If there's one universal truth, it's the headline of this article.
I really, really don't understand this newfound obsession everyone seems to have with dishing our second best player. With the injury bug recently devastating great point guards, it seems that the NBA community is already writing off Westbrook's contributions. His name was thrown out a lot before last week's Trade Deadline, with offers ranging from the absurd to the crazy. However, there was a more meritorious proposal by Grantland's Zach Lowe, in the footnotes of his excellent post-deadline NBA column....
"But if the Thunder bow out early in the playoffs, and a couple of close losses feature bad crunch-time Westbrook jumpers, it’s not insane to suggest the issue could balloon out of the team’s control.
I am skeptical this will ever happen, because Westbrook and Oklahoma City are so good. But if it does, you could build an intriguing fake trade around Westbrook, Kendrick Perkins’s expiring contract, and perhaps one other player asset going to Minnesota for Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic, and J.J. Barea. Such a deal is super-tricky, since both teams need to worry about next year’s tax line, and the salary match is difficult. Oklahoma City would have to be confident in both Rubio’s upside and his willingness to re-sign at a price that does not take the combined Rubio-Pekovic salaries too far above Westbrook’s current salary slot. But think about it: Oklahoma City gets a pass-first point guard and a low-post scoring beast in need of a rim protector the Thunder already have. The Wolves get a second top-10 player for Kevin Love. Just throwing it out there."
Obviously, Zach Lowe knows this trade will encounter come skepticism. Any time you see a writer use the phrases "I am skeptical this will ever happen" and "Just throwing it out there", that much should be obvious. But, from a neutral standpoint and a market value standpoint, the trade does have some merit.
Think of it this way. You're a big NBA fan, and you see the situation in Oklahoma City. The team's record without Westbrook is 21-8, good for a winning percentage of .724. With Westbrook, the team is 22-6, good for a winning percentage of .786. That's about dead even, and there's been enough time spent in both environments to understand who effects what. Westbrook has always been known to be a wildcard, and some of the decisions he makes definitely leave you scratching your head. Why not give OKC the point guard passing and the interior presence that they deserve?
(this is a long essay- I split it into sections for easier reading)
The Emotional Appeal
That all makes sense, but trade is all about perspective. And if you come from the perspective of an Oklahoma City fan and have followed the team all year, you'll know that there's a lot more to those win/loss numbers. Of course, Russell Westbrook has been limited in the past two games against the Heat and Clippers, and that definitely played a role in both of those losses. Suddenly, Westbrook's lineup is 22-4. Take away the game where Perkins was injured and Collison was in foul trouble (November 13th at the Clippers), and you're only left with three losses. One was a 1 point miracle from Golden State. The other two were legitimate fourth quarter collapses against Toronto and Portland, but they were competitive throughout. So, when you look at it realistically, the Thunder with Westbrook are a team that's going to bring it on a nightly basis against every single team in the NBA.
Then, you take a look at the Thunder without Westbrook. They've sustained some devastating losses. A 15 point thwacking from Washington. A 13 point blast from the Nuggets. A 11 point tragedy against the Jazz. They're not lottery-level blowouts for sure, but the fact that the Thunder were significantly behind in all three of these games says something about the solvency of this Westbrookless team. I mean, they've proven that they can compete with the best, because they boast a win over the Heat. But when you're in the playoffs and gunning for a championship, you can't afford to have those 10+ point losses.
Of course, I'm speaking in huge generalities here, but that's the point. You can talk about trading Westbrook all you want, but if you've been to the arena, heard the players speak, and seen the games, then you'll know that he's the heart and soul of this team. With all due respect to the great Zach Lowe, the words, "Westbrook and Oklahoma City are so good" don't do justice to the sheer importance that he has to this team.
For evidence, I point to an interview that our own Craig Brenner did with KD over the All-Star break (emphasis mine, though originally pointed out by J.A.):
Brenner: What do you think it'll be like trying to get Russell Westbrook back into the lineup? Do you think there will be any kind of transition?
Durant: No. It'll be easy. He only missed 25 games in 6 years. So it won't be hard to get him back into the lineup. We just want him to be himself. We don't want him to come out there and try to think too much, play a little different, or play too passive. We just want him to be aggressive, and be himself. We're just going to mold ourselves around him. We're not trying to have him mold into the team. We're just gonna all rally around him.
Those are powerful words coming from someone who has a legitimate case for being the greatest basketball player on the planet. Imagine LeBron saying, "We need to mold ourselves around Wade." It's almost impossible. And that's not a knock on LeBron. Most people wouldn't say that in KD's position.
The Logistical Appeal
But let's get away from the emotional appeal for a minute and take a look at the deal from a sheer logistical perspective. We change our starting lineup significantly, likely slotting in Reggie Jackson for Westbrook and Nikola Pekovic for Perk. The PG replacement is obviously a downgrade, but one that we've lived with. The Center replacement is a massive upgrade, as Pekovic beats out Perk in just about every possible way that doesn't involve intimidation and screen setting. The Thunder would likely have to take a few touches away from just about everyone to include Pek in the offense, but if he can score inside it'll do wonders for opening up Ibaka's mid-range shot.
Another likely change in the starting lineup would involve Rubio replacing Sefolosha, as Thabo will likely depart when his contract expires for money reasons. Rubio would likely handle distribution, and would enable the Thunder do do a good job of getting the ball to their players in the right places. At this point, you're likely talking about changing an entire offensive system. All of a sudden, the Thunder have an interior presence and Reggie Jackson as an off-guard, and a pure passing point guard. Things on offense would likely become more regimented, and the defensive strategy would definitely have to adjust.
Then you look at the backups. J.J. Barea likely becomes our point guard, while Derek Fisher will join us in April of 2015 at the age of 40. Barea provides a style of quickness that the Thunder have only seen once before. Nate Robinson was the man who dealt in that style, but he was too much of a scorer for Brooks to play him on a regular basis. There's just no way he could have taken possessions away from Harden or Westbrook at the time, and he wasn't good enough of a passer to justify playing him at point guard. Granted, Barea isn't nearly the scorer that Robinson is/was, but he definitely presents a similar dynamic. Can J.J. really play the role of game-manager and give touches to guys like Lamb, Jones, and Adams? Or will he take up too many possessions with his natural inclination to score? Also, how do you account for a short-armed fly in a defense designed around long-armed albatrosses?
As you can see, losing Westbrook means more than losing a player. It's literally losing the entire strategic backbone of the team.
The Broad Appeal
Let me put it this way. The Thunder have made two gigantic deals in their short Oklahoma City-based history. The first deal, trading Jeff Green away, was meant to bring in a championship culture. The Thunder hadn't really formed an identity yet, and we were trading for a playoff veteran. Perk understood what it took to win, and had been around some of the longest-tenured players in the game. So while that changed the team significantly, it also made them significantly tougher.
The other deal, trading Harden away, brought about a similar culture change. The Thunder weren't as good of a team the next year, and Kevin Martin wasn't much more than a unreliable rental. But OKC was able to hand-pick Harden's successors in Lamb and Adams. Both of them are young guns, both are perfectly suited for our system, and both are slated to learn from the best. In laymen's terms, Lamb and Adams molded to the Thunder, rather than forcing the Thunder to mold to them. So the cultural foundation slapped down by the first Championship run is still there, for all intents and purposes.
Trading Westbrook would bring about similar culture change, but for what? To forcibly mold already established players into our system? To worry about Rubio, who shoots 36% from the floor and had the first two years of his career mired with injuries? Aren't those Westbrook's problems? To bring in Pekovic, who will likely be an offensive black hole that doesn't do much for ball movement? Isn't that Ibaka's problem? To fret over Barea's terrible defense? Isn't that Fisher's problem? What are we really solving here? What's the problem?
The answer is nothing. When the Thunder are at full strength, they're more than capable of winning a championship. But when you take Westbrook away, the road becomes harder, and less defined. Here's my last piece of evidence. Since the year 2000, here's all the teams that have won the championship with only one All-Star on the team.
What does this prove? It proves that in order to achieve sustained success at the highest level, you've got to have a second banana. You could point to the Spurs, but they've always had someone there to help out Timmy D. The only strange thing about the 2003 championship was the emergence of Tony Parker and the swan song of David Robinson happening in the same year. The Mavericks were a unique case, as they were stocked with grizzled playoff vets that had gone deep on several occasions. The Pistons might as well be a statistical outlier, since there's never been a team like them before or since. (They had no star, just a defensively super-solid rotation.)
At the end of the day, Westbrook is the All-Star second banana that the Thunder need. I mean, there's no changing it. Ibaka will likely never be able to create his own shot, and will be eternally reliant on the team's offense to help him score. Reggie Jackson is a really gutsy player, but he doesn't have much that he can improve on mentally. And Jeremy Lamb is a couple years away from getting there, if he gets there.
Basically, when Westbrook goes away in a trade, so do this team's hopes of ever forming a dynasty under Durant's tenure. There's no way another team would be willing to give a player of similar value back for him. He's been injured too recently, and his upside is just too good. Furthermore, there's no feasible way the Thunder could ever acquire another player on a similar level. The money is tied up for years, and losing in the lottery with Durant on the team is nigh-impossible.
So even if the Thunder don't win a championship this year, Westbrook will be staying on the team. And we'll try again, and again, and again. Even if his knee blows itself out three more times (knock on wood), there's no way the Thunder would ever dish his rights. Whether he leaves on his own in free agency is another issue (knock on wood), but I'll go on record as saying that the idea of Presti pulling the trigger on a Westbrook deal is absurd, and would destroy everything that the Thunder have worked to build up to this point.
The Thunder are Russell Westbrook.
Russell Westbrook is the Thunder.
Honey Badger 4 Lyfe.