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Russell Westbrook's best trade destinations? Heat and Magic make most sense

Mark Deeks - @MarkDeeksNBA

Thursday 11 July 2019 09:49, UK

Russell Westbrook gets ready for action on the Thunder bench
Image: Russell Westbrook gets ready for action on the Thunder bench

From the minute the news broke that Paul George would be traded to the Los Angeles Clippers, the hive minds started thinking as to whether Russell Westbrook would be next. Mark Deeks considers the leading contenders to potentially acquire Oklahoma City Thunder's eight-time All-Star guard.

With four years and $171m remaining on his contract, Westbrook has one of the largest deals in NBA history. His contract is slightly larger than the gargantuan deals of James Harden and John Wall, yet based on his play last season, Westbrook is closer to Wall then to his bearded former team-mate.

By any statistical measure, Westbrook's production fell off significantly last season. He still averaged a triple-double, his third consecutive season of doing so, and the fact that he has normalised this achievement that was once thought to be so impossible should not be forgotten.

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Yet in amongst Westbrook's numbers came a big decline in his efficiencies, ones which speak to the fact that, despite it all, he did not much help his team win last season.

For the season, Westbrook shot a .501 true shooting percentage, his lowest mark since his sophomore season and a full 53 points below what he shot in consecutive seasons between 2015 and 2017. Of the 258 players who scored enough points to qualify for the points per game leader board this season, Westbrook's true shooting percentage ranked a lowly 238th.

Russell Westbrook attacks the rim in Game 3 against Portland 1:49
Russell Westbrook scored 33 points as the Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 3 to reduce their series deficit to 2-1

The only starters to finish behind him were Kevin Knox, Josh Okogie, Avery Bradley and Andrew Wiggins - that is to say, two rookies (one of whom is a defensive specialist anyway), a role player mired in a historically bad offensive season and the most flawed go-to guy in the league today.

This would be less of a problem if Westbrook had not also been ninth out of those 258 in usage percentage; he is using more possessions than Luka Doncic and Stephen Curry while scoring less efficiently than Ian Clark and Evan Turner.

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Russell Westbrook pictured away from the court
Image: Russell Westbrook pictured away from the court

The size of the contract and commitment that the Thunder have made to Westbrook is what has put them in the luxury tax situation that they are, one which has seen them trade off assets purely to save on salary.

They have found themselves with a capped upside since Kevin Durant left - although they were able to acquire and retain George to give themselves that important second star, the cost of the pair, once important role players such as Steven Adams, Jerami Grant and Andre Roberson were factored in, meant no money for any further depth and every single dollar needed to be maximised. They weren't.

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Faced with this salary cap stagnation, and a lack of future assets with which to shift any more salary, the Thunder instead decided with the George trade to go the other way, get in assets, and reload at a time when the Western Conference is prohibitively stacked anyway.

It therefore follows logically that Westbrook could be on the move too. But considering the size of his contract, his declining play, his inefficiencies and his age, where would be the best market for him?

Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder looks on against the Indiana Pacers on March 14, 2019 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana 3:03
Following Paul George's move to the Los Angeles Clippers, the Gametime discuss the prospect of Oklahoma City Thunder now trading Russell Westbrook

Any team that may be in the running for Westbrook will need a few things going their way.

Firstly, they will need to not have a front-line point guard already. A ball-dominant player who is not a good off-ball shooting threat or who moves much without the ball in his hands, Westbrook cannot be paired with a point guard for any significant length of time. He is the point guard, and, due to his contract, status and talent, he would have to be the primary one.

Portland's Damian Lillard blows by Thunder forward Serge Ibaka during Game 5
Image: Portland's Damian Lillard in playoff action against Oklahoma City

Atlanta (Trae Young), Boston (Kemba Walker), Brooklyn (Kyrie Irving), Golden State (Stephen Curry), Memphis (Ja Morant), New Orleans (Jrue Holiday), Philadelphia (Ben Simmons), Portland (Damian Lillard), Toronto (Kyle Lowry) and Utah (Mike Conley) can realistically all be ruled out as candidates on this one criterion alone.

Secondly, a team trading for Westbrook must be one in contention at least for a high playoff seed. Westbrook will turn 31 in the first month of the upcoming season, already has 11 long NBA seasons of high minutes on his knees, and has declined significantly for two consecutive seasons. Trading for him is not a move for the future, and this immediately rules out teams such as Phoenix and New York.

De'Aaron Fox skies to the rim for a dunk against the New York Knicks
Image: De'Aaron Fox skies to the rim for a dunk against the New York Knicks

Further to this, although some teams out there may wish to trade their point guards of the future for the more immediate upgrade, franchises such as Charlotte (Terry Rozier), Chicago (Coby White), Cleveland (Darius Garland), and Sacramento (De'Aaron Fox) surely should not look to do so. These players will perhaps never be good as Westbrook still is, yet there is little incentive for them to forgo the opportunity that they might be, especially (or solely, in Charlotte's case) once finances are considered.

There are a couple of teams already with very expensive point guards who are not living up to their billing who may see the opportunity to buy low on Westbrook and redeem the money they have already committed to spending. This is said with reference to the aforementioned Wall in Washington, as well as to Chris Paul in Houston.

Bradley Beal finishes at the rim against Milwaukee 4:22
Here's a look at Washington Wizards' star Bradley Beal's best moments of the season

It seems as though the Thunder do not have much interest in either, and neither team can put together a package without using these guards as its foundation. Not unless Washington were to for some reason give up Bradley Beal, a man whose trade value crushes Westbrook's into the ground.

Of the current contending teams, Westbrook simply would not fit with the Los Angeles Clippers, Milwaukee Bucks and Denver Nuggets, all of whom already have their foundational offensive pieces in place.

Westbrook would be a sub-optimal fit for an enormous price, and these teams do not need that. There are also lottery teams in a similar situation; there is no need, for example, to try and fit Westbrook alongside a core of Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis in Dallas, nor to fit him with Wiggins and Karl-Anthony towns in Minnesota. And although they may have incentive to trade Westbrook, if the Thunder were to do so in a deal based around Wiggins, it is hard to see what they would gain.

Lakers team-mates Anthony Davis and LeBron James pictured together at Summer League in Las Vegas
Image: Lakers team-mates Anthony Davis and LeBron James pictured together at Summer League in Las Vegas

For all the third-star will in the world, the Los Angeles Lakers cannot get involved in this bidding - the cupboard is too bare after the Anthony Davis deal. Nor could the San Antonio Spurs unless they were willing to part with at least one of Dejounte Murray, Derrick White or Lonnie Walker IV which is not likely.

This then leaves only four teams - the Detroit Pistons, the Indiana Pacers, the Miami Heat and the Orlando Magic.

Blake Griffin faces up Jeremy Lin in Detroit's OT win over Toronto
Image: Blake Griffin faces up Jeremy Lin in Detroit's OT win over Toronto

In theory, the Pistons have the opportunity to buy low on an available All-Star, just like they did with Blake Griffin previously. Indeed, although they gave up quite a lot to get Griffin despite him having few other suitors at the time, Blake's resurgence this past season has somewhat validated that decision. However, financial limitations will surely prevent it.

Similarly financially limited are the Pacers, a team that has not paid the luxury tax since 2006. It is hard for Indiana to put the required assets together; they would surely rather just give Malcolm Brogdon, a theoretically better fit alongside Oladipo, the opportunity to see all the position long-term. We should also remember how much Oladipo struggled in his one year previously alongside Westbrook.

And now we are down to the two Florida teams.

DJ Augustin celebrates his Game 1 game-winner in Toronto 0:20
DJ Augustin nailed a three-pointer in the final seconds to seal an upset win for the Orlando Magic over the Raptors in Toronto

Having been so determined in acquiring frontcourt length, the Orlando Magic still have DJ Augustin as their starting point guard, a plenty-solid player who is nonetheless one of the weaker starters at the position in the league.

The hope is that Markelle Fultz will win that spot off Augustin over time, but Fultz remains as big of a question mark as there is. This would in theory open the door to a Westbrook acquisition, especially if Fultz were to be packaged with Evan Fournier. The Thunder could not realistically expect to do better than that in terms of salary relief and young return piece, even when considering Fultz's problematic first two years.

Russell Westbrook soars for a dunk against the Dallas Mavericks 2:19
NBA TV analyst Tony Delk says joining up with Jimmy Butler at the Miami Heat would be a good move for Russell Westbrook

Miami, meanwhile, staked their claim to getting out of the mid-range quagmire they have long been in when they acquired Jimmy Butler earlier this offseason. Capped out and with very few of their own draft picks in the future, the Heat are not going to be able to acquire stars in any way other than via trade, and the assets are not good enough to get those available at a premium. They instead are in a position where they need to buy low, and trading for Westbrook would be that.

If the two were to enter a hypothetical bidding war, the Magic could win it if they wanted to. They have more young assets to deal in trade - Fultz, Jonathan Isaac, Mo Bamba, picks - and although Bam Adebayo may be the best asset that either team could give up, Miami also should not look to move him.

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The Heat have a greater urgency to make a deal. They have little wiggle room in team construction, sorely need playmaking help with this non-Butler core of finishers, have fewer options to grow internally than Orlando do and have no incentive to tank.

While Orlando have more possibilities to work through than Miami, the Heat seem like the front-runners in a deal for Westbrook. Having also traded Jerami Grant to the Nuggets, the Thunder seem to have pretty clearly stated their position to rebuilt, or at least reload. They could potentially hold off on trading Russ for six or 12 months in the hope that his value rebuilds that time.

But if Westbrook wants to go to Florida, it seems likely that he will do before the month is out.

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