Russell Westbrook turned 32 on Thursday. The team that currently employs him, the Houston Rockets, wished him a happy birthday on social media:
It remains to be seen, though, whether the Rockets will give the NBA’s 2016-17 Most Valuable Player what he reportedly wants most for his birthday: to leave Houston.
It took all of 24 hours to go from “Russell Westbrook can be had” to Westbrook and James Harden “express[ing] concern about the direction” of the Rockets to Westbrook wanting out. Perhaps that shouldn’t surprise us. Bad news travels fast, after all, and no NBA franchise has been more committed to “fast” in recent years than the Rockets—or, of late, had more depressing missives to spread.
“Russell Westbrook, Houston Rocket” only ever really made sense if you squinted—if you tilted your head just so, believed fervently that the magic of friendship could be powerful enough to change two leopards’ spots, and imagined a reality dramatically different from the one we inhabit. And, to be fair, that’s kind of what Mike D’Antoni and Daryl Morey did, reinventing Houston’s roster and schematic ecosystem as a land without centers in a bold attempt to unleash Westbrook’s off-the-bounce ballistics without compromising Harden’s peerless isolation efficiency or the five-out floor spacing that weaponized every other role-playing Rocket.
It looked pretty good there for a minute—a 10-point road win over the Lakers just after going all in on small ball, a six-game winning streak, Westbrook playing some of the best basketball of his career. And then: the coronavirus, which Westbrook contracted and which shut the NBA down for four months. The illness delayed his arrival in Orlando and limited his ability to train for the league’s restart, which could have contributed to the quad strain that hampered his play in the bubble, where the Rockets sputtered and struggled through a seven-game slugfest against the Thunder before meekly bowing out to the eventual champion Lakers in Round 2.
Maybe, with better health, the Harden-Russ partnership would’ve shocked the world, but you can reimagine reality only so much before you have to reckon with your plane of existence. The Rockets just lost one of the league’s best personnel executives and most creative offensive coaches at a time when their roster is damn-near landlocked and in desperate need of a fresh approach. They have seen things go south with a third superstar partner for Harden, whose talent produces inarguable regular-season results but sure does seem to keep rubbing people the wrong way. And now they face a demand to move a 32-year-old with multiple knee surgeries in his medical file who is the second-least-accurate high-volume 3-point shooter of all time—one who cost them Chris Paul, two top-four-protected first-round picks, and two first-round pick swaps, and who is owed a mind-numbing $132.6 million over the next three seasons.
A separation might not be the worst thing for either party. One could imagine that new Rockets general manager Rafael Stone might not necessarily mind excising Westbrook’s contract from Houston’s balance sheet and using some of that $40-plus million per year to build out the rest of the roster—like, say, with someone taller than 6-foot-8? Figuring out how to do it, though, promises to be one hell of a challenge.
This isn’t all on Westbrook. The behind-the-scenes report from Kelly Iko, Shams Charania, and Sam Amick of The Athletic makes it abundantly clear that frustration abounds in Houston, with seemingly every non-Harden member of the Rockets’ core—P.J. Tucker, Eric Gordon, Austin Rivers, Danuel House—stewing over contract issues, inconsistent roles, a perceived lack of respect, or all of the above. Westbrook, who came to Houston from a Thunder organization that he played a major role in building from the ground up, reportedly “informed [Rockets] officials that he has been uneasy about the team’s accountability and culture,” and has specifically called for more “discipline and structure” in how Houston operates.
This isn’t necessarily surprising; Westbrook has been described over the years as “a creature of habit in the most extreme sense” who is “loath to change, slow to trust and attached to routine.” But while everything in OKC was built around Russ’s preferences, everything in Houston is built around Harden’s—the perks of being the MVP-winning, scoring-title-holding planet the organization revolves around—and how much accountability the Beard deserves for the Rockets’ repeated postseason stumbles is a matter of debate. And because Houston is understandably committed to Harden first, last, and always, if Westbrook wants to “have a role similar to his prior, floor-general role in Oklahoma City,” as The Athletic report suggests, it stands to reason that he’ll have to find it elsewhere.
Which raises the $132.6 million question: Where, exactly, can this version of Russell Westbrook find a home? On one hand, Westbrook remains an explosive and indisputably productive offensive talent. He averaged 27.2 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 7.0 assists in 35.9 minutes per game last season—only LeBron James and Oscar Robertson have averaged at least 27-7-7 in more seasons than Russ—while leading the league in drives to the basket per game, ranking second in transition points per game, taking nearly half of his shot attempts directly at the rim, and shooting a career-high 51.4 percent on 2-point tries. He can also still break down the defense and create high-value looks for teammates. Only 20 players assisted on more baskets at the rim last season, and only three—Luka Doncic, LeBron, and Ben Simmons—set up more 3-pointers, according to pbpstats.com.
On the other hand, much of that production came in a highly specific context. Defenses playing the Rockets focused first and foremost on trying to limit Harden, even going so far as to double-team and trap him in the backcourt, which often gave Westbrook the opportunity to attack in advantageous situations. Defenses also feared helping off of Houston’s many floor spacers, worrying that loading up on a Russ drive or shading toward him on a second-side action would open the door to a barrage of drive-and-kick 3s. Would he be quite as productive in an environment where he’s the one responsible for setting the table, rather than having it set for him, with rosters featuring fewer floor-spreaders?
The ideal situation, it would seem, would be a team without a dominant ball handler that would allow Westbrook to run the show as he did in OKC. Given that one of the main motivators for his decision to ask out of Houston is reportedly the concern that the Rockets might be closer to rebuilding than to competing for championships, the perfect suitor would also be a team who, with one major backcourt upgrade, would be within arm’s reach of a title—without kneecapping itself by matching Westbrook’s mammoth salary in a trade. Oh, and the Rockets are probably going to ask for something good—a young player, an enticing asset—to dull the pain of moving off Russ just one season after the Thunder took over primary ownership of their draft future. (Suitors would be well within their rights to ask Houston to send some sweeteners. Again: Have you seen Russ’s contract?)
If that seems like an awful lot of boxes to check, you’re right. Among top-level contenders, one theoretical fit might be the Bucks, who have one offseason to convince Giannis Antetokounmpo to stick around for the long haul, who have surely seen enough of Eric Bledsoe in the playoffs, and who could use another source of half-court dynamism, rim-pressuring creativity, and pick-and-roll playmaking. But making the salary math work would require a hell of a lot more than Bledsoe—Brook Lopez, probably, plus at least a couple of other smaller contracts—and would also put the Bucks on the hook for the balance of Russ’s deal no matter what Giannis decides to do. Move down a tier, and you can kind of talk yourself into Philadelphia—perpetually in need of guards who can dribble, pass, run pick-and-roll, and create shots—making an inquiry about an offer centering on Tobias Harris or Al Horford. But adding another bricky shooter to the 76ers’ cramped half-court attack might not be the way new Sixers boss Morey wants to start tweaking Philly’s rotation; lest we forget, trading Paul for Westbrook reportedly wasn’t his idea in the first place.
Past that, you’re likely looking at teams lower in the standings who might want to pounce on the chance to add a marquee name: the Magic, the Knicks, the Pistons, and the Hornets. All of those teams, though, could defensibly blanch at the concept of sending out something of value for the right to eat Westbrook’s salary for the next three seasons, miss out on an opportunity to rent out your cap space for young players or picks that might help you rebuild moving forward, and, what, vie for the eighth seed in the East? In a vacuum, the idea of adding Westbrook might make sense. But once you consider what he’d cost and what it’d actually buy, you can understand the reluctance.
Which brings us back to the idea of facing the reality you inhabit. Russell Westbrook remains a really, really good player. He’s also got arguably the most onerous contract in the league, and reportedly longs to return to playing a role in which, absent Harden or Kevin Durant, he’s never gotten out of the first round of the playoffs. It’s possible that Westbrook finds a soft landing, a new home to showcase all that he can still do. It seems at least as likely, though, that he’s arrived at the point where he’ll have to decide whether to further sacrifice his role in pursuit of the title that’s eluded his grasp, or commit to being the kind of player who dominates the ball for the kind of team that falls away by springtime. It’s not an easy choice for a player to make. But even superstars don’t always get what they want.