their 2020 first-rounder if it falls in the top 20). That plan doesn’t include Oklahoma City’s best player staying on the team for long. The Wolves will rarely have a chance at a superstar like this one.
If acquiring Westbrook means keeping Towns and losing Wiggins, it has to be something the front office entertains. Durant and George left, but former and current teammates (Enes Kanter, Nick Collison, Dennis Schröder, Jeremy Lamb, Anthony Morrow, Steven Adams, Corey Brewer, and even Durant, all these years later) vouch for Westbrook as a great teammate. Westbrook has never played beside a center with Towns’s skill set, and Towns has never played with a veteran point guard as talented as Westbrook. He’d be an improvement over Ricky Rubio on the court production-wise (while still setting up teammates), and an improvement over Butler in the locker room (while still bringing intensity). It’d be an arranged marriage, but could end up a happy one all the same.