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Paying Russell Westbrook costs so much trading for him might actually be cheap

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If the Pistons can protect its young players, picks from any Westbrook trade then it just might work

Oklahoma City Thunder v Detroit Pistons Photo by Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images

The NBA offseason has been wild so far, and it figures to get wilder.

Paul George demanded a trade to the Los Angeles Clippers just one year into a four-year extension. The Los Angeles Lakers and Toronto Raptors were outplayed by the quiet but cunning Kawhi Leonard, and everyone else is trying to pick up the pieces and figure out what’s next in a suddenly competitive NBA landscape.

Perhaps no team has more to figure out then the Oklahoma City Thunder, and its decision on what to do with Russell Westbrook. After trading Paul George for a historic haul, the most logical step is to trade its star player and start a hard reset.

This news (along with non-Woj/Sham/Stein reports of the Pistons’ alleged potential interest) has Detroit Pistons fans split right down the middle on whether their beloved team should pursue a trade for the Oklahoma City star.

While there is an evident dichotomy among fans, one thing is clear—few deny the 2017 MVP’s natural talent. The questions that produces a wide array of responses is 1. Whether Westbrook is worth is massive contract 2. If it’s in the Pistons best interest to trade for Westbrook and his contract with Blake Griffin already on the books, likely for the next three seasons.

There’s no getting around it. Griffin is owed a ton of money over the next two seasons, $34,234,964 and $36,595,996. He also possesses a player option in 2021-22 worth $38,957,028.

Russell Westbrook is owed even more — more money and more years. Over the next three seasons Westbrook will make $38,506,482, $41,358,814, and $44,211,146. He also has a fourth-year player option ($47,063,478) in 2022-23, and something tells me he’s picking that option up.

If the Pistons were to obtain Westbrook in a trade and pair him with Griffin, and if both players exercised their player options, the Pistons would be paying $86,020,506 to a 32- and 33-year-old whose game is predicated on athleticism — particularly in the case of Westbrook.

In the even shorter term, the Pistons owe Andre Drummond $27,093,019 next season, and he, too, owns a player option the following year worth $28,751,775.

The price might be right

Before we move any further, let’s pause and focus in on Westbrook’s perceived market value. Here’s what ESPN’s Zach Lowe had to say about trading Westbrook:

“Westbrook’s supermax, which will pay him $47 million in 2022-23, is a straight-up albatross. They might mind-trick some dumb team into taking it at some point, but the Thunder have to assume Westbrook carries negative trade value.”

Yikes. Who wants to be THAT dumb team?

Narratives aside, it appears simply taking Westbrook may be enough for the Thunder to trade their reigning three-time triple-double machine.

That means the asking price likely doesn’t include picks or young players on team-friendly contracts.

If that’s the parameters for a Westbrook trade, the Pistons should be interested.

Constructing a deal that excludes draft picks and young players on team-friendly deals, such as Luke Kennard and Sekou Doumbouya, isn’t hard.

A few minutes on ESPN’s trade machine identifies a clear path for the Thunder to unload Westbrook’s contract without taking on long-term financial commitments.

Westbrook trade proposal

Pistons get: Russell Westbrook, Terence Ferguson, Darius Bazley, Abdel Nader

Thunder get: Reggie Jackson, Tony Snell, Langston Galloway, Thon Maker, second round pick (via Detroit)

If the Thunder are simply looking to get out of Westbrook’s contract and some throw-in players to even out the bodies in the trade, this is an easy move. Jackson, Maker, and Galloway represent expiring contracts, and Snell has one year left on his deal, plus a player option for a second year.

The second round pick the Thunder receive from Detroit allows the Thunder to flip a Jackson’s expiring contract to a third team with cap space to avoid paying the luxury tax this season. (This is an added bonus for the Thunder who are expected to pay more tax money than any other NBA team this season).

It’s once more the Pistons side of things that we are concerned with, and even without attaching picks and/or young players, many are still divided on committing to Westbrook and Griffin, which in turn has the Pistons’ financial flexibility all but gone for the foreseeable future.

As a long-time Pistons fan, I understand better than most why this deal just doesn’t sit right.

The Pistons have avoided a hard reset for years and it has arguably locked them up in NBA purgatory—otherwise known as a fringe playoff team. Put differently, the Pistons haven’t been good enough to compete for a title, or bad enough to land high draft capital.

We’re not in purgatory, but it’s dangerously close

Trading for Westbrook, in many fan’s eyes, extends their team’s stay in purgatory.

The risk just simply worth it for these fans, particularly with the Pistons’ sentenced figured to end in just a couple of seasons.

The counter argument, which is the one I am trying to make in this article, is that purgatory isn’t exactly what the Pistons are experiencing — and trading for Westbrook doesn’t necessarily have the downside some claim while the upside might be quite high.

Purgatory, in my opinion, is the Phoenix Suns and New York Knicks of the world. The best players aren’t guaranteed at the top of the draft, just like owning a franchise in New York isn’t guaranteed to land you a star player.

If you want to win in the NBA, having a top pick and being located on a beach helps, but ultimately a good front office, coaching staff, and a little bit of luck is often enough to help a team compete for a championship.

I think the Pistons have that. It’s the main reason why I think trading for Westbrook (under the parameters we’ve already established—Pistons keep their picks and young players) still gives the Pistons enough long-term flexibility and development tools, in spite of being hard-capped financially.

I also believe that Westbrook’s presence on the Pistons in the new NBA landscape gives the team enough of a chance short-term to compete for a championship.

As an aside, pairing a presumably motivated Westbrook with an undeniably motivated Blake Griffin—two stars that were rejected by their teammates and/or team for others—together for a chance to prove their worth might be the edge both players need to expand their game further.

The Pistons are not a free agent destination. That does not preclude them from landing a star player, just like owning a top draft pick does not guarantee a star player.

While maintaining financial flexibility is always smart, it does not guarantee the Pistons a star player, but trading for Russell Westbrook does.

Does trading for Russell Westbrook bring a championship back to the Motor City? I don’t know, but it’s a calculated risk that I don’t mind taking with this front office and coaching staff, assuming the price is right.