The Paul George era in Oklahoma City is over. Russell Westbrook’s running mate was shipped to the Clippers early Saturday morning in a coup staged by Kawhi Leonard, signaling another reset for the Thunder just three summers after Kevin Durant’s departure for the Bay Area. Contention in the Western Conference is unlikely in 2019-20.
Friday’s deal marked a step back for the Thunder, but could trigger a full–scale rebuild be on the horizon. Oklahoma City is now armed with a historic bounty of picks from the Clippers along with promising point guard Shai-Gilgeous Alexander. veteran Steven Adams and Danilo Gallinari on an expiring contract. Thunder GM Sam Presti has several options to add picks, young prospects or create more cap relief. But the Thunder won’t fully dive into a rebuild unless one player is dealt: Russell Westbrook.
It was a tumultuous 2018-19 season for the former MVP. At times, Westbrook was a dynamic maestro, artfully slicing to the tin and dishing to wide-open teammates. The Westbrook-George dynamic thrived with Westbrook as a facilitator, leaving his worst impulses in the locker room. The playoffs were a different story. Westbrook shot just 36% from the field and 32.4% from three in the postseason as the Thunder lost to the Blazers in five games, marking a third straight first-round exit for Oklahoma City. The team's title window fades by the year, and a Westbrook deal could be the key to a reset. Warts and all, Westbrook is still among the league’s top point guards, and an absolute menace when harnessed correctly. He could still fetch a serious haul.
So where could Westbrook land if Presti pulls the trigger on a second blockbuster move? Here are five potential trade destinations.
New York Knicks
After losing out on Kevin Durant, is adding his former teammate the next best thing for the Knicks? Maybe not, but this could be the move to save face for James Dolan and Co. at Madison Square Garden. The Knicks have the assets for a potential deal, even if they have to wait until December or February’s trade deadline. New York could offer aspects of their attempted deal for Anthony Davis, including Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina, Mitchell Robinson and the first–round picks acquired from Dallas in the Kristaps Porzingis trade. The Knicks could also eventually dangle their recent free–agent acquisitions including Julius Randle and Bobby Portis. The slate of two-year contracts added to the roster should give New York plenty of flexibility should the Knicks wish to make a superstar deal.
It’s unclear whether adding Westbrook would result any notable success in New York. Perhaps he could channel his 2016-17 form and carry the Knicks to the playoffs; a weakened East could help his campaign. But even if the lights at MSG stay on through April, Westbrook's arrival wouldn't make the Knicks contenders. The franchise would likely be best served preaching patience with its young core, putting its entire energy into R.J. Barrett and other prospects. But the Knicks’ circus never seems to end, and the assets are in place to make a deal. At least Westbrook could add a jolt of energy into what is presently a lifeless franchise.
If the George trade is a true indicator the Thunder wish to get younger, Minnesota could be one of their first calls. A potential deal would be simple. Andrew Wiggins could still be a franchise building block despite a disappointing 2018-19 campaign and salary matching wouldn’t be as tricky with Minnesota as other teams. The former No. 1 pick would mark a solid return for Westbrook, pairing Wiggins and Gilgeous-Alexander as the backcourt of the future along with the Thunder’s newfound treasure chest of picks.
Westbrook would be a key factor in vaulting Minnesota back into the playoff race in year two of the Ryan Saunders era. The Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns dynamic failed to blossom last season as Wiggins struggled and Towns failed to lift Minnesota from the West cellar. Minnesota didn’t have a proper pick-and-roll partner for Towns as Derrick Rose largely operated as a one-man band. Westbrook and Towns could become one of the league’s most dynamic one-two punches, potentially vaulting the Kentucky product back into the All-NBA discussion. One year after losing Jimmy Butler, another proven star could make his debut at the Target Center in late October.
Pat Riley already went star hunting once this summer and landed Jimmy Butler in a trade with Philadelphia. Could he pull off another deal for Westbrook? Miami has never been afraid of chasing stars, angling itself for (unsuccessful) runs at Kevin Durant and Chris Paul. The Heat’s current core appears tapped out and in need of a facelift. Westbrook could be the new face of South Beach.
Does Miami have the assets to land Westbrook? There is a potential pathway to a deal. Miami could send a package centered around Bam Adebayo and Justise Winslow to Oklahoma City, and Goran Dragic could also be on the move granted the Thunder wish to acquire an aging point guard (albeit one on an expiring deal). Miami has little draft compensation to offer, though Presti is already rolling in picks after the George deal. There isn’t significant upside in the deal for Oklahoma City on the surface, but Miami can provide a high-floor landing spot if the Thunder are eager for a rebuild.
Boston may be the most intriguing landing spot if Danny Ainge continues to reshape the Celtics roster. The Celtics could offer a potential deal around Gordon Hayward and Jaylen Brown, choosing to pair Westbrook with the recently acquired Kemba Walker. Or they could wait until 2020 and deal for Westbrook as an upgrade over Walker. Westbrook lifts the Celtics' ceiling back into the Finals conversation while Walker’s limitations will likely end the Cs’ season by mid-May. Ainge could make his second bold point guard upgrade in three years after swapping Isaiah Thomas for Kyrie Irving in 2017.
Is there reason for Oklahoma City to contemplate such a deal? Walker could add a dose of stability amid a rebuild, steadying the ship similar to his time in Charlotte. He’s an ideal face of the franchise off the floor, and a player who will cost roughly $10 million less than Westbrook each year of their respective deals. Westbrook can cause his share of head aches, while Walker is a perfect soldier. If a new era looms, Walker is be a strong candidate to be Oklahoma City’s bedrock.
The Magic aren’t the most exciting location for Westbrook to land, but the two teams do line up well for a potential trade. Orlando has been searching for a point guard for the last half decade and D.J. Augustin is nowhere near the long-term answer despite a surprisingly strong 2018-19. Markelle Fultz still needs to prove he’s a viable NBA player before discussing any stolen minutes, and the rest of the Orlando’s roster is stacked with wings and a glut of bigs. Westbrook could take the reins from Day 1 and soar his usage rate close to his MVP levels.
Oklahoma City could eye Jonathan Isaac in a potential deal as well as Aaron Gordon and his contract. Or the Thunder could take a chance on Mo Bamba, and the Fultz reclamation project could find its third team. The Magic may also add a stream of picks, growing Presti’s haul to even greater levels. Westbrook might not be thrilled in Orlando, but the Thunder could stock additional young assets and picks if the franchise chooses to hit the reset button.