Russell Westbrook wants out of Houston, putting to rest any notion that this condensed and bizarre NBA offseason in November would be quiet. The former MVP has apparently had enough of the Rockets after one season and wants to move on to a team that can afford him more of the starring role he was accustomed to in Oklahoma City, rather than what he was asked to do as a secondary ball-handler next to James Harden.
It wasn’t hard to see this as a possibility when the two stars paired back up last summer, and the Rockets postseason struggles shined a light on the problems they had coexisting even in a system that tried its best to give them the space to work. Trading Westbrook will be quite the challenge for new Rockets GM Rafael Stone, who has to both find a team that wants to bring Westbrook (and his contract) in and has the players and salaries to send back to make a trade work. Beyond that, Stone and new coach Stephen Silas will now have to determine what they want the identity of the team to be going forward.
That was always going to be a challenge for Stone and Silas, but the Westbrook request further pressures them to make a decision regarding their current small-ball roster. What they can get back for Westbrook is determined by his trade value, and that’s incredibly difficult to gauge. He’s still clearly an immense talent, but he’s 32 and is owed more than $131 million over the next three years. Houston won’t be able to demand a huge asking price — they might not even get close to what OKC fetched for Westbrook from Houston a year ago — but they’ll have to decide if they want to try and find another high-priced star to swap him for or simply seek salary cap relief and, hopefully, some contributors.
Here are three possible destinations for Westbrook, keeping in mind that unknown that is his actual value on the market.
New York Knicks
Knicks get: Russell Westbrook
Rockets get: Julius Randle, Elfrid Payton, and Taj Gibson
Let’s start with the team that everyone will tie to Russ because he said he wants to run the show and the Knicks are desperate to add a star, even if that star might be heading into the backend of his career while on a huge contract. New York gets a lead guard to take over ball-handling duties and, for all his faults, they’d finally have a bonafide star who would bring tremendous energy to the Garden. His fit next to R.J. Barrett probably isn’t ideal from a spacing standpoint, as Russ is a dreadful three-point shooter and Barrett was wildly inefficient himself as a rookie, but at this point, I think the Knicks are in talent acquisition mode and, while maybe not a perfect fit with the young pieces around him, it would be a starting point, particularly if they think they’re not likely to get someone better than Westbrook in free agency next year.
As for Houston, this is a deal that’s all about cleaning up their cap sheet for the future. Randle brings offensive punch but not necessarily in the manner that the Rockets typically are looking for, while Payton brings some defensive acumen on the perimeter. Gibson and Payton are both expirings, while Randle’s deal has just two years left, so there’s some very real cap flexibility this would afford the Rockets, and you know that would bring a smile to ownership’s face. Maybe the Rockets can swipe a second-rounder out of this as well to try and build up some kind of draft capital, but it’s hard to see Westbrook fetching a first-rounder at this moment.
Pistons get: Russell Westbrook
Rockets get: Blake Griffin
I think Houston would try to get whatever paperwork is needed for this filed as fast as possible so Detroit couldn’t recant after further thought, but there’s a chance another star swap could be on the books for Houston. The plus here for the Rockets is obvious, as the potential of a Harden-Griffin pairing is pretty tremendous. For Detroit, they would have to effectively feel like the Griffin situation has run its course and they need to inject new energy into the team, and believe that, in a return to a lead ball-handling role, Westbrook can return to superstar form. That’s possible, and the Pistons really, really want to have a star player. Griffin hasn’t worked out thus far due to injuries and, as such, they might just be ready to move on. Griffin’s deal is $5 million per year less than Westbrook’s, so Houston saves a touch of money while taking a gamble on him being healthy and able to help them stay at a highly competitive level as a team in the West.
New Orleans Pelicans
Pelicans get: Russell Westbrook
Rockets get: Jrue Holiday, Darius Miller
I love the Jrue fit next to Harden, but I’ll be honest, I can’t imagine this being the best offer the Pelicans can get or it being the one that fits their timeline the way they’d like. That said, I am oddly intrigued by the idea of pairing Westbrook with Zion Williamson and, likely, Brandon Ingram coming back in free agency. Zion and Westbrook running the floor would be a joy, and it’d give Stan Van Gundy a lot of talent to deal with, even if making it all work would be a challenge to say the least.
The first two deals make more sense for where those teams are compared to just about anyone else in the league, and really what we have to wait to see is whether there’s a team that still think Russell Westbrook can be a central piece on a really good team, because as you’ll notice, none of my ideas include contenders. I just don’t see many teams with a point guard need and a fit that would work, unless the Clippers are ready to pull the plug on Paul George after one year and do something really wild by flipping the former teammates for one another. I’m not sure what the answer is here, and I don’t envy Rafael Stone’s job in trying to get the most possible value out of an unfortunate situation, but I am looking forward to seeing what happens and where Russ ends up.