Here we go again. Knicks fans should get used to this. Every single time a team is rumored to be looking to move one of their highly-paid players this offseason, the Knicks are going to be mentioned because of their cap space, rumored willingness to take on salary, and new front office.
First, it was Chris Paul, which I addressed here, and now it’s Russell Westbrook.
Here’s some advice on that one: RUN AWAY AS FAST AS YOU CAN, SO FAST EVEN WESTBROOK CAN’T CATCH YOU!
The Knicks should have zero interest in trading for Russell Westbrook. The Rockets can offer their 2022 first round pick to the Knicks? Nope. They could figure out a way to offer one of the picks they are swapping with the Thunder? Nope. Eric Gordon? No, he makes the deal worse. The Rockets literally do not have the assets, whether picks or players, to make it worth it for the Knicks to take on Russell Westbrook’s contract.
So what’s the problem?
Too many to count. Where to start? Let’s go after the low hanging fruit: Russell Westbrook’s contract is…not good. I’ll be more accurate: it might be the worst contract in the entire NBA. Here is what he is owed:
2020-2021: $41.3 million
2021-2022: $44.2 million
2022-2023: $47.1 million (a player option he will never turn down)
This makes Chris Paul’s contract look affordable, and it would virtually take the Knicks out of the free agent market in all of the next three years (they could potentially still carve out a max slot in 2021 if they let some of their youngsters walk) for a player that has proven he cannot be the best player on a successful playoff team. Even when playing with superstars like James Harden and Kevin Durant, he was unable to bring home a championship.
Westbrook, of course, is much younger than Paul at just 31 years of age. His game, however, is solely dependent on his athleticism, which is still elite, but could begin to decline at any time.
Westbrook has actually gotten progressively worse as a three-point shooter the last four seasons, going from 34 percent in 2016-17 to 30 to 29 to 26 in 2019-20. He was a big-time scorer in his one season in Houston, scoring 27.2 points per game and shooting 47 percent from the field – but that doesn’t mean he was an efficient scorer, with an effective field goal percentage of just 49.3 percent and true shooting percentage of just 53.6 percent.
He did his best work at the rim, where he took 41 percent of his shots and shot 64 percent, but he was not efficient anywhere else. When he is no longer able to get to the rim consistently, his ability to score in any consistent way will disappear.
His style is the true issue. Westbrook’s 33 percent usage rate was seventh highest in the NBA – higher than Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, and Damian Lillard. He averaged seven assists, but that was more a product of having the ball all the time rather than any sort of advanced playmaking ability or decision making. When he is on the floor, he is the center of the offense while the rest of the players around him are simply along for the ride. His decision making and tendency to drive and shoot first and ask questions later has rankled some of his teammates in the past.
Westbrook averaged triple-doubles for the Thunder for three straight seasons from 2016-2019. It was truly an impressive feat. But his team failed to win 50 games in any of the three seasons (47, 48, and 49 wins) and didn’t escape the first round of the playoffs despite also having Paul George for two of those seasons.
When Westbrook does not have the ball in his hands, he is unable to spread the floor because of his lack of three-point range. With Houston, teams would double-team off of him, and he struggled attacking those defensive strategies. The Rockets were actually a better offensive team when he was on the bench this season. Despite his elite athleticism, Westbrook has struggled to consistently apply himself to be a high level one-on-one defender.
This is precisely the opposite of the type of player the Knicks should be trying to add to their young core. Westbrook’s immense physical gifts would drag the Knicks towards 35-40 wins, ruin their draft position by making them a mediocre fringe playoff team, lead to no sustained long-term winning, and actually inhibit the growth of their young players who would rarely have the ball in their hands. At least Chris Paul’s unselfishness and approach would be something the Knicks’ young players could emulate, but Westbrook would do nothing productive for the long-term health of the franchise.
Trading for him, even if assets were attached, would be a terrible mistake and set the franchise back for at least half a decade. If Leon Rose pursues any trade for Westbrook, it should worry Knicks fans that he has no idea what it takes to build a sustained winner or develop a cohesive team. 2020 is a year of social distancing and the Knicks should definitely take that approach with Russell Westbrook.
Check out the most recent episode of my Knicks Podcast, The Bank Shot, with Sports Illustrated Draft analyst Jeremy Woo. You can subscribe to the podcast on popular platforms, including Apple Podcasts.
Follow John Schmeelk on Twitter: @Schmeelk