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Where Does Russell Westbrook Fit Now?

After the basketball world collectively picked its jaw up off the floor in the wake of the Kawhi Leonard and Paul George news, the spotlight shifted to Russell Westbrook, the Oklahoma City star who may be on the move now that his team appears to be pivoting toward a full-on rebuild.

The notion of the Thunder trading Westbrook, who’s been the face of the franchise since Kevin Durant left, is nearly as fascinating as Westbrook himself. The 30-year-old still possesses undeniable talent and value. The former MVP has been incredibly durable the past four years, while averaging a triple-double in each of the last three campaigns. And in a league that seems more wide-open than it has been in years, who wouldn’t want to add a player of Westbrook’s caliber?

The problem is that things are almost never quite that open-and-shut. This is especially true when it comes to Westbrook, whose game is permanently stamped with question marks like a mystery box in a Super Mario Bros. game.

Chief among those questions: Can the headstrong point guard, after everything we’ve witnessed in recent years, be the best or second-best player on a championship-caliber team? And if it turns out that the answer is no, are there teams that still should roll the dice and deal for him anyway?

Most executives around the league probably feel like they have seen enough to answer the former. After all, Westbrook has been teammates with both Durant and George, yet has never quite gotten over the hump to win a ring. The efforts the past few years haven’t even gotten him close, as the Thunder have gotten knocked out in the first round three straight times. Most troubling for Westbrook over that span: He’s shot worse than 40 percent in each postseason, which, with how frequently he shoots,1 would be enough on its own to torpedo almost any team’s chances of winning a series.

The guard’s determination and lack of feel at times become problematic when he plays into the defense’s hands by taking wide-open jumpers, which he had less success with than any other NBA player last season.2 In the first round of the playoffs, Portland defenders were often told to simply back off and let him shoot, a plan that all but neuters his most explosive trait: speed.

Sometimes Westbrook’s Sonic-like blurs to the basket get him into trouble and lead to turnovers. But overall, he finds value in barreling his way to the cup more than just about anyone. He shot a career-best 65 percent from inside 3 feet in 2018-19, and he whipped an NBA-high 802 passes that led directly to a 3-point attempt this past season, according to data from Second Spectrum.

Those numbers alone show why he’s intriguing. Players who can create for themselves and others will always be important in the NBA, and Westbrook has shown a consistent ability to do that. And it’s fair to argue that he’d perform even better in an offense where — unlike Oklahoma City’s — the players around him can actually shoot, giving him more spacing and driving lanes to work with.3

The Houston Rockets, who launch more triples than any club, are one such team that could benefit from Westbrook’s ability to create looks. As such, it shouldn’t be a shock that Houston is one of the teams interested in him. But there’s also a catch — one that explains why trading Westbrook will be challenging. He makes a whole lot of money4 and is on the books for a long time, which gets into questions about how he’ll age, as a high-flying athlete without a reliable jumper (not to mention his defensive effort, which often leaves a lot to be desired). His contract surely gives potential suitors pause and creates logistical challenges, in terms of finding matching salaries to make a deal work.

The other two clubs reportedly interested in Westbrook, the Heat and Pistons, have one star player apiece (Jimmy Butler and Blake Griffin, respectively) already and figure to find themselves stuck right in the league’s middle without more roster changes. While Westbrook might not make them bona fide title contenders, he would almost certainly provide a higher ceiling while also giving them a glimmer of hope to win a weakened East. As of now, just two of the NBA’s top 10 teams are in the East, according to FiveThirtyEight’s projection model.

It’s easy to see how teams mired in mediocrity would consider making a play for him. But the reality of trading for Westbrook — much like Westbrook himself — is heavily complicated.



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Footnotes

  1. Sometimes more than a superstar teammate who enjoys far better efficiency, which isn’t ideal.

  2. Among those who took at least 200 attempts of 10 feet or more, with no defender standing within 6 feet of him.

  3. In Westbrook’s 2016-17 MVP season, his Thunder teammates shot an abysmal 30.9 percent on wide-open 3-pointers, an impressively bad mark, given that the league average on threes, open and contested, was 35.8 percent.

  4. He’s at the front end of a five-year, $206 million deal that will see him earn $47 million in 2022-23.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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