The NBA world was turned on its head late on July 5 when Kawhi Leonard chose the Los Angeles Clippers as his next team, and it wasn’t solely because of the reigning Finals MVP’s decision.
It was because of the report that immediately preceded it, which stated that Oklahoma City wing Paul George would be joining him there.
In exchange for George, Oklahoma City received a total of five first-round picks, the right to swap first-rounders with Los Angeles in 2023 and 2025, as well as promising young ball-handler Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and veteran forward Danilo Gallinari.
Such a haul, while extremely impressive, begs the question: Are the Thunder headed for a rebuild? And if so, will 2017 league MVP Russell Westbrook be next to get traded?
According to ESPN’s Royce Young, that is certainly a possibility:
“The Thunder are comfortable embarking on a rebuild rather than trying to retool. But they will evaluate their options going forward, which include seeing what this team looks like with Westbrook leading the charge alongside Gallinari and Steven Adams, trading current pieces to try to add to the roster, or hitting reboot on the roster completely and trading Westbrook. The last option appears to be the most likely scenario.”
Young’s colleague Adrian Wojnarowski expounded on that idea with a report of his own later:
“Oklahoma City’s All-Star guard Russell Westbrook and his agent, Thad Foucher, are engaged with Thunder GM Sam Presti about the next steps of Westbrook’s career, including the possibility of a trade prior to the start of next season, league sources told ESPN. The two sides have 11 years of history together and both understand that the time has likely come to explore trade possibilities for Westbrook, league sources tell ESPN.”
As such, because of the increasing likelihood of Westbrook getting dealt, HoopsHype decided to break down five potential suitors for the supremely talented floor general.
Without further ado, let’s jump right in.
NEW YORK KNICKS
The New York Knicks have lacked a superstar point guard for a very long time, making them interesting potential suitors for Westbrook.
Having Westbrook in tow could also make New York more appealing to prospective free agents, an important factor to consider since the team will have loads of cap space both next summer, and likely the offseason after that, as well. We saw just this year that merely having cap space wasn’t enough for the Knicks to land a top-tier player, so maybe having an All-Star already on the roster could help matters on that front.
Plus, the media-driven belief that players don’t want to team up with the eight-time All-Star was at least somewhat quieted by Paul George after his trade to the Los Angeles Clippers…
…so whoever does acquire Westbrook shouldn’t fret too much over that narrative too much.
It must be noted that because most of New York’s most tradable contracts were just signed this summer, the Knicks can’t put together a reasonable package for Westbrook until Dec. 15. But, according to SNY’s Ian Begley, a deal including Dennis Smith Jr., Frank Ntilikina, Reggie Bullock, Wayne Ellington and Taj Gibson would be viable financially.
It would also be appealing to Oklahoma City since it includes two young players still on rookie-scale deals, as well as four other guys who have team options on their contracts for 2020-21, giving the Thunder cap flexibility starting next summer.
Landing Westbrook could make the Knicks contenders for other elite free agents in the future, and for that reason, coupled with his stat-filling production, make him a very worthwhile target for New York.
If there’s one star-level player who embodies the Miami Heat culture, it’s Westbrook.
His tenacity, all-out effort and win-first mentality make him a perfect fit for what Miami has been about under Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra, and with the recent addition of Jimmy Butler, the Heat could form a one-to-punch capable of competing with the best the East has to offer.
Westbrook’s game may have its warts, like his propensity for reckless drives and off-the-dribble threes, but they’re minor compared to the nightly impact he makes on both ends of the floor. If they can be harnessed somewhere like Miami, a franchise that’s known for getting the best out of its players, his already-high level of play could be taken to another level.
Early reports out of South Florida state that the team does like Westbrook as a player…
…which makes this pairing look plausible, even if the finances to make a trade actually happen are a bit tricky.
Wojnarowski also echoed that potential Westbrook interest from Miami:
Besides, finances to get Butler in Miami were pretty complicated, too, so we shouldn’t count out Heat cap expert and general manager Andy Elisburg in these matters.
Per the Miami Herald’s Barry Jackson, a package including Goran Dragic, Meyers Leonard and Justise Winslow would work financially.
It might appease the Thunder, too, since Dragic and Leonard are bout to enter their contract years while Winslow has two more years left on his team-friendly deal before a team option on the final season of his contract. Besides, players just entering their primes and on relatively cheap deals, like Winslow, are the types of guys Oklahoma City should be targeting if they are actually committed to a rebuild.
A team under new management hungry to make a splash, the Minnesota Timberwolves would also make some sense as a Westbrook suitor.
Despite having no cap space, the Wolves, led by new general manager Gersson Rosas, were among the finalists for restricted free agent D’Angelo Russell, finishing second in the race to sign him to the Golden State Warriors. What’s more, Minnesota reportedly had the deals in place to secure the cap room to offer Russell a deal at least approaching the max, so why couldn’t they do the same for a player of Westbrook’s caliber?
Minnesota clearing cap room would likely include shedding Andrew Wiggins’ albatross of a contract, and there’s no question Westbrook at lead guard would present a massive upgrade over the Canadian forward on the wing, which should make the financial commitment for Westbrook in this case less of a concern.
If you’re going to be capped out anyway, it’s better to be so with Westbrook and Karl-Anthony Towns as your two top dogs, as opposed to Wiggins and Towns.
Also noteworthy is the fact that Rosas specifically mentioned Minnesota not being done this offseason quite yet:
It would be complicated, as any trade for Westbrook would be, but for a Wolves team that wants to compete while Towns is under contract and in his prime, it could be a very worthwhile endeavor.
Another team reportedly interested in Westbrook are the Detroit Pistons, who have the salaries required to make a swap for the 30-year-old point guard work (via The Athletic):
“And while the mountains of money owed to Westbrook are known to have scared quite a few general managers away, sources say that Detroit and Miami are very real possibilities as potential landing spots for the 30-year-old, eight-time All-Star. […] The Pistons’ scenario appears to be potentially trickier, with likely candidates to make the salaries match including big man Andre Drummond (two years, $55.8 million combined, including a player option in 2020-21), former Thunder guard Reggie Jackson (one year, $18 million) and Tony Snell (two years, $23.5 million combined, with a player option in 2020-21).”
However, because Oklahoma City would be taking back long-term salary in the aforementioned deal on The Athletic, it’s very likely a trade for Westbrook would cost Detroit some sort of draft capital since they wouldn’t be cleaning up the Thunder’s books very much.
Even so, it might still be worth it for the Pistons.
Pairing Westbrook and All-Star forward Blake Griffin could be seen as a bit scary due to the fact they’re both on monster deals and already in their 30s, but if both continue to perform the way they have recently, Detroit would legitimately have one of the most potent guard-big pairings in the league.
Simply put: Westbrook and Griffin would give the Pistons a far higher ceiling than the team they currently have.
A third potential suitor mentioned in the article from The Athletic was a bit more of a stunner – moreso than Miami and Detroit, at least – and that was the Houston Rockets.
“Rival executives have also pinpointed the Houston Rockets as a likely suitor, which would come as no surprise considering the way general manager Daryl Morey has prioritized the pursuit of stars during his entire career (not to mention the possible reunion between Westbrook and his old Thunder teammate James Harden). The notion of Westbrook sharing the floor with two other ball-dominant guards is unorthodox, to say the least, but Morey has long held the belief that landing as many elite players as possible is the path to championship glory.”
We say Houston having interest in Westbrook is surprising because they already have two all-world guards in James Harden and Chris Paul, so why would general manager Daryl Morey be eyeing a third?
ESPN’s Tim MacMahon further added fuel to the fire of this rumor when he reported the following:
That forces one to wonder: Is the Harden-Paul dynamic actually damaged to the point where Morey would consider trading Paul to the Thunder in order to switch him out for Westbrook?
Probably not, but even if that were the case, why would Oklahoma City initiate a rebuild and trade Westbrook’s enormous salary just to take back another aging player’s huge contract in Paul? Would a third team be willing to get involved and take on Paul’s deal in exchange for premium assets?
A lot of questions regarding this potential fit, but we should never rule out anything with the Rockets, as Morey has shown a propensity to make splash moves when people least expect them.
As such, we can’t discount the chances of a Harden and Westbrook reunion in Texas.
You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter: @FrankUrbina_.