With hardly any time to catch our breath in this now officially truncated NBA offseason, rumor mills are in full swing. The draft is set for Nov. 18, with free agency opening two days after that, and the floodgates on player movement and significant roster revamping could open any day.
The Houston Rockets, at first glance, would not appear to be a team with much roster flexibility, so instead they shook things up off the court. They cut ties with longtime GM Daryl Morey and coach Mike D’Antoni, the latter of of whom was replaced by Stephen Silas, who says the Rockets will aim to be less predictable moving forward.
Silas is referring to Houston’s paint-by-numbers offensive approach that makes no secret of the spot on the court from which they’re trying to score. But might there be room for some unpredictability with the roster, as well? On Tuesday, Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer said on “The Mismatch” podcast that Russell Westbrook is believed to be available, and that both the New York Knicks and, surprisingly, Los Angeles Clippers could be interested in trading for the Houston star.
“I did have multiple sources that I trust tell me that teams believe Russell Westbrook could be had,” O’Connor said. “That Westbrook could be had, and I’ve heard the Clippers have interest. I’ve heard the Knicks have interest in Westbrook, and whether anything materializes there, who knows.”
Silas and new GM Rafael Stone both insist the Rockets remain “all-in” as it pertains to the championship pursuit, but hanging around in the background of this team — given that it has zero cap space and basically no draft picks or young assets in which other teams would be overly interested — is the potential for James Harden to be traded at peak value. And if Harden is even a long-shot candidate to be moved, you know the Rockets would get off Westbrook if given the chance.
The question is: Who wants to take him on with just under $85 million on his contract over the next two years along with a $46 million player option in 2023? For the Knicks, it would be a desperate attempt to move the needle, same as a potential trade for Chris Paul would be, but it wouldn’t make them anywhere near relevant in the Eastern Conference.
The Clippers are intriguing for the simple fact that any time you start talking about three All-NBA-level players on the same team (assuming Paul George wouldn’t be a part of any potential deal, which would be the dumbest move in Clippers history, which is saying something), antennas go up. But Westbrook’s flaws won’t go away just because he goes to another team. He still can’t shoot, and he’s not going to be the primary initiator over Kawhi Leonard and George. His off-ball presence would jam spacing the same way he does in Houston.
In theory, the Clippers could include Ivica Zubac in the trade and open up the lane for Westbrook’s penetration, particularly off secondary offense, but just to make the money work on a deal like this would be quite a hill to climb. The Clippers would almost certainly have to include Lou Williams and Landry Shamet, along with Zubac and Patrick Beverley.
Those are four good players who, in the aggregate, do a lot of things Westbrook can’t — namely play All-NBA-level defense (Beverley) and shoot at a high clip (Williams and Shamet). The Clippers could, perhaps, try to work a more complicated trade by signing and trading restricted free agent Montrezl Harrell, but that would hard cap them, which becomes problematic for a team that could need to add a handful of peripheral pieces and still has to consider re-signing Marcus Morris.
I’ll be completely frank about this: The Clippers should not trade for Westbrook. I know he was borderline great for Houston before the hiatus, and he can still dominate games with his pace and half-court attacking. But the theory of his still irrefutable talent and the actual application, and subsequent benefit, of that talent are becoming increasingly different things.
Westbrook hasn’t put a team closer to a championship since he split with Kevin Durant. He’s not a one-man team carrier, as evidenced by the ceiling OKC hit post Kevin Durant — even when Westbrook and George were teamed up. The Rockets were considerably worse with Westbrook than they were with Paul.
Sure, he would be a theoretical third wheel in L.A., and indeed there is always a certain intrigue to the possibility of big names joining forces. But I seriously doubt a deal like this ever gets done with the Clippers. To me, the Knicks are a greater possibility. I definitely believe the Rockets would move off Westbrook given a decent offer. I just don’t think it happens with the Clips.