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Can The Thunder Trade Russell Westbrook?

Illustration for article titled Can The Thunder Trade Russell Westbrook?
Photo: Wesley Hitt (Getty)

The trade that brought Paul George to the Los Angeles Clippers also in effect brought Kawhi Leonard to the Clippers. That alone makes it one of the more momentous trades in recent NBA history, and the shockwaves haven’t even finished circling the globe yet.

Players as good as those two—George got MVP and DPOY consideration this past season, and Leonard of course had one of the greatest postseason runs the sport has ever seen, culminating in a championship and Finals MVP—can’t change teams, and certainly can’t team up to create a new superpower, without setting off chain reactions around the league. For one thing, Leonard picking the Clippers over the Lakers, and putting that latter team at risk of finishing the summer in which they traded for Anthony Davis as the second-most talent-loaded championship contender in their own building*, immediately prompted the Lakers to take a flyer on DeMarcus Cousins (and to snatch up Danny Green, Leonard’s former teammate with the Raptors and the San Antonio Spurs), who may yet have his former all-NBA talent hiding in that huge frame. For another thing, Leonard’s departure from the Toronto Raptors probably moves at least three of that team’s remaining four or five best players—Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, all of whose contracts expire after the coming season—into trade availability, if not immediately then by the midseason trading deadline, in the very likely event that the now depleted Raptors wind up somewhere closer to the middle of the East than to a plausible championship defense. If/when any of those three move along, it’ll set off further rearrangements.

*Let’s not make too much of this juuuuuuust yet. Kawhi’s playoff run deserves every bit of its legend, and yes, long-term, if you’re giving out four-year contracts, he’s surely a better investment than a 34-year-old with infinity miles on his basketball odometer. But to this point he never has been and almost certainly still isn’t anywhere near the equal of a healthy LeBron James, who’ll enter the 2019–20 campaign having had a full summer to rehab and recuperate for the first time in 14 years and who still, even after a miserable injury-shortened first season in L.A. in which he led the league in visible unhappiness and nothing else, remains the best player in the sport by a big margin. Quibble over interpersonal and/or basketball fit and/or which of Paul George and Anthony Davis you’d rather have as your team’s second banana down below in the comments, but the Lakers still came out of this summer’s draft/free-agency bonanza fucking loaded and, assuming good health, look like at least co-favorites in the West from here. 


The most violent effects of all this will be felt in Oklahoma City. Danilo Gallinari aside, the huge haul Thunder GM Sam Presti pulled in return for George—promising 20-year-old guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, four unprotected future first-round picks, a protected future first-round pick, two future first-round pick swaps—can’t really deliver on the court for years to come. This certainly does nothing to improve the immediate basketball prospects of a team that just flamed out of the first round of the playoffs for the third year in a row even with George. For that matter, moving George’s $33 million salary to L.A. doesn’t even get the Thunder out of salary cap hell.

It was a fine trade in the context of the NBA’s asset-fixation, and the Thunder did well in it. But it shifted them into a configuration that makes no real sense for the one star they’ve got left: Russell Westbrook. The former MVP hasn’t been able to drag Oklahoma City deep into the playoffs since Kevin Durant departed in the summer of 2016, and will be old (and very possibly old-old, given his hyper-violent style of play) by the time anybody taken with that smorgasbord of picks develops into a genuinely significant NBA player. Accordingly, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowksi has already reported that Westbrook’s representatives and Oklahoma City’s front office have begun discussing “the next steps of Westbrook’s career, including the possibility of a trade before the start of next season.”

The Athletic’s Shams Charania puts it more explicitly:


That’s gonna take some doing! Westbrook will turn 31 in the autumn; if that’s not quite an auspicious age for athletic, high-volume scoring guards, that’s only because most of them have been washed by then. He’s one of the most ball-dominant players in NBA history, an offensive system unto himself who turns to stone in those rare instances when the action moves away from him. His always-shaky jump-shot lapsed out of all function over the past two seasons, and he became an appallingly inefficient scorer as a result. He’s a famously huge and headstrong personality and would be a bigger presence, by far, than any of the coaches or GMs of any of the teams that might acquire him.

To be clear: Even with his broken jumper and, ah, idiosyncratic off-ball habits (he literally just stands there), Russ remains a damn good NBA player and one of the few capable of overwhelming opposing teams virtually singlehandedly. If some combination of shot-doctoring and judicious shot selection can just raise him to break-even percentages from the three-point and free-throw lines, he might once again be one of the better players in the game. But looming over everything else is the fact that his Designated Player “supermax” contract is due to pay him $38 million in salary—just about 35-percent of the salary cap, all for him!—in the 2019–20 season, and over $40 million the season after that, during which he will turn 33 years old.


A healthy sense of perspective just now stopped me from writing that his contract—which, again, guarantees that Russ will be paid almost $80 million over the next two years—is like a millstone around his neck. Probably being due $80 million in salary over two years is in fact quite liberating, both personally and professionally! But at least as far as concerns any mutual desire Russell Westbrook and the Thunder organization might have for him to play his home games anywhere other than Oklahoma City between now and the autumn of 2021, that contract is a problem. It is as close to immovable as any contract in the NBA that doesn’t have John Wall’s signature on it.

In fact, the Thunder might just end up having to pay some team to take that contract on, if they’re serious about moving him along. They may have tried it already, for that matter! In the aftermath of the big Clippers trade, Wojnarowski reported that Presti had previously offered Paul George to the Raptors, giving them a chance to form the Leonard-George duo in Toronto... provided they agreed to take Westbrook along in the deal. That would have given the Raptors an almost inconceivably tough and good star trio to lead their championship defense, but of course the deal didn’t happen. Maybe Russ’s contract isn’t the reason why; the reports have the Clippers offering a better package of assets for George. The notable thing is the idea of trading away Paul George for the privilege of also trading away Russell Westbrook.


Now comes news that today, Oklahoma City has traded Jerami Grant, a springy, athletic, 25-year-old big who hit over 36-percent of his three-pointers last season, to the Denver Nuggets, for yet another first-round pick. It’s clear that the Thunder are shedding salary and/or positioning themselves for a total rebuild. Some of these accumulated picks may be the future core of the team; some of them, though, might end up being sweeteners to get some other franchise to take Westbrook’s contract off Oklahoma City’s books. If that arrangement of values—that the Thunder might have to pay some other team in draft picks to get it to take Russell freaking Westbrook—might have seemed utterly impossible a couple seasons ago, well, shit, it might be impossible now, but only because the Thunder might not have enough first-round picks to offer. That’s kind of bleak!

When the NBA added the Designated Veteran Player Extension (DVPE) or “supermax” contract extension to the 2017 collective bargaining agreement, the idea was that it would help teams (specifically, cheapskate “small-market” franchises that prefer not to have to compete with the more aggressive ones) to keep their homegrown superstars off the open market by offering them much, much larger salaries via contract extension than the rules allowed anybody else to offer in unrestricted free agency. Well: It’s working, I guess! Thanks to the DVPE, Russell Westbrook, the first player ever to become a trade piece during a supermax extension, is as close to stuck in his small market as an NBA superstar can get.


Anyway, this is a weird limbo. It seems like an occasion for obituaries: The End Of The Russell Westbrook Era, What It All Meant, that sort of thing. It seems like the basketbloggers should be presuming to describe what Russ’s “legacy” will be in Oklahoma City. But before that can happen, the two parties have to be able to actually separate from each other first, and maybe they can’t. I guess that makes Russ’s contract... binding?

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