Kevin Durant shocked the world and officially chose the Warriors this week, and we'll have a lifetime to debate that decision. But for now, there is a more pressing question that's more entertaining: What happens to Russell Westbrook?
Here is where we are as of July 2016: Westbrook is a free agent next year. If he fails to give assurances that he'll stay, Sam Presti will likely explore his trade options (as he did with James Harden and Serge Ibaka, and especially in light of how things ended with Kevin Durant). On the other hand, Westbrook would need to give similar long-term assurances to any potential trade partner in order for OKC to get something back in a trade, and he's got no real incentive to do so. It's a tricky situation for everyone involved.
For today's entirely premature purposes, let's assume Russ plays out the year and enters free agency. Where does he go? What does he do? Here are some ideas.
There have been Westbrook-to-the-Lakers rumors since the beginning of time, and that won't change for the next few months. If Presti can't secure any long-term assurances from Westbrook, it will make sense to seek out a trade, and L.A. may be one of the only teams on the market that could make this deal work before the season starts. The Lakers have several young stars to help any rebuilding process, Jim Buss needs to win now to stave off the looming family rebellion, and life in L.A. might be enough to convince Westbrook to commit long-term.
But does anyone really want this to happen?
This is both the most obvious landing spot for Westbrook and the least appealing. The Lakers have been a total nightmare for the past few years, and sending Russ to L.A. to win with Timofey Mozgov, Luol Deng, and Luke Walton seems like a recipe for sadness.
One way it could work: The Lakers, sensing Presti's desperation, refuse to offer Brandon Ingram, and force OKC to settle for D'Angelo Russell in a Westbrook trade. Then... With Russ on board, L.A. turns around and flips Brandon Ingram to Chicago for Jimmy Butler. Suddenly, the Lakers are a lot more interesting:
PG: Russell Westbrook
SG: Jimmy Butler
SF: Luol Deng
PF: Julius Randle
C: Timofey Mozgov
Actually, no: That team would still be pretty rough to watch.
Even in the best case scenario, the L.A. homecoming idea is bleak. The Lakers youth movement—Russell, Ingram, and Luke Walton who is a 20-year-old at heart—is a lot more fun to imagine than a high-priced, underachieving seventh seed. Westbrook and the Lakers should both want more.
We'll deal with the Knicks' off-season later in the week when it's time to review free agency in general, but if nothing else, Phil Jackson has made it impossible to trade for Westbrook. Any Russ to Manhattan scenarios almost certainly have to wait until next summer. The best dream: The Cavs lose next year's Finals, GM LeBron James trades longtime Westbrook friend Kevin Love for Carmelo Anthony, and we get ...
PG: Russell Westbrook
SG: Courtney Lee
SF: WILLY KUZMINSKAS
PF: Kevin Love
C: Kristaps Porzingis
6th: Joakim Noah
That team would not contend with the Warriors, but it'd make for a killer table at the Met Gala, and maybe that's all that matters.
My biggest problem with the Knicks dream comes back to my biggest worry with Westbrook. He turns every basketball game into a combat sport, he plays at 150 miles per hour, and at some point, it may catch up to him. If there's one superstar guard in the league who could see his body break down a few years early, it's Russ. It's a risk. And if he goes to the Knicks, given their history with every other superstar free agent they've ever signed, it will happen. Keep Russ out of New York.
There's too much uncertainty in Miami to speculate on what this would look like. Will Chris Bosh be healthy? What is Dwyane Wade doing? Is Goran Dragic still good? Nobody can answer these questions right now. All that matters is this: a Whiteside, Winslow, Westbrook nucleus would lead the league in ass-kicking. Let Golden State shoot threes and win titles. Westbrook and Winslow will stack fatalities.
But yes, if your dream for Westbrook is to go somewhere and exact revenge on Kevin Durant, this is probably not the option for you. This idea probably tops out around 50 wins (unless Bosh comes back).
On the other hand, if your dream for Westbrook is to find someplace that will allow him to continue his life as a cult hero, get as weird as possible, and dunk his way through the NBA, Miami is perfect. The recruiting here would have nothing to do with Pat Riley and his rings, and everything to do with Amar'e Stoudemire taking Russ to Art Basel.
It's amazing how quickly things can change in the NBA. This time last summer, Houston was considered one of the big winners in the NBA Draft—Montrezl Harrell, Sam Dekker—and Daryl Morey was about to acquire Ty Lawson, putting a conference finalist a little bit closer to the Finals. There was all kinds of buzz about what the Rockets could do with the deepest roster in the NBA. Now, all summer, it seems like people have forgotten the Rockets exist.
All of which is to say, if there's any executive most likely to overlook Westbrook's flaws, gamble on his long-term commitment, set up a tent outside Chesapeake Arena so that he can bombard Presti with crappy trade offers every day until there's a deal... Never forget Daryl Morey.
(Craziest option of all: Presti finds a bearish trade market around the league just as Morey looks at his roster and decides it's time to shake things up. The KD/Russ Era ends with Harden getting traded back to the Thunder, and the basketball internet burns down.)
Don't tell me that Westbrook would never in a million years sign up for life in Minneapolis. Don't tell me that Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine are both overrated. Don't tell me that Minnesota currently has two point guards (Kris Dunn, Ricky Rubio). Just shut up and dream:
PG: Russell Westbrook
SG: Zach LaVine
SF: Andrew Wiggins
PF: Serge Ibaka
C: Karl-Anthony Towns
That's right—Ibaka is a free agent next summer and I am throwing him into the mix also. Trade Rubio to clear space, and it's at least possible.
Can you imagine a team better positioned to hang with the Warriors? If Thibs can accelerate the development of Wiggins and LaVine—definitely possible—this becomes one of the most attractive rosters in the NBA. Think about how quickly the Rockets crumbled; that's how quickly the Wolves could rise if they make a run this year. Point guard is the biggest question, and Westbrook is the answer.
Would a free agent ever sign up to play in Minnesota? Probably not, but Russell Westbrook didn't become Russell Westbrook by playing to stereotypes. That's why New York and L.A. have always felt too obvious. What makes a lot more sense: Russ in Minneapolis in 10-degree weather, showing up to games in cut-off jeans and a tank top, appearing completely impervious to the cold.
Prince is gone, and Minnesota needs an heir.
The Warriors may go down in history, but if he stays, Russell Westbrook on the Thunder becomes an urban legend that will be passed down through generations.
So, f**k the Warriors, and f**k rings.
Go average 36–18–12.
Win the MVP.
Stay in OKC.
Be the legend.
This is my second favorite option, except...
Kevin Durant's Fourth of July announcement was fine. Next year's Westbrook/Popovich Fourth of July press conference will make the entire country salute at once, because together they accidentally explain everything that's great about this country.
OKC fans aren't even mad in this scenario, because it will come after the Warriors win 68 games and sweep the Finals. And then this is what happens:
PG: Russell Westbrook
SG: Jonathon Simmons
SF: Danny Green
PF: Kawhi Leonard
C: LaMarcus Aldridge
6th: Tony Parker
It's so weird, it has to work. The Warriors will be light years ahead this year, but then Russell Westbrook and Gregg Popovich and the Spurs will come back re-loaded, and ready to engulf them in darkness. All black uniforms, and nothing but pain for whoever gets in their way.
Anyone who thinks Pop would hate Russ (or vice versa) doesn't really understand either guy. They may clash on the court—Pop would have to start every Westbrook game with at least a mild sedative to keep his blood pressure in check—but off the court, I would bet the connection works better than anyone imagines. Westbrook is far more thoughtful and down to earth than his on-court persona suggests, and Popovich is more free-thinking than his grumpy-ass sideline demeanor implies. There would be all kinds of stupid fashion jokes, they could bond over mutual hatred for the media, and it would be a beautiful union. I pledge allegiance to Russell Westbrook on the Spurs.