As the fall out from Kevin Durant's decision to leave the Thunder to join the Warriors is analyzed, it's time to mull over the future of Russell Westbrook.
Westbrook is both a long-term reason why Durant fled Oklahoma City and the short-term victim in his former teammate's move to the Bay Area.
I don't know Kevin Durant but I have to think that if he knew Westbrook would have decided to stay with the Thunder next summer when he becomes a free agent than he would have stayed as well this year. The Durant-Westbrook pairing was not without flaws but it did pair two of the most talented and electrifying players in the NBA together and with a trip to the NBA Finals in 2012 as well as a run to the Western Conference Finals on their resumes already, the future for them promised to be bright if they stayed together.
Westbrook has long been rumored to be targeting a move to Los Angeles, his hometown, when he becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2017. Knowing that his running mate was likely to leave next summer, he saw 2016 as the best opportunity for himself to start fresh in a new city.
Now the Thunder are stuck in a bad place. They still have Westbrook, one of the best players in the league, but without Durant their hopes for contending are rather slim. Westbrook is also in a not so great situation as he has seen his team slip from contender to also-ran as soon as Durant clicked the publish button on his Players Tribune article that announced his move to the Warriors and now he faces the distinct possibility that he will lose a year of his prime on a non-contender.
The question facing the Thunder now is whether or not to trade Westbrook and start an immediate rebuilding process. While it may seem like an easy decision to trade a player that is likely to leave anyways, moving on from Westbrook won't be so easy.
Sam Presti, Oklahoma City's general manager, knows that you never get equal value when trading a superstar in the prime of their career. Westbrook's impending free agency is going to make trading him for even seventy five cents on the dollar almost impossible because with the salary cap set the increase from $94-million to $110-million a year from now, Westbrook would be financially insane to sign a contract extension before becoming a free agent. And what team is going to trade away their future for only one year of Russell Westbrook's services?
The Thunder will have to find a team that has the cap space to absorb Westbrook's $17.7-million salary without giving up too much of their rotation players, has young players that will help with the rebuilding process, has draft picks to include in the deal, believes that Westbrook is the missing piece to their contending for a championship, and believes they have a realistic shot at re-signing him a year from now.
One option could be a three-team deal with the Cavaliers and Clippers that I wrote about on Tuesday. The Clippers would have reason to believe they could re-sign Westbrook next summer and would have reason to believe that they could contend with a trio of Westbrook, Kevin Love, and DeAndre Jordan. The Thunder would add NBA Finals hero Kyrie Irving, who is signed through the end of the 2020 season as well as Blake Griffin, who can opt out of his current deal after this season but is a native of Oklahoma and played at the University of Oklahoma so he could be seen as likely to sign long-term with the Thunder. The Cavaliers would shed Love, who is not a good fit for their team, while making LeBron James happy by adding one of his coveted "Team Banana Boat" buddies and getting Kanter not only makes the contracts work but does give Cleveland a solid low post scorer and rebounder to fill out their rotation.
Another potential suitor could be the Celtics. Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens are moving the franchise toward contention but after losing out on the Durant Sweepstakes they still lack the elite player that would instantly make them into contenders. The Celtics possess a strong group of young players on affordable contracts as well as a slew of first round picks at their disposal over the next few years.
Would a package of Isaiah Thomas, Marcus Smart, James Young, Jonas Jerebko, and the rights to the Nets first round picks in 2017 and 2018 be enough for Westbrook?
That might be as good as an offer as Presti can hope to get, considering Westbrook's contract situation. Thomas was an All-Star last season and is under a very affordable contract. Smart has shown signs of being an elite wing defender and played his college ball at Oklahoma State. Young has flashed his potential as a wing scorer and with more minutes could blossom into a nice player. Jerebko is added to make the contracts add up but has been a nice player in Boston over his season and a half with the Celtics. The big selling point are the two Nets picks, which should give Oklahoma City access to the top of the lottery in each of the next two drafts.
I do believe Ainge would pull the trigger on such a deal but would hope he'd have strong assurances from Westbrook that he'd re-sign long-term in Boston. Westbrook would be in a good situation, playing for an owner that spends money, a general manager that is always making moves to improve the franchise, and one of the best coaches in the league with the added bonus that the path to the Finals is significantly easier in the East than in the West.
A tandem of Westbrook and Al Horford would be formidable and with rotation players such as Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Amir Johnson, and Kelly Olynyk plus young talents such as Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier, RJ Hunter, and Jordan Mickey, the Celtics would be a legitimate threat to unseat the Cavaliers as Eastern Conference champions in 2017 and, if Westbrook were to commit long-term, be a team that could develop into a potential dynasty with a cross-country rival in the Warriors that could develop into the modern day equivalent of the Celtics-Lakers rivalry of the 1980's.
The Bulls and Knicks are doing battle to assemble teams that could win the NBA championship if the 2011 season were being replayed.
The Knicks have added Derrick Rose in a trade with the Bulls and then signed Joakim Noah away from the Bulls as a free agent. Rose and Noah were part of some very good Bulls teams but injuries derailed their careers and prevented their teams from winning a title. They join Carmelo Anthony, another aging star, and second-year sensation Kristaps Porzingis on a team that, if healthy, seems destined to win between 45-50 regular season games before flaming out in the second round of the playoffs if they're lucky enough to make it that far.
Shedding the contracts of Rose and Noah, as well as bidding farewell to free agent forward Pau Gasol, provided the Bulls with the opportunity to start their own rebuilding process around Jimmy Butler, Nikola Mirotic, Doug McDermott, and Denzel Valentine but then they committed big contracts to Dwyane Wade (2-years, $47.5-million) and Rajon Rondo (2-years, $28-million) so they seem set on staying in the NBA's middle class for the next few years. The NBA today is built on "pace and space" offenses in which teams look to spread the floor with shooters and look for their ball handlers to drive to the hoop to create easy shots around the rim or kick out opportunities for open three-pointers. Fred Hoiberg, Chicago's coach, is a "pace and space" guy. The issue Hoiberg will be facing is that Butler (32.8%), Wade (28.4%), and Rondo (28.9%) have been poor three-point shooters throughout their careers and will likely struggle to find consistent offensive success playing together. The Bulls, like the Knicks, seem destined for 45-50 regular season wins and then an early exit from the playoffs.
Less than three weeks until the Patriots open training camp and still no word on the fate of Tom Brady.
I feel like the longer this goes on, the more likely Brady is to serve his four-game suspension.
Losing Brady for even a series is not a good situation but Bill Belichick has built a deep team so if they are forced to be without their All-Pro quarterback for the first quarter of the season they will survive. A scorned Brady is likely to come back with a massive chip on his shoulder so in the long run losing him for four games may be the catalyst for Brady to play beyond his MVP standards and lead the Patriots to the fifth Super Bowl title in his career.