Houston, we have a problem. The Rockets are imploding.
Just about everyone on the roster is unhappy with the direction of the franchise or their role within it, including James Harden and Russell Westbrook, according to The Athletic. The Rockets are committed to reconstructing a winner around the two recent MVPs, but Westbrook does not want to be around to see it. The 32-year-old point guard reportedly wants to be traded from the team to which he was traded last year.
Only, the three years and $133 million left on Westbrook’s contract make him one of the hardest players to trade in the NBA. The impetus for the request is a reported desire to revert to the ball-dominant role he played on the Oklahoma City Thunder from 2016-19, when he averaged a triple-double for three straight seasons and never advanced past the first round of the playoffs. He reportedly has no interest in a rebuild.
So, first you have to find a team that wants Westbrook, the player, which is more difficult than you might think for a nine-time All-NBA selection. He has traditionally used roughly a third of his team’s possessions and done so fairly inefficiently (his sub-50 percent effective field goal percentage ranked 340th in the NBA last season), and he is not an elite defender. But he is a force of nature, relentlessly attacking, drawing the defense, piling up enough points to win two scoring titles and a pair of assist crowns over the six years.
Then, you have to find a team that wants to pay Westbrook for those services. He is owed $47 million in 2022-23. That is a lot of money at any time, but especially this one, when the financial future is uncertain.
Finally, you have to find a team that would be willing to trade helpful pieces for Westbrook, because salary dumping him for bit parts would not go over well with Harden. That severely limits new general manager Rafael Stone options, especially since his predecessor traded so many first-round picks to get Westbrook.
Here are 10 trade possibilities, none of which will thrill Rockets fans or Harden for the reasons above ...
The package: Devonte Graham, Miles Bridges, Nicolas Batum
Batum’s expiring $27 million contract would save Houston owner/restauranteur Tilman Fertitta a ton of money, and the Rockets could probably take their pick of Charlotte’s array of good but not great talent. P.J. Washington is probably the only player Hornets owner Michael Jordan would not put on the table for Westbrook. Jordan is a big fan, once saying at Westbrook’s induction to the Oklahoma Hall of Fame, “I see a lot of resemblance of his passion for the game of basketball [to] the way I played the game of basketball.”
There is also a world where the Hornets put the No. 3 overall pick in next week’s draft on the table in a three-team trade that might net Houston something better than a few role players. Jordan has options to make a deal work, and The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported that Charlotte is already emerging as a suitor for the 2017 MVP.
This would be a serious step down in relevancy for Westbrook. The Hornets are nowhere near contention and might not even be a playoff team in the increasingly competitive East. But the owner’s relationship with Westbrook, who reps the Jordan Brand, might be enough to convince him Charlotte is the place to build.
The package: Eric Bledsoe, Ersan Ilyasova, Robin Lopez, D.J. Wilson, Dragan Bender
The Bucks are among the teams in need of a point guard. It is pretty clear Bledsoe has run his course in Milwaukee, where his playoff failures have been a roadblock to Giannis Antetokounmpo’s championship chances. Westbrook is not exactly known for his postseason heroism, but a swing for the fences could demonstrate to Antetokounmpo — an impending free agent in 2021 — a commitment to his title pursuit.
It could also be disastrous. Westbrook’s sub-30 percent three-point shooting sends defenses sagging, potentially crowding Antetokounmpo’s operating space. And who knows how Antetokounmpo would feel about another star eating into his usage. Westbrook could make him more willing to walk in free agency.
The package: Victor Oladipo, Jeremy Lamb, Doug McDermott
Oladipo’s availability is an open secret. He is a 2021 free agent, and the Rockets might want some assurance he would stay beyond this coming season. The two-time All-Star also has played only 20 games since January 2019, when he ruptured the quad tendon in his right knee. Lamb, who was part of the package Houston dealt to acquire Harden in 2012, is recovering from a devastating left knee injury.
That is not a great return for the Rockets, but it might be the kind they have to accept. It would be a heck of a way for Indiana to salvage another star out of Oladipo. Westbrook would be a fine fit alongside Malcolm Brogdon in the backcourt, as a pick-and-roll partner to Domantas Sabonis and as a creator for T.J. Warren. The Pacers would still have Myles Turner to flip for more pieces that could help make a run at the East.
New Orleans Pelicans
The package: Jrue Holiday, J.J. Redick
This would be a heck of a return for the Rockets. Holiday is a perfect complement to Harden and a defensive upgrade for Houston, and Redick is a veteran floor spacer for the two of them. The Pelicans have plenty of other packages they can put together, but the question is whether they want to offer any of them.
Holiday is on the market, but dealing for Westbrook is a commitment to winning now with a young core that may not be ready to seriously compete in the Western Conference for a few years. Brandon Ingram developed into an All-Star this past season, and New Orleans hopes Zion Williamson is healthy enough to be one this coming season, but how much does Westbrook’s ball dominance hinder their development?
The package: Aaron Gordon, Terrence Ross, Al-Farouq Aminu
The Magic have a number of packages they could put together with mid-tier salaries that also include Evan Fournier’s $17 million player option and the final year of Markelle Fultz’s rookie deal. They have not had a quality point guard in years, and Westbrook could fit nicely with All-Star Nikola Vucevic as his stretch five.
This trade does not make Orlando much better than the Eastern Conference also-ran it has been for a decade, but the franchise has often prioritized playoff appearances over a complete teardown. How happy that would make Westbrook is a question only he could answer. At least his state income tax stays at zero.
New York Knicks
The package: Frank Ntilikina, Julius Randle, Wayne Ellington, Elfrid Payton
Ugh. Westbrook is the exact kind of player the Knicks pursue — a big name passing his prime who does little to elevate their future ceiling — and yet they have little to nothing of value to offer Houston in return. The Rockets would have to be awfully desperate to take any collection of salaries back from New York.
The Knicks are not putting R.J. Barrett on the table, or at least they should not. This year’s No. 8 overall pick is a different story. Swinging that for something Houston might find interesting is their only chance.
Los Angeles Lakers
The package: Danny Green, Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Quinn Cook, Alex Caruso
The Lakers would have to convince Caldwell-Pope to agree to a sign-and-trade deal — perhaps in the form of a hefty contract from Houston — and would be going all in on Westbrook as a third star with LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Dealing the entire supporting cast of a team that just won the championship for another aging superstar is an enormous risk, but the reward could be a dynastic trio in the coming years.
Los Angeles Clippers
The package: Montrezl Harrell, Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley
This is essentially the package Houston dealt to the Clippers for Paul three years ago. Harrell has to agree to a sign-and-trade, but it would be fascinating to see if this version of the 2016-17 Rockets — with a much improved Harrell — could fare any better than the 55 wins and second-round exit they entered when last together. Houston would almost certainly ask for Paul George instead, but Westbrook alone gets Kawhi Leonard no closer to a ring in L.A. The Clips should look for a third star, not to swap one issue for another.
The package: Tim Hardaway Jr., Delon Wright, Jalen Brunson, Dwight Powell
Neither team may have any interest in this trade. Powell is recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon with three years left on his contract, and the rest of the package is not all that enticing, either. Westbrook would also be jumping to a similar situation, with Luka Doncic playing the role of Harden, and the Mavericks likely would not be keen on taking the ball out of their rising star’s hands. But the thought of Westbrook, Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis as a triumvirate is one that could do serious damage in the West if it were to work.
The package: Ricky Rubio, Kelly Oubre Jr.
The Suns have reportedly discussed a deal for Chris Paul — the All-Star point guard the Rockets traded to acquire Westbrook from Oklahoma City — and he is a better fit with Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton. He also has one fewer year left on his massive contract. But if that were to fall through, Phoenix might pin their playoff hopes to Westbrook. Rubio and Oubre are not a great return for the Rockets, who would surely want the Suns to put Mikal Bridges or Cameron Johnson in the deal. Either option should give Phoenix pause.
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