• The Thunder and Russell Westbrook are open to finding the right trade partner but is Miami the right fit for the All-Star? The Crossover dives into the latest rumors.
By Rohan Nadkarni
July 09, 2019

It didn’t take long after trading Paul George for the Thunder to then look into the next logical step: Trading franchise icon Russell Westbrook. Oklahoma City is obviously angling to rebuild over the next few years after trading an MVP finalist for a bushel of draft picks, and both the Thunder and Westbrook are reportedly on the same page about finding a new home for the feisty point guard. One of the teams rumored to be interested in Westbrook is the Heat, which is unsurprising considering Pat Riley’s affinity for wayward stars (like Jimmy Butler.) With four seasons left on Russ’s contract, should the Heat pull the trigger on acquiring one of the game’s most polarizing players? Well, it’s complicated. 

Determining what Westbrook is worth will be the biggest challenge for any team trying to acquire him. Russ has averaged a triple double for three straight seasons, yet his impact on winning is still clouded by his inefficiency and poor shot selection. For three straight years, Russ has shot over 20 field goals per game with an effective field-goal percentage under 48%. In 2018, he shot 4.1 threes per game and connected on only 29.8% of them. He followed that up by shooting 5.6 threes per game in 2019...and connecting on an even worse 29%. 

The last time we saw Westbrook, he was being thoroughly outplayed by Damian Lillard in what was Russ’s third straight exit in the first round of the playoffs. Westbrook averaged 22.8 points per game in the Thunder’s six-game loss to the Blazers, shooting 36% from the field. 

While the volume of Russ’s stats are eye-popping, in reality, George was the more impactful player for the Thunder last season. In 648 minutes with Westbrook playing and George on the bench, OKC had a minus-6.8 net rating in 2019. In 860 minutes with George playing and Westbrook on the bench, the Thunder’s net rating was 6.2. Those numbers aren’t a perfect summation of what OKC looked like in George’s last season, but they’re close, and the large gap between the solo minutes of the two stars is certainly illuminating. 

Further complicating Westbrook’s value is his contract. He is owed over $38 million this season, then over $41 million, $44 million, and $47 million the following three. Even with a rising salary cap, that number can get difficult to build around, as the Thunder themselves have found out. For the Heat specifically, trading for Russ could mean paying him and Jimmy Butler nearly $85 million combined in 2023, when both are deep into their 30s.

The prevailing feeling of all of this is, at this point in his career, Westbrook is arguably a negative trade asset, at least from a purely mathematical standpoint. To say Russ has no impact on winning feels unfair. And in the case of Miami, the Heat would arguably have a more well-balanced roster to surround its stars than the Thunder did. But Westbrook is simply owed too much money for an aging point guard with declining athleticism and a history of poor shot selection to part with any meaningful picks and/or players for. 

So should the Heat not trade for him? Well, it’s still complicated. Pat Riley is 74 years old, and he is, by his own philosophy, likely miserable with the Heat’s lack of success over the last five seasons. Save for one trip to the second round of the playoffs, Miami has either been first-round fodder or missed the postseason entirely for the last half-decade. Even if it’s a worse partnership than Westbrook and George, Westbrook and Butler would look better in the East. And Miami would probably have a better surrounding roster than a team that won 48 games in the West last season. 

If Miami trades for Russ, it would be a short-term play. The Heat would have an outside chance at the conference finals for a year, maybe two, depending on if guys like Justise Winslow or Bam Adebayo can take a leap. If Riley is really this impatient—and is willing to mostly sacrifice the ability to chase free-agent stars in 2021 and put up with the last two years of Russ’s deal—then there’s basically only one trade route that makes sense. 

If the Heat hold on to all their young players, then trading for Westbrook becomes defensible. If Miami packages some combination of Goran Dragic, Dion Waiters, James Johnson, and Kelly Olynyk in the deal, and holds on to Winslow, Adebayo, and Derrick Jones Jr., then the transaction makes more sense for the Heat. If Riley feels extra frisky, he should also ask Sam Presti to throw in one of Miami’s own draft picks, two of which OKC owns via the Clippers.

Would the Thunder—currently entering rebuild mode—even do this? OKC would have some motivation. Moving Russ for shorter contracts would clear up the Thunder’s books sooner, and a guy like Dragic could possibly be moved again for another asset. Dealing Westbrook now also ensures a full step backward, as OKC can take its chances in the lottery while stockpiling picks in the back half of the first round. 

For any hopeful team, how Russ’s trade market forms will be the deciding factor. If say the Pistons or a small-market team in need of a splash are willing to give up meaningful assets, the Heats of the world should retreat. Westbrook, at this point, is a gamble. Perhaps Erik Spoelstra could finally get him to break some of his bad habits—though those habits have been at the forefront of all criticism of Westbrook for years. 

So should the Heat trade for Russ? I would stop short of saying they should. What I will say is the move would be defensible under certain circumstances. If Miami keeps its young core in place, and maybe even extracts a pick, then acquiring for Westbrook becomes a little bit better of a bargain, and the Heat would then hope their existing infrastructure would draw out his best qualities while suppressing his worst. The trade almost certainly wouldn’t make Miami a title contender, unless Spo is able to work serious magic on Westbrook, and perhaps that is something the Heat feel confident about. But if Miami has to part with Adebayo, Winslow, or any future pick to acquire Russ, Riley would probably be better served waiting to chase a second star in free agency.

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