The Oklahoma City Thunder have no choice. They have to do it. They have to trade Russell Westbrook as soon as possible.
Now that Kevin Durant is gone, there’s almost no chance that Westbrook, who will be a free agent next summer, re-signs with the Thunder. Yes, he’d be walking away from more money, but without Durant, Oklahoma City will not be a title contender. Westbrook is a supernova of a point guard, but all the fire in the world can’t lift this Thunder roster over the Warriors and Spurs in the Western Conference.
With Durant gone, the Thunder can now offer Westbrook a long-term extension, sure, but he’d be foolish to sign it.
Oklahoma City should be a playoff team going forward — they still have a good deal of talent, especially after trading Serge Ibaka to the Magic and getting back a three-player haul — but they won’t be playing for trophies anytime soon, with Westbrook or without him. Durant proved it Monday — a ring is the only thing of importance in the NBA, and the ever-fashionable Westbrook doesn’t have one in his repertoire. If he wants one, he has to leave OKC.
The Thunder have to trade Westbrook now because the longer they wait, the more they risk losing, and they can’t enter next season with the threat of having Durant and Westbrook leave town for nothing. Teams looking to get Westbrook in a deal would prey on that weakness.
Trading Westbrook now could bring in a haul. It would jump-start the Thunder’s inevitable rebuild. Today, teams have massive amounts of cap space and assets to move. Every situation is liquid and teams are able to do what’s necessary to add a top-five player. Once the season starts, that will no longer be the case. Contracts are locked in, rosters are set — things get trickier, and deals that should have been made break down a lot easier.
The Thunder can go to the Lakers, today, and ask for their upcoming first-round draft pick as well as Brandon Ingram and D’Angelo Russell.
General manager Sam Presti can go to Boston, today, and ask for Jaylen Brown and both of the Nets’ first-round picks that the Celtics effectively own, which are among the most valuable assets in the league.
Why would any team trade away so much to land a player that they could just sign on July 1, 2017? Bird rights.
If the Thunder trade Westbrook today, they would also be trading away the right to sign him to a contract that puts them over the salary cap and the right to sign him to a five-year deal with 7.5 percent raise increases per year.
If you trade for Westbrook now, you also trade for the ability to give him a contract no one else can match this time next year. That’s worth an awful lot.
It’s the same situation that the Denver Nuggets were in when they knew Carmelo Anthony wouldn’t re-sign with the team in the summer of 2011. So the spring before, they traded him to the New York Knicks, who then gave him a super-max deal the next summer. There was no question Anthony was going to re-sign with the Knicks, it was tacitly agreed upon when the trade was made.
The Nuggets won 57 games after trading away Anthony, a significant improvement to an already good team, and while they squandered continued success by letting Andre Iguodala leave and getting only Randy Foye and a second-round pick in return, both Denver and New York walked away from the Anthony deal feeling like they won.
The Thunder could wait and trade Westbrook during the season, but a lot of potential trade partners today might not be in the game at that point. Presti couldn’t command as much of a return with a smaller trade market.
The Thunder can’t afford to take another loss. The only valuable asset they garnered from moving James Harden to Houston was Steven Adams, who is a really good player but hardly fair value for the Rockets’ star guard. If OKC squandered a three-man core of Harden, Durant, and Westbrook and stand with only Adams and Mitch McGary to show for it, it’ll be one of the NBA’s all-time personnel blunders.
It’s not worth the risk. The Thunder need to trade Westbrook now.