Potential Trade Destinations for Russell Westbrook Following Paul George's Exit

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJuly 7, 2019

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) celebrates after scoring against the Portland Trail Blazers in the first half of Game 4 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series Sunday, April 21, 2019, in Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/Alonzo Adams)
Alonzo Adams/Associated Press

Russell Westbrook is once again the Oklahoma City Thunder's only star. For how much longer, though, we can't be sure.

Kawhi Leonard decided to join the Los Angeles Clippers early Saturday morning, as first reported by Yahoo Sports' Chris Haynes. His arrival is happening in tandem with that of Paul George, whom the Clippers pried from the Thunder at a draft-pick premium, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski.

What comes next for Oklahoma City isn't quite clear. Dealing Westbrook and beginning anew seems to be the fairly obvious move, but it isn't that simple despite OKC finally being "receptive toward trade calls," per The Athetlic and Stadium's Shams Charania. 

Rerouting Westbrook is hard in general. He is owed $171.1 million over the next four years, so teams won't treat him as a net-positive asset. The Thunder would be lucky to broker a trade that secures appreciable cap relief.

Prospective suitors are even tougher to suss out this "late" into free agency. Cap space has dried up around the league, and so, too, have many of Oklahoma City's would-be options. Squads willing to take on high-priced point guards can now also try gauging the Toronto Raptors' willingness to unload Kyle Lowry's far more palatable expiring pact.

The Thunder's return on George—Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, five first-rounders and two additional pick swaps—affords them some flexibility. They can look to rejigger the roster around Westbrook or wait and see how this core fares in next year's wild, wild West before making any drastic decisions.

But neither choice feels like a viable solution. Not this time. As ESPN's Royce Young wrote:

"The Thunder are comfortable embarking on a rebuild rather than trying to retool. But they will evaluate their options going forward, which include seeing what this team looks like with Westbrook leading the charge alongside Gallinari and Steven Adams, trade current pieces to try and add to the roster, or hit reboot on the roster completely and trade Westbrook. The last option appears to be the most likely scenario."

Timing is everything for Oklahoma City. Trading Westbrook sooner rather than later might be the least painful approach, but potential destinations are drying up. If the Thunder have the stomach for it, waiting until midseason figures to open up the field.

   

Offseason Possibilities

Cleveland Cavaliers

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK- NOVEMBER 28: Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder handles the ball against Collin Sexton #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers on November 28, 2018 at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly
Zach Beeker/Getty Images

File the Cavaliers under "Long Shots, But They Have Kevin Love."

Cleveland is in the early stages of a rebuild. Going after Westbrook short-circuits that from-scratch process. Stars are worth changing course for, but the Cavaliers have three ball-dominant guard prospects under their care in Darius Garland, Kevin Porter Jr. and Collin Sexton. Adding another, even if it costs one of the incumbents, isn't the most down-to-earth play.

Maybe that doesn't matter, or perhaps it merely matters less than the potential opportunity cost. Cleveland still has JR Smith's partially guaranteed deal on the books, which is worth $15.7 million in outbound salary but can be waived for $3.9 million.

Oklahoma City won't find more immediate savings. A deal including Porter, Smith and Brandon Knight trims more than $17 million from the bottom line and gets the Thunder under the luxury-tax threshold—provided, of course, they waive Smith.

The Cavaliers would have to reconcile the expensive overlap of this scenario. They'll have to cut salary to avoid the luxury tax even if they waive Smith themselves. Taking on Westbrook consigns them to a payroll north of $150 million, before taxes, next season.

They'd likewise have to figure out what Westbrook's arrival means for Garland and Sexton. Do they keep one? Both? Do they have to send one out as part of the trade? Is there another star out there for them to poach? Bradley Beal, perhaps?

And before the Cavaliers ever get that far, they have to ask whether a Love-Westbrook duo is worth the trouble. The answer is probably no, but if they're looking to strike in the East now without obliterating their asset base, Westbrook will be among the few splashy trade targets who don't force them to mortgage much more than future spending power.

   

Detroit Pistons

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK- APRIL 5:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder reacts against the Detroit Pistons on April 5, 2019 at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloa
Zach Beeker/Getty Images

Tethering the franchise to Westbrook and Blake Griffin (three years, $110.2 million) would be a risk for the Pistons, but it's not an inconceivable one.

Reggie Jackson is finally getting an offseason unimpeded by injury, and Detroit already signed Derrick Rose to a two-year, $15 million deal. That hardly shores up the point guard position.

Both are imperfect fits next to Griffin and Andre Drummond. Jackson is better than serviceable as the third wheel, but only if he regains his first-step burst and downs set jumpers at a league-average clip. Rose is a worthy backup flier but remains injury-prone. Ankle issues and a season-ending elbow injury blighted a 2018-19 performance that was already overblown.

Westbrook is not a clean fit himself. He is star power. His efficiency cratered last season, and the Thunder struggled to generate consistent offense when he played without Paul George, but he remains a force of nature. The pressure he puts on defenses with his ceaseless probes has All-Star value on its own. 

Pairing him with Griffin might be worth a shot if the Thunder aren't charging more than financial relief. The Pistons have the wiggle room under the hard cap to offer them some.

Packages built around Jackson's expiring deal, Tony Snell (two years, $23.6 million) and some combination of Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, Thon Maker and distant second-round picks should get Oklahoma City's attention. Detroit is free to walk if it takes more than a heavily protected first-rounder to sweeten the pot. 

     

Miami Heat

MIAMI, FL - FEBRUARY 01: Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder in action against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena on February 1, 2019 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or
Mark Brown/Getty Images

Heat president Pat Riley had designs on landing two stars by the end of next summer. Jimmy Butler makes one, so maybe Riley will move up his timeline and go after another.

Cobbling together workable Westbrook-to-Miami deals is difficult. The Heat are hard-capped after the Butler sign-and-trade and have yet to officially duck the luxury-tax threshold. They need to broker a salary dump (Goran Dragic) or waive-and-stretch Ryan Anderson's partially guaranteed deal ($15.6 million).

Getting Westbrook to Miami is more tenable if OKC doesn't demand short-term cap relief. Both Anderson and Dragic are expiring contracts, and the Thunder can extract more value if they're willing to take on money that spills into 2020-21.

Sending back Anderson with one of James Johnson (two years, $31.4 million), Kelly Olynyk (two years, $25.7 million) or Dion Waiters (two years, $24.8 million) would be ideal for the Heat. That'd leave them to scour the market for a Dragic dump (Dallas!) and steer clear of the luxury tax.

Whether they have the supplementary assets to sell the Thunder on that framework is a different story. Oklahoma City would still be inside the luxury tax and responsible for cutting costs elsewhere.

Bam Adebayo or Tyler Herro are nice buffers, but their salaries make it more difficult to evade the tax, and the Heat cannot offer up a first-round pick until 2025. Oklahoma City now controls their selections in 2021 (unprotected) and 2023 (lottery-protected).

Still, unless the Thunder stumble into a suitor peddling more immediate relief, the Heat have to be considered an option. They're star-hungry and unsettled at point guard, and any package they put together will wind up saving Oklahoma City a ton of money beginning in 2020-21.

    

Midseason Possibilities

New York Knicks 

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 03: General Manager Scott Perry and President Steve Mills of the New York Knicks before the preseason game against the Brooklyn Nets at Barclays Center on October 3, 2018 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. NOTE TO USER: User
Matteo Marchi/Getty Images

Sponging up the rest of Westbrook's contract does not jibe with the Knicks' current timeline. They've stacked the deck for a gradual rebuilding project after missing out on both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

At the same time, they're well positioned to make a blockbuster trade once this summer's free agents are eligible to be dealt in mid-December. Reggie Bullock, Wayne Ellington, Taj Gibson and Bobby Portis all signed two-year deals with a team option for 2020-21, and Julius Randle's three-season pact has a team option for 2021-22.

If the Knicks are at all compelled to add a big name, they'll have the long-term cap relief and prospects to entice the Thunder. To be clear: It is not the smart move. Nor is it the likely one. 

Team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry appear committed to a lengthier, if still uncertain, process. They apparently rejected the chance to acquire Chris Paul from the Houston Rockets, per The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor.

But the Knicks have undermined their own reinventions before. They are always a candidate to do it again.

   

Orlando Magic

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

The Magic have attached themselves to a win-now window after bringing back Terrence Ross and Nikola Vucevic on four-year deals and signing Al-Farouq Aminu to a three-year agreement. Acquiring Westbrook would be a special kind of nuclear, but they'll have the incentive to go for it if Markelle Fultz doesn't pan out—or take the floor at all.

Orlando has a ton of salary-matching pieces in the event Westbrook catches its attention. Fultz and Evan Fournier stand out most if Oklahoma City prioritizes big-picture cap relief, but dangling Aaron Gordon would serve dual purposes as both a contract anchor and package centerpiece.

    

Phoenix Suns

Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

Signing Ricky Rubio most likely removes the Suns from Westbrook discussions—for now. It'll be a different story if the Thunder don't address his future until December or after the new year.

Tyler Johnson's expiring deal is a ready-made salary anchor. The Suns can flesh out the package from there using Rubio, Frank Kaminsky or even Kelly Oubre Jr. (assuming he re-signs), and they also have Aron Baynes' expiring contract.

Coming up with finishing touches is more of a head-scratcher. Oubre would work as a main attraction if the Thunder want him at his next price point, but the Suns don't have much beyond him. They already flipped the Milwaukee Bucks' 2020 first-rounder to the Boston Celtics, and including Mikal Bridges or Cameron Johnson goes a step too far.

Perhaps they consider it anyway. The Suns are in a perpetual hurry, and a Westbrook-Devin Booker partnership might be the kind of high-risk, high-reward gambit they're willing to indulge while giving up Johnson or one of their own future first-rounders.

    

Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders and RealGM.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.   

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