On a podcast released Thursday, Ryen Russillo of The Ringer stated his belief that the Houston Rockets and GM Daryl Morey would be willing to trade Russell Westbrook for the right return. It seems like Russillo is just speculating, and that he doesn’t have actual knowledge of any real plan by the organization to look for a trade partner, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong. The Rockets, at 21-10 are currently the 4-seed in the Western Conference. Most organizations wouldn’t mind being in their shoes, but after coming close to dethroning the Warriors in the last 2 playoffs, the Rockets have set lofty expectations for themselves. With Harden nearing the end of his prime, Morey needs to build a championship contender around him sooner rather than later, and the roster as currently constructed does not appear ready to do battle with the top teams in the west.
The dilemma with trading Russell Westbrook is determining his value to another team. We’re only 3 seasons removed from 2016-17 when he led an otherwise uninspiring Thunder team to the playoffs and was voted league MVP. However, his differentiating skill has always been his athleticism, and at age 31, it seems his most explosive days are behind him. His diminished athleticism, combined with his untrustworthy three-point shot and limited effectiveness on defense, make him a questionable fit with a Rockets team built around James Harden. However, Russ is still a good basketball player. The real problem is his contract. He’s making $38 million this year, with two more years guaranteed and player option for almost $47 million in the 2022-23 season when he’ll be 34 years old. This makes it difficult for teams to put together a legal trade package, but also means that any potential trade partner must be willing to sacrifice future flexibility and likely future success for a player that may not be enough to guarantee championship contention.
In all likelihood, any trade for Westbrook that doesn’t include the Rockets sending picks out with him will end up being a win for Houston and a loss for whoever’s on the receiving end. I say that as an absolute Westbrook fan, but I acknowledge the extreme risk and indeterminate upside of trading for him. The Rockets gave up two first-round picks and two pick swaps along with Chris Paul to get Westbrook in the first place, so it’s unclear what type of draft capital, if any, they’d be willing to part with to upgrade yet again. That being said, Morey knows the clock is ticking on Harden as an MVP quality player, so no price should be too high to pay to build a championship roster. Still, Morey is a savvy executive and will be looking for a good deal. I think his best bet will be to find a team willing to severely overpay to add a former MVP. The Rockets likely won’t be able to flip Westbrook for a star, but trading him for quality depth that fits around Harden may be just enough to enter the championship discussion now that the super-team Warriors are no longer in the way.
There’s absolutely no telling what type of move Morey is going to make, but here are a few teams that might be bold enough to take a chance on Westbrook.
The Heat were rumored to be targeting both Westbrook and Chris Paul before they were swapped for each other in July. They have an incredibly deep roster with lots of young talent, but Jimmy Butler is getting older and they may be looking to make a push for the Eastern Conference finals.
Miami receives: Russell Westbrook
Houston receives: Justise Winslow, Goran Dragić, Meyers Leonard, Duncan Robinson, and a 1st round pick (lottery protected).
Analysis: Even after giving up these pieces, the Heat would still have a deep and talented team. It’s unclear whether or not they would be a legitimate contender in the east, but they would get their second star to pair with Jimmy Butler. Assuming Winslow and Dragić can stay healthy, Houston would add a lot of depth. Those two are quality players and Leonard and Robinson fit well in the Rockets’ system due to their shooting ability. They wouldn’t get any sort of real “star” but to get off the Westbrook contract while remaining competitive and even gaining a pick would be a win for Morey.
This would probably be a mistake for Phoenix, but based on the recent history of their franchise, that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Westbrook certainly wouldn’t make them a contender, but the good news is that they have enough young pieces to trade that they wouldn’t have to give up any of their real core.
Phoenix receives: Russell Westbrook
Houston receives: Ricky Rubio, Dario Šarić, Cameron Johnson, and Tyler Johnson.
Analysis: The Suns have been bad for so long that they be desperate to make a move to
excite their fans. It’s a big risk, since they’re finally competitive this year, but they wouldn’t have to give up Booker, Ayton, or Bridges. Their starting backcourt of Westbrook and Booker would leave something to be desired on the defensive end but would be electric on the offensive side. For Houston this would be similar to the Miami trade. They’d swap Westbrook for solid starters that fit with Harden. Cameron Johnson has shown potential as a shooter and could be a long-term piece for them. Tyler Johnson is largely in this deal to help with salary matching. I’m sure that Morey would ask for Mikal Bridges or even Ayton, but I doubt the Suns would entertain those negotiations.
The Timberwolves are caught somewhere between “win now” and build for the future. They need to put a competitive roster around Karl-Anthony Towns before he pulls an Anthony Davis and requests a trade. Like many potential Westbrook suitors, they’d likely be making a mistake in trading for him, but they need an upgrade at point guard, and a ball-handling perimeter scorer to compliment Towns in the post could be the recipe for at least moderate success. They’ve been hoping for years that Andrew Wiggins could be that complimentary player, but despite some serious flashes of skill this season, it doesn’t seem like Wiggins and Towns are destined for greatness together in Minnesota.
Minnesota receives: Russell Westbrook
Houston receives: Andrew Wiggins, Robert Covington, and Shabazz Napier
Analysis: The Timberwolves would at least demonstrate to KAT that they are willing to make moves to improve the team. There a legitimate chance it doesn’t work out and they get trapped with Westbrook’s hefty contract and KAT demands a trade anyway, but at 10-19 this season it may be time to make a move. The Rockets could even throw in Gary Clark or Michael Frazier if the Wolves are nervous about only getting Westbrook in the deal. For Houston, Covington is the key to this trade. If the Wolves aren’t willing to add him to the mix, then the deal is likely off. His “3 and D” skillset would be a perfect fit around Harden, and he and Wiggins would certainly be an improvement over some of the other players that Houston has been gifting minutes to. Napier is a talented back-up point guard that could fill in behind Harden, and wouldn’t have to be in the crunch time lineup.
New York Knicks
There’s been talk online about the Knicks “monitoring” the availability of Karl-Anthony Towns for a potential trade. Unfortunately for Knicks fans, he might be a little bit out of their price range. They have a selection of young players and draft picks to offer Minnesota, but none of them are enticing enough to warrant a return of Towns’s caliber. In the same way that the Knicks missed out of Kevin Durant in free agency so they signed Julius Randle, they may have to trade for Russell Westbrook after missing out of KAT. He may not be the best thing for then, but he’d be the biggest name to play in MSG in a while, and he’d definitely help sell jerseys and tickets.
New York receives: Russell Westbrook
Houston receives: Marcus Morris, Frank Ntilikina, Wayne Ellington, Allonzo Trier, and a 1st round pick (lottery protected)
Analysis: The Knicks would finally get their star after missing out on KD and Kyrie in free agency. New York fans would embrace Russ and he would bring some excitement to MSG. He would also elevate their offense to at least respectable levels, and that could only help with RJ Barrett’s development. Any move that could help RJ reach his full potential should be priority number one for the Knicks front office. Additionally, GM Scott Perry and President Steve Mills may be on the hot seat, so they may be desperate enough to make blockbuster move like this to save their jobs. Marcus Morris would be a perfect fit with the Rockets, especially considering he’s shooting almost 47 percent from three so far this season. Ntilikina would offer something with the second-unit, especially on the defense end, and would be a young prospect the Rockets could have hope in for the future. If Wayne Ellington can get healthy and can return to his high-level shooting form, then he’d also be able to contribute for Houston. Allonzo Trier could bring some energy off the bench on occasion, but would mostly provide depth and salary matching.
There aren’t going to be a lot of offers on the table for Westbrook, so if Morey is serious about moving him, he’ll have to consider every possibility. If a trade does happen, it’ll likely be with a down-and-out organization that’s looking to shake things up. If he can find a package that improves the team, while getting off of Russ’s contract without giving up more draft picks, then it will be his most impressive feat since trading for Chris Paul.