In what has been a wild, chaotic offseason, the lastest storyline generating intrigue is the future of Russell Westbrook. Once Paul George was traded to the Clippers, it was expected that Westbrook would start looking for a way out of OKC as well. And, to no one’s surprise, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported yesterday that “Westbrook and his agent, Thad Foucher, are engaged with Thunder GM Sam Presti about the next steps of Westbrook’s career, including the possibility of a trade prior to the start of next season.”
As a result, the buzz on Twitter this weekend has revolved around which teams might make sense as a potential landing spot. And, as expected, the Knicks were one of the franchises immediately included in the conversation. After all, the Knicks just missed out on Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Kawhi Leonard in free agency, despite the fact that they entered the offseason with $70 million in cap space, more than any other team in the league. They used the majority of that cap room to sign five free agents to contracts with team options for the 2020-21 season, which allows the Knicks to maintain flexibility going forward. Furthermore, trading for a well-known star such as Westbrook has been the type of move past Knicks regimes have been sucked into time and time again in years past.
Let’s start with the facts. Russell Westbrook is an incredibly talented and impactful basketball player; no one with common sense could deny that. His mind-boggling stats speak for themselves. Amazingly, he’s averaged a triple-double in each of the past three seasons. He’s an eight-time All-Star, a two-time All-Star Game MVP, and was named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player in 2017. The Knicks haven’t featured a player as great as Westbrook since Patrick Ewing’s prime.
Now, with all that said, New York shouldn’t even consider trading for him.
The reasons are plentiful. First and foremost, when trading for, or signing a player in free agency, astute front office personnel project what value that player will provide going forward, not what he produced last year or two seasons prior. And, obviously, smart GM’s that are focused solely on winning could care less about a player’s popularity.
Furthermore, although he is still competing at an incredibly high level and posting monster numbers on a nightly basis, Westbrook will turn 31 in November. Some superstars, such as Kevin Durant or Dirk Nowitzki for instance, aren’t overly dependent on their athleticism. Westbrook, on the other hand, relies on his ability to blow by defenders and violently explode toward the basket. As he ages, and that unmatched athleticism begins to fade, it’s hard to envision him transitioning successfully to the next stage of his career.
Never an efficient scorer, Westbrook’s numbers are already trending in the wrong direction. Last season, at age 30, he shot 42.8% from the floor, only 29% from 3-point territory, and a career-worst 65.6% from the free-throw line. Per Basketball-Reference, he became just the fourth player in NBA history to attempt more than 20 shots per game and yet post an eFG% below 47%
Next up, we have to acknowledge the large percentage of his team’s salary cap he’ll eat up as he enters his mid-30’s. Here’s a look at Westbrook’s annual salary over the next four years:
- 2019-20 (age 31): $38.5 million
- 2020-21 (age 32): $41.4 million
- 2021-22 (age 33): $44.2 million
- 2022-23 (age 34): $47.1 million
Paying a 34-year old point guard, who has always been dependent on his otherworldly athleticism, $47 million (or roughly 40% of your cap) is not an ideal scenario.
If the Knicks were one piece away from earnestly contending for a title, then maybe it might be worth it to consider sacrificing in the longterm for a shot at glory in the near future. However, as we know, the Knicks had the worst record in the NBA last season and are nowhere near competing for a championship.
Once New York lost out on Durant, president Steve Mills and GM Scott Perry publically avowed they would patiently rebuild the roster the right way, without skipping steps and trying to microwave the process. Trading any of their valuable assets, be it young players, future draft picks, or even just cap space, in exchange for Westbook would be a massive misstep and an abdication of the plan they had promised they’d adhere to.
Yes, even if OKC was looking to dump Westbrook’s salary, he’s simply not a fit on the Knicks. New York’s foundation is built around two teenagers, RJ Barrett (19 years of age) and Kevin Knox (19), and 21-year-old Mitchell Robinson. The Knicks also own the rights to seven first-round picks over the next five years. (The Thunder are the only team in the league with more picks over that same period.) The heart of the New York roster is a few years away from even starting to enter their prime, while Westbrook is inching closer to basketball mortality.
And, ideally, the Knicks young core should be surrounded by veterans that will help their games grow. Watching Westbrook force contested jumpers and chase triple-double is not exactly what you’d want Barrett modeling his game after. Dating back to the start of this decade, Westbrook’s cumulative usage rate is 34.2%, which is the highest mark in the league. He’s the only player ever to post a usage rate north of 38% and an eFG% south of 48% in the same season. And he’s done it twice.
And the reality is, the Thunder have not experienced much success with Westbrook playing his unique brand of ball. Since Kevin Durant left OKC, the Thunder have won a total of just four playoff games. This past season, despite a lineup that also featured Steven Adams and Paul George (who finished in the top-3 in both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year voting), they were easily beaten by the Blazers in five games in the first round. The Knicks don’t have anything close to resembling the star power Westbrook played with in Oklahoma City, so it would be foolish to expect success in New York.
Steer clear, New York.