Update 7/12/19: Shortly after this story was published, the Houston Rockets did, in fact, complete a trade to bring Westbrook to Houston. We sincerely apologize to fans of the Miami Heat, Detroit Pistons, and New York Knicks for suggesting that their teams had a chance, even as we look forward to learning what on Earth a team built around James Harden and Russell Westbrook looks like. Maybe they’ll each play one half?
Last week, the drama level was dialed up on the reality show that NBA free agency has become in the years since LeBron James’s infamous “The Decision” TV special. San Antonio Spurs-spurner Kawhi Leonard chose to sign with the Clippers at the same time the Oklahoma City Thunder agreed to send Paul George also to L.A.’s second team. The ripple effect of these blockbuster deals is that the Thunder’s Russell Westbrook, one of the NBA’s most attention-worthy stars, is now on the trading block. OKC isn’t going to compete for a title without George, so 30-year-old former league MVP Westbrook no longer makes sense for their roster.
The prospect of acquiring him is undoubtedly appealing to many NBA teams, including the three that call Texas home. Here, watch a ten-minute clip of him doing ridiculous, amazing things with his body on a basketball court that will blow your mind:
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But, then again, here’s four minutes of him taking shots so bad that he hasn’t got a prayer of making them:
After viewing both those clips, you’ll have some understanding of the paradox that is Russell Westbrook—and what every team considering a trade for his services must reckon with. He’s perhaps the most tantalizing and frustrating basketball player in the world. So does he make sense for the Spurs, the Rockets, or the Mavs? Let’s take a look at the possibilities for each.
Westbrook to the Rockets
Supporting this idea is the fact that Westbrook and Houston point guard Chris Paul, who isn’t doing a whole lot for the Rockets, earn the same salary. That means a swap would be pure upside for Houston, but there’s seemingly no reason for the Thunder to get worse without offloading a big chunk of their payroll. If the Rockets want to get Westbrook and get rid of Paul, they’ll have to get creative.
24/7 Sports suggested an intriguing option: The Rockets could also include a 2024 protected draft pick and take on underperforming forward Patrick Patterson in the deal, which would allow the Thunder to get under the luxury tax. That might make sense for a rebuilding Thunder team and give James Harden a quality partner.
It’s hard to say whether Harden and Westbrook would work well together. The two are friends—not only were they teammates in OKC at the start of Harden’s career, they both grew up playing at the Boys & Girls Club in Los Angeles—but their styles aren’t necessarily compatible. Harden likes to take the ball as much as possible, and Westbrook is used to running the show, not being number two. They might be able to square it, and the Rockets are reportedly interested in a trade, which makes Houston the likeliest of possible Texas destinations—but it’s still a much longer shot than, say, Miami or Detroit.
Westbrook to the Spurs
On the surface, Westbrook is the opposite of a prototypical Spurs star. He’s not a low-key personality who shuns the spotlight. He’s not a fundamentals-oriented player who wins the old-fashioned way. Rather, he throws himself all over the court in pursuit of triple-doubles and shows up to events dressed in a sleeveless printed tunic and drop-crotch capris. And if Westbrook wants to remain the kind of one-man-band he’s been since Durant left OKC, he probably won’t be happy in San Antonio.
Would the chance to join the NBA’s most consistently successful team over the last twenty years be enough to satisfy Westbrook? San Antonio could surely use him, as they’re competing in a brutal Western Conference headlined by Leonard, LeBron, and the Golden State Warriors—not to mention a Rockets team capable of deep playoff runs just a couple hundred miles east on Interstate 10. They’re not going to find another Westbrook-level talent in the immediate future. Coach Gregg Popovich turned 70 back in January, so if he wants to win one last title before he retires, Westbrook might just be his best shot.
If the Spurs traded DeMar DeRozan and a sweetener—maybe Marco Belinelli—the deal could get done. Nick Wright of Fox Sports suggested a move would be an under-the-radar way for the Spurs to get better and the Thunder to dump a big salary, arguing, “If Russ is going to have any chance at evolving his game, doing it in that incubator in San Antonio, with a coach who has tremendous respect for Russ in Gregg Popovich, I think that would be a great fit.”
On the other hand, if Westbrook isn’t enough to make them competitive in the West, it would stunt the development of some of the Spurs’ young players with little reward.
Westbrook to the Mavericks
This one would be tough to pull off. The Mavs have cap space, so if Oklahoma City is primarily interested in dumping Westbrook’s salary, Dallas could absorb it. They don’t have a lot of young players to trade, though, and some of their future first-round picks are tied up because of a deal with the Knicks. Rather than trade for Westbrook, it’s more likely that Dallas would be a third party to a deal between the Thunder and another team that needs cap space. That’s not as exciting as landing a two-time scoring leader and a player two years removed from an MVP campaign. But the Mavs are busy building around Rookie of the Year Luka Doncic anyway, so North Texas has an entirely different sort of hope for the future.
Ultimately, all of these options are less likely than the Heat, Knicks, or Pistons—who play in the less intimidating Eastern Conference, and who could all use Westbrook’s star power to sell tickets, even if they’re not likely championship contenders in 2019-2020. That said, given how unpredictable Westbrook has always been, we wouldn’t rule anything out entirely.