NBA superstar Russell Westbrook has told the Oklahoma City Thunder that he’d like to be traded. Firmly in the rebuilding phase after trading Paul George to the Los Angeles Clippers, Thunder GM Sam Presti has begun listening to trade requests. One location Westbrook has been consistently linked to since is the Miami Heat. While on the surface this would seem like a sure move for the Heat, they should forgo the temptation and not trade for Westbrook.
Russell Westbrook Shouldn’t Be a Priority for the Miami Heat
Breaking Down Russell Westbrook’s Game
By all means, Westbrook is a phenomenal player. He’s one of two players in NBA history to average a “triple-double”, which is at least 10 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists per game. Additionally, he’s the only player in NBA history to have multiple seasons averaging a triple-double, having done so for the past three seasons. One of the most athletic players in league history, Westbrook forces defenses back in transition or risk him attacking the rim. To add to it, he has a relentless motor and desire to win.
That all said, Westbrook does have some glaring weaknesses. First and foremost, he’s a terrible shooter. Last season, he shot 29 percent from three-point range and had a true shooting percentage of 50.1, both among the worst in the league. While Westbrook does rack up a lot of steals, he does so by gambling on picks. When the gamble doesn’t pay off, his teammates have to pick up for him. Lastly, he’s an extremely ball-dominant player that can hijack the ball for long stretches of the game. Being so ball-dominant over his career, his off-ball game leaves much to be desired.
The crux of the issue is how Westbrook’s game translates poorly to the playoffs. Being ball-dominant makes a player too predictable for elite defenses. Without a reliable jump shot, it’s too easy to sag off the player and force them into bad shots. While off-ball, defenses will gladly help off Westbrook, unafraid to leave him open to shoot. For the Heat, the only thing that matters is competing for a title. Even with Westbrook, the Heat would be underdogs to make the Eastern Conference Finals, let alone the NBA Finals or winning it all. Westbrook would certainly make the Heat a better team, just not a real title contender.
Were it to be a one or two year experiment, there would be some merit in trading for Westbrook just to see how it works out. Unfortunately, Westbrook is on a supermax deal that’s set to pay him huge bucks until 2023. Acquiring Westbrook puts a huge strain on the Heat’s books and severely limits their free agency options in the future, all for a team that realistically, won’t compete for a title. In addition, Westbrook will be 34 by the end of his contract. His athleticism will almost certainly have declined by then, robbing him of his most valuable skill and turning his contract into an untradeable albatross.
The other side of the cost is what it would take to even get Westbrook. Ideally, a trade for Westbrook would revolve around giving the Thunder earlier expiring contracts. However, Presti and the Thunder must save face and at least acquire a young player in addition to cap relief. Tyler Herro, a promising shooter, just signed his rookie contract and therefore can’t be traded for 30 days. Bam Adebayo is an extremely versatile big who grew tremendously in his second year. Justise Winslow has learned how to shoot and flashed promise as a starting point guard. Losing any of those three impacts Miami’s depth, and therefore their chance to compete.
The Heat could theoretically make max cap space for 2021 when a slew of top-level free agents will be available. To do so with Westbrook’s contract, however, would require the Heat to gut their team. In the best case scenario, the Heat would have a Big Three, of sorts, but lack the necessary depth to make a title run. Overall, the cost just seems too high for a team that won’t really have a chance at winning the title.
An Alternate Future
Let’s say the Heat do not trade for Westbrook. Instead, they go forward with the team they currently have led by Jimmy Butler. The Heat probably aren’t a high seed and get bounced in the first, maybe second round. However, young players like Adebayo and Winslow continue to grow under the Heat’s tutelage. They could grow into solid role players on relatively cheap deals, or maybe even stars. Alternatively, they could be used in trades to acquire a different superstar, one whose game translates better to the playoffs.
After a few years, the remaining contracts come off the books and Miami has cap flexibility. The summer of 2021 then becomes the key. That summer, elite players like George, Kawhi Leonard, and Giannis Antetokounmpo will be free agents. Depending on the moves made until then, Miami would have the money and the supporting cast for a superstar to come in and turn them into a true title contender.
Best case scenario, they land a superstar and compete for a title. Worst case scenario, they strike out in 2021 and are a tough out for a few years. Even then, the Heat would retain their flexibility. Given the way the NBA can change so quickly, flexibility is one of the best things a front office can have. Trading for Westbrook kills Miami’s flexibility, as well as any meaningful chance at another title.
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