When an NBA front office decides whether to trade for a player, there are a few questions that need to be answered before either pulling the trigger or calling the other team back to say “no dice.”
The first and most obvious is “is the guy we’re trading for any good?” There are plenty of reasons to trade for a guy who sucks, and we’ll get into why as we go down this list of questions, but as a good rule of thumb, you don’t trade for players who suck.
The second is “how much money does he make and how long will he tie up cap room?” One year of a bad contract is often a worthwhile price to pay if you’re trying to win now, maybe even two years of a bad contract, and on the other side, a rebuilding team is usually looking to dump salary rather than add it.
The third is “what does the other team want for this player?” Are you expected to trade one of your own best players? Are you mortgaging the franchise by trading away a ton of future first-rounders and pick swaps the way Boston hosed the Brooklyn Nets in 2013?
And the last question should probably be “is there another player who’s a better fit for our franchise and its goals that won’t cost us as much to acquire?”
Which brings us to Russell Westbrook, a 32-year-old stat hound with the same floor as ceiling who has recently started to battle injuries while playing a position and doing so in a style that requires him to still have his athleticism.
Oh, and he’s on the hook for over $40 million in each of the next three seasons assuming (and he’d be a fool not to) he exercises his over $46 million player option in 2022-23, which will be his age-34 season.
How dumb do you have to be to think that’s a good idea?
Westbrook is such an unrepentant stat hound that on the one hand, he averaged a triple-double in three straight seasons, something that’s otherwise been done only once in NBA history, by Oscar Robertson way back in 1962.
On the other hand, Basketball Reference acknowledged how ridiculous this is and actually changed the formulas on some of their advanced stats when they realized that Westbrook’s unique approach to stat-hounding completely ruined the validity and correlation between their advanced stats and a team’s ability to win games (a subject that’s been covered on Pace and Space for Win Shares and VORP.)
And yet even with his stat-hounding, Westbrook just had the Dead Canary Season in 2019-20.
After three years of averaging a triple-double, Westbrook averaged just 7.9 rebounds and 7.0 assists per game in Houston while still playing 35.9 minutes a game.
Part of that was because he played next to James Harden, a stat-hound in his own right, but he still turned the ball over 4.5 times a game, which is one thing if you’re averaging 10 or 11 assists; quite another if you’re only averaging seven.
His scoring was up (27.2 points per game on 22.5 shots), and so was his FG% (47.2 percent, way above his 43.7 career total) as he got 41.5 percent of his looks from 3 feet and in—layup and dunk territory.
But he also shot a cover-your-eyes atrocious 25.8 percent from 3-point land, the 17th-worst season all-time by a player with a minimum of 150 attempts and fifth-worst if you up the minimum to 200 (the other four? Marcus Smart 2016, Trey Lyles 2019, Antoine Walker 2000, and Giannis Antetokounmpo 2019.)
And sure, normally it’s a good thing to be compared to the Greek Freak, but 3-point shooting is not the metric you want to have your comparison rooted in.
And then there’s “Westbrick” and his career 3-point percentage of 30.5; among players with at least 2,000 career attempts, only Charles Barkley is worse.
There have been some great players who couldn’t shoot 3-pointers for beans; Allen Iverson, Gary Payton, Clyde Drexler, Scottie Pippen, and Kobe Bryant are all among the 20 worst 3-point shooters in history.
But then again, none of those guys played in an era and on a team where 3-point shooting is everything. Even guys regarded as poor 3-point shooters today at least tend to hit 35 or 36 percent of them. Westbrook’s out there hitting barely over a quarter of his.
So Westbrook, who is showing signs of being washed up at 32 and will only get worse in the next two years of his contract, is on the trade block. This is the same position Carmelo Anthony found himself in a couple of years ago when he joined and wrecked the 2017-18 Thunder.
That means he’s stumbled on the first two points of the opposing GM’s who-says-no checklist.
The New York Post reports that the Knicks won’t make a trade for Westbrook unless they can do it “on the cheap.” Houston isn’t going to get even a Mitchell Robinson-level player in exchange; they’ll have to take out the Knicks’ trash for them and maybe get one of the picks New York acquired from Dallas in the Kristaps Porzingis trade.
And spoiler alert, but any pick that relies on the Dallas Mavericks missing the playoffs to be worth more than peanuts might as well be a second-rounder for all the value it has. Luka Doncic and friends are a pretty heavy favorite to challenge the Bron-and-the-Brow Lakers in next year’s Western Conference Finals. If one or both of those titans of Los Angeles get injured, it’s not out of the question that Dallas could win the title, and that’s what the Knicks have to offer as a “sweetener” for a Westbrook deal?
There are two types of team that could trade for Westbrook. One is a garbage fire franchise that can absorb Westbrook’s contract to put butts in the seats while their young players develop, like the Knicks.
The other is a team so utterly verklempt in the front office that they don’t know what to do with themselves right now—this is the situation the Hornets have been in since they stopped being the Bobcats and the Clippers have been in since the big collapse in the 2020 postseason.
Getting Westbrook is a last-ditch “wunderwaffen” type of move that somehow seems to involve Paul George, at least if media sources are to be believed, and is the best that Houston could hope for.
And that’s saying a lot given “Playoff P” has become an Internet meme for a guy with great regular-season stats who disappears when the games matter a lot more. Not for nothing did the Pacers fall apart when the wheels finally came off of the Danny Granger mobile in 2014. Yeah, sure, any team with Evan Turner on it is doomed no matter what, but PG wasn’t exactly a postseason leader in Indiana.
So you’ve got 29 teams that have either passed at the first two hurdles or are trying to lowball the Rockets on the third criterion, and you could argue that the Clippers are just trading one problem child for another in a desperate attempt not to waste Kawhi Leonard falling into their laps.
Which leads to…
The Opportunity Cost
Twitter had an interesting thought experiment courtesy of a Thunder fan who’s seen both guys:
which player would you rather have on your favorite team
— ethan (@okcfanethan) November 14, 2020
Would you rather have Westbrook…or Dennis Schroder?
Here’s the thing. Westbrook has been a superstar for his entire career, makes superstar money, and will expect superstar minutes.
Schroder makes $15.5 million, started just two games in Oklahoma City as Chris Paul‘s backup in 2020, is a massively better shooter than Westbrook (38.5 percent from three on 5.0 attempts to Westbrook’s 3.7, good for an eFG% difference of .534 for Schroder and .493 for Russ), and would make a fantastic borderline Sixth Man of the Year candidate on any team that would trade for him and can afford the luxury of a $15 million sixth man.
If you’ve got a team that doesn’t need a volume passer in the backcourt to run the offense, Schroder’s backcourt scoring makes him a CJ McCollum-esque sidekick type of player, the role Westbrook was supposed to play next to Harden—in fact, last season at least, Schroder was a better shooter than McCollum was, and he makes half as much money.
The point here is that there are plenty of better ways to fill the point guard role on an NBA team in 2021 without having to take on Westbrook’s contract and hope he doesn’t completely crash and burn in terms of his effectiveness. Brogdon himself was and is that guy for the Pacers, Schroder’s a good option, Spencer Dinwiddie is rumored to be available as the Nets try to add a third star to get Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant to the Finals…
And all of the above is why Russell Westbrook fails on all four points that a GM should consider when deciding whether or not to trade for him.
The Rockets might be stuck with Westbrook just because nobody will take him. No wonder they fired Daryl Morey. He’s the guy that built this garbage fire of a problem.