Miami Heat's $171 Million Question: Is Russell Westbrook the Right Trade Target?

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 9, 2019

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) in the second half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019, in Denver. The Nuggets won 121-112. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Pat Riley's spidey senses started tingling the second Paul George was shipped out of Oklahoma City.

While that deal rocked the basketball world at large, it reverberated with the Miami Heat president for a different reason: His latest star pursuit was underway.

Russell Westbrook, an eight-time All-Star owed a metric ton of money over the next four seasons, was suddenly out of place in the only NBA home he'd ever known. Before the next step for the Brodie and the Thunder was certain, the Heat had already surfaced as a potential landing spot, per The Athletic's Sam Amick and Brett Dawson.

It's the Riley way of doing business. In the official announcement of the club's acquisition of Jimmy Butler, Riley said simply, "Any time you can add a four-time All-Star to your roster, you make that move."

When it's an eight-time All-Star, you move twice as fast, right? And when it's an All-Star seeking a scenery change—Shaquille O'Neal, Alonzo Mourning, Tim Hardaway—Riley doesn't let the opportunity pass him by.

So, might the decorated executive be closing in on his target? It's definitely trending in that direction. ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported Westbrook "welcomes the idea" of a trade out of OKC, Miami has interest and South Beach appeals to the former MVP.

But how would a Westbrook blockbuster take shape? And is a Brodie-Butler pairing the best way for the Heat to handle their future?

Let's dig in.


The Initial Offer

MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 03: Goran Dragic #7 of the Miami Heat is guarded by Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during a game  at American Airlines Arena on December 3, 2015 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agree
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

In Oklahoma City, Westbrook is an icon. He not only lasted longer than any other member of the 2012 finalists—who, you may remember, dropped the championship round to the Heat—but he also provided a glimpse of post-Kevin Durant hope by initially convincing George to stick around.

In Miami, Westbrook could serve as hope and perhaps the final reminder never to bet against Riley. The Heat entered their first post-Dwyane Wade offseason with no cap space and limited assets. They might leave it having added a pair of All-Star regulars.

Around the Association, though, the prolific point guard is polarizing. Yes, he piles up triple-doubles, but he's an inefficient scorer and a turnover machine. Yes, his relentless approach puts constant pressure on opposing defenses, but how much longer can the 30-year-old play that style if he starts losing some athleticism to Father Time?

Those are tricky dynamics to deal with, especially once you factor in his cost. He still has four years and $171.1 million left on his contract. In 2022-23, his age-34 season, he'll hold an enormous $47.1 million player option.

The contract alone is burdensome enough that some have pondered whether Miami should be getting an asset to take it off OKC's hands:

Barry Jackson @flasportsbuzz

Found it interesting that highly respected NBA person mentioned to me tonight that (and some analysts have said this) Heat should be asking OKC for a draft pick, not other way around. Would OKC actually see it that way?

Sorry, Heat fans. This doesn't mean you should expect Westbrook and assets to be heading your way. That said, it suggests Miami would be smart to start with a reasonable low-ball offer like this:

Miami Heat Receive: Russell Westbrook

Oklahoma City Thunder Receive: Goran Dragic, James Johnson, Dion Waiters, Duncan Robinson

Not many will find an asset headed OKC's way here, save for the believers in Robinson's potential as an outside shooter.

But rather than being on the hook for all of Westbrook's deal, the Thunder would be out of Dragic's after 2019-20 and both Waiters' and Johnson's by the next offseason. Dragic is good enough to potentially bring back an asset if he's flipped between now and the deadline, while the others might have value as expiring contracts the following year.

The real question is whether the Thunder could sell this to their fanbase as a sufficient return for their last remaining star. Our crystal ball isn't buying it, but trade talks are easier to negotiate once a starting point has been reached.


The Compromise

Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

Westbrook's desire to head southeast will help the Heat's cause. As ESPN's Royce Young put it, the Thunder "want to do right by Westbrook" and "make sure that he goes to a destination that he prefers."

That gives Miami a bit of leverage, but not nearly enough for an outright fleecing.

Thunder fans just watched their club net two players (including high-level prospect Shai Gilgeous-Alexander), five first-round picks and a pair of pick swaps from the Los Angeles Clippers in exchange for George. They added another future first from the Denver Nuggets for Jerami Grant.

They can't shed Westbrook without getting some type of pick or notable prospect in return.

Miami can't provide draft compensation without involving a third team since previous deals prevent it from dealing a first-rounder before 2025. That puts the focus on the club's shallow prospect pool, where it's tricky to find one the Heat would give up and the Thunder would covet.

But let's try:

Miami Heat Receive: Russell Westbrook, Patrick Patterson, 2024 second-round pick (via Memphis Grizzlies)

Oklahoma City Thunder Receive: Goran Dragic, James Johnson, Dion Waiters, Tyler Herro

Losing Herro less than a month after adding him with the 13th pick would be tough. The Heat have long needed a lights-out shooter, and that would be true more than ever if Butler and Westbrook are running the show.

Still, Miami is sacrificing the unknown with Herro for the stardom of Westbrook. If Herro doesn't hit (a lot of 13th picks don't; for every Donovan Mitchell, there's a Georgios Papagiannis), history may remember this deal as first-degree larceny.

As for OKC, the club would have a shiny new prospect to parade in front of its fans and a highly intriguing potential backcourt partner for Gilgeous-Alexander.

If a two-team deal goes down, this is probably close to how the final version would look. So, does it make sense for the Heat to take such a plunge?


Risky But Worthy Gamble for the Heat

MIAMI, FL - MARCH 26: Pat Riley, President of the Miami Heat, addresses the crowd during the jersey retirement ceremony for Chris Bosh at halftime of the game against the Orlando Magic on March 26, 2019 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE T
Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

Miami has been without a clear succession plan to move out of Wade's larger-than-life shadow.

Bringing in Butler only solidified so much. The Heat will still have bad money on the books the next two seasons, and none of their prospects is an obvious star in the making.

That can make Miami's perpetual drive for maximum competitiveness feel claustrophobic. The ceiling may not sit higher than a one-round playoff appearance, but the floor will never fall too far below the postseason race. The Heat are functionally trapped on the treadmill of mediocrity. Over the last five seasons, they've only made two playoff trips and enjoyed a single postseason series win.

Adding Westbrook would be a path to something different—and maybe something substantially better.

The Westbrook-Butler pairing isn't perfect. Butler doesn't take many threes (career 2.7 per game), and Westbrook doesn't make many of them (career 30.8 percent). Spacing could get especially tight when the two share the hardwood with Bam Adebayo, who's 3-of-22 from distance over his first two seasons.

That said, this roster would go from having no obvious offensive focal point to suddenly having two. It would also get a couple of grinders who play the no-nonsense style Riley and head coach Erik Spoelstra prefer. Surround them with the likes of Adebayo, Justise Winslow and Derrick Jones Jr., and this group could obliterate opponents with toughness, tenacity and a tornado of athleticism.

"They would be a contender," ESPN's Chauncey Billups told Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald. "... The tenacity of those two guys, the heart, the will, and effort of those two guys ... I feel they will have a chance every single night."

Granted, they might be a contender in the sense of needing everything to break right in order to escape the East. But why couldn't they climb as high as No. 3?

The Toronto Raptors look ready to free-fall without Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. The Boston Celtics smartly replaced Kyrie Irving with Kemba Walker, but moving from Al Horford to Enes Kanter is a massive decline. The Indiana Pacers still don't have a second star for Victor Oladipo (who still isn't healthy). The Brooklyn Nets probably won't have Kevin Durant all season.

Led by Westbrook and Butler, the Heat would have enough to reach the conference semis. While some might argue that's not worth the cost, the championship-or-bust mentality glosses over the significance of winning 50-plus games and playing multiple rounds of postseason hoops. Catch a couple of bounces here, someone gets injured there and you're suddenly looking at a conference finals berth.

That's not a better reality than what Miami has now? The Heat could continue waiting for their books to clear while cutting into the remainder of Butler's prime, and they may never find a player of Westbrook's caliber.

Riley's way is simple. If a star is available, grabbing him is the important part. You can figure out the rest later.

Trusting his instincts has taken this franchise a long way. So why stop now?


Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.