Russell Westbrook is on the trade block, the Detroit Pistons are interested and it’s time to seriously consider the thing I call the #WhyNot movement.
Let’s conduct a thought experiment. Russell Westbrook is good at basketball, and adding good basketball players to your team make your team better.
Doesn’t sound radical, but it is certainly counter-intuitive. Westbrook is 30 years old and might have the second-worst contract in the NBA. It’s not Westbrook’s fault that the supermax contract has turned out to be a disaster for NBA teams that make it difficult to build competitive teams around these high-priced players.
Another thought experiment — Tom Gores is a billionaire who is willing to spend to build a competitor (and finally fill the seats) in Little Caesars Arena.
OK, so we have a point guard who is a really good player and someone else’s money who spends just as easily as the $23 in my pocket. Why not?
I’ve already written about how the prospect of a trade for Westbrook horrifies me. Now, I’m going to look at it from the other direction — adding talent is good, there are few other routes to add talent and, hell, it’s not my money.
Let’s unpack this.
The Detroit Pistons are one of the few teams that seem desperate for an upgrade at point guard. The team has suffered through ineffective and injury-plagued seasons from Reggie Jackson and Ish Smith. Already, the light-shooting Smith seems like he’s earned the trust of Dwane Casey and was finishing a lot of games as the initiator with Jackson playing off the ball.
The team obviously is not thrilled with Jackson and has already looked to improve the point guard position with the addition of Derrick Rose. Westbrook, after all, is just an insanely rich man’s Rose. Why not.
The team has been in salary cap hell since handing out huge deals to the aforementioned Jackson and Smith, Jon Leuer, Langston Galloway and trading for Blake Griffin. There is finally light at the end of the tunnel with Jackson and Galloway poised to come off the books after this season.
Even then, though, the light is just a faint flicker — the team is projected to have roughly $12 million in cap room — barely more than the mid-level exception. For a team like Detroit, with a dreadful track record in free agency since the days of Antonio McDyess, in a midwestern market a little cache, what is cap space really worth?
In other words, is confining yourself into minimum deals for veterans and the occassional depth piece with an exception really the worst thing? If you have an honest-to-goodness big three then does anything else really matter? Why not.
Another thing to consider about Westbrook — in some ways his onerous contract is the biggest asset for the team taking him on. Westbrook is not going to cost a team what Paul George cost the Clippers or Anthony Davis cost the Lakers. Westbrook is so overpaid that he won’t cost a team all its future draft assets and young players. All he’ll cost is money, and, like I said, it’s not my money. Why not.
Westbrook’s contract is truly heinous and the Thunder, staring at a luxury tax bill and a rebuild would be thrilled to simply get off of Westbrook’s money. Jackson is on an expiring contract. Langston Galloway is on an expiring contract.
If Westbrook costs nothing more than a point guard they don’t want, a shooting guard they don’t need and future cap space they couldn’t use effectively then what’s the downside? The team wouldn’t (or at least shouldn’t) include Sekou Doumbouya, Luke Kennard or five future first rounders. Expiring deals and a future first that would help the Thunder reroute Jackson to a team with cap space so it can get under the luxury tax would be all it takes.
Now let’s talk about Westbrook the player.
He’s a walking triple double, but we can’t let ourselves get distracted by the counting stats. His usage rate is absurd. His mentality is commendable. He’d be instantly beloved by the Pistons fan base.
But let’s look at his game a little more critically. Whenever considering how Detroit should remake itself, I always find myself thinking about Dwane Casey’s vaunted shot spectrum. Most people think about this from the frame of wanting to add shooting, and Detroit is a team that loves to shoot. The Pistons were one of the most prolific 3-point shooting teams last season despite being one of the least effective.
Russell Westbrook is a 29% shooter and getting worse by the year, he isn’t helping with that.
But the shot spectrum isn’t just about 3-point shots. It’s also about getting to the basket. And that’s a skill Westbrook has in spades that nobody else in Detroit has. It’s clearly something that the Pistons top brass cares about as evidenced by the signing of Derrick Rose.
Jackson, diminished by injuries, simply cannot get to the basket anymore, and that has had a huge negative impact on Andre Drummond and the team’s rotating cast of perimeter players. Jackson averaged just 2.3 shots in the restricted area last season while Westbrook averaged 7.3. Jackson shot a dreadful 52.7% in the restricted area last season while Westbrook shot 63.1%.
Westbrook could reignite the old Drummond pick-and-roll and give him easy chances at the rim. Every easy look Drummond gets at the rim is one less post-up he is liable to take. It also creates the kind of gravity that allow more limited players to thrive in catch-and-shoot roles. Tony Snell can hit wide open 3s. Griffin could continue growing his ever-improving perimeter game. There would be less pressure on guys like Luke Kennard and Bruce Brown, and allow them to be the secondary ball handlers they were born to be.
Westbrook is also the best rebounding point guard in the game and has been often discussed with Andre Drummond, having a big rebounding edge is a great part of effective defense and contributing to winning basketball.
Finally, Westbrook, for as much as he stat chases, is an effective distributor, sporting a respectable 2.4 assist to turnover ratio. Jackson’s inability to command the offense is why Casey gave Smith the keys so often. The offense just flowed more smoothly and the pace was quicker and more intentional than when Jackson was sizing up his man.
Westbrook makes Jackson hero ball tendencies look positively quaint, but he can break down his defender, get to the free-throw-line (but not as much as he used to) and dish out to an open man. Say what you want, Westbrook makes things happen. Sometimes good things, sometimes bad things. With Jackson, often nothing much would happen at all.
Needless to say, you won’t see this with Westbrook as your point guard.
So we have a dangerous point guard who can get his own, create for others, finish at the rim and get his teammates involved. That’s everything Detroit is desperate for. There are elements of his game that don’t mess with Blake (ball dominance) and Andre (lack of perimeter shooting), but there are other ways where the fit would be seamless.
Pick-and-rolls with Drummond could help Dre rediscover his old rim-running ways and the thoughts of a two-man game with Westbrook and Griffin are enticing.
The Pistons are presently constructed are a mid-tier 40-45 win team. Next year, it’d be hard to imagine them being able to move on from Jackson and Galloway and do anything of consequence that would enable them to get beyond that 45-win ceiling.
Forty five wins is pretty good. It means you’re a playoff team. Maybe the team could win a round in the playoffs (or, hell, even a game).
Westbrook likely does not greatly limit their floor. If Russ ages poorly and his athleticism saps him of much effectiveness, he’s probably still someone that can work with Drummond and Griffin and give you that sweet 40-win season. .
But the upside is much, much bigger.
Westbrook has been in OKC for 11 years. He’s been given the keys to the candy store since Kevin Durant left. It’s led to plenty of triple doubles and plenty of bad habits. Moving to a different team provides an opportunity for a reset.
Blake Griffin is no Kevin Durant, but, let’s be honest, Durant doesn’t seem like the easiest player to play with. Westbrook and Griffin seem like a pair the could truly thrive together. They both play their asses off and take the game incredibly seriously. They both want the ball in their hands, but Griffin has enough versatility and basketball intelligence to fill in the gaps and play Robin to Westbrook’s Batman when it’s warranted.
And success begets success. Winning basketball and Blake already being established as “the man” in Detroit, mean it’s his team when it needs to be his team. A trade would be a reality check for Westbrook. A chance at a fresh start. A chance to re-establish himself as something more than his collection of triple doubles.
And then there’s Drummond, who spent years in Detroit painfully miscast as the star; as the best player in town. Now it’s Blake’s team, and we saw that pay off in spades last season as Drummond, still just 25 years old, delivered the best basketball of his career.
Adding Westbrook means Drummond gets to be the third star that was always truly his ceiling. He’ll get his shots, points and highlights courtesy of Westbrook, he’ll never be asked to deliver in crunch time with the ball in his hands, and he’ll be able to put more energy into his development on the defensive end.
It’s just money that’s not mine. It’s just flexibility that might not matter. It’s just pushing off a hard reset from three years in the future to four years in the future.
And it’s just a chance to play competitive, meaningful basketball in the playoffs. It’s a chance at a real future.