Anyone thinking of a Russell Westbrook trade for the Houston Rockets this offseason should start pumping the brakes immediately.
After a disappointing second-round exit to the Los Angeles Lakers this season, the Houston Rockets learned first-hand that their small-ball approach might not be the best course of action. With the team financially diminished moving forward, an idea floating around the NBA fandom is breaking up their $266 million tandem of James Harden and Russell Westbrook after just one season to get out of this predicament.
Westbrook is coming off an abysmal playoff run with the team, where he averaged just 17.9 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 4.6 assists per game, shooting just 40.6 percent from the field and a disastrous 24.2 percent from 3-point range. The guard battled a nagging quad injury, which potentially hindered his postseason play. He also tested positive for COVID-19 before joining the Rockets in the NBA bubble.
Regardless, this eight-game stretch has higher-ups in the NBA talking about Houston moving on from the 31-year-old Westbrook if anyone is willing to take him off their hands. Transcribed by Michael Scotto of HoopsHype:
“I wouldn’t move Harden,” one Eastern Conference general manager told HoopsHype. “He’s still so good, and they’re too old right now to just start a rebuild unless you’re getting a Jayson Tatum or Luka Doncic to rebuild around. I’d probably run it back in some shape or form, especially with next year being a compressed time period. I would keep all options open, but I wouldn’t be selling Harden to the highest bidder. In the last two years, they easily could have won it all, so I don’t think it’s fair to panic if they lose. Now, if there’s a great deal out there, that’s a different story, but I still think it’s worth riding out one more year. If Westbrook is tradable, get it done.”
As much as the Rockets could benefit from getting Westbrook’s $133 million salary over the next three seasons off the books, it is far easier said than done. An MVP winner in 2017, Westbrook now finds himself as potentially the most untradable player in the NBA, and his hefty contract apparently just scratches the surface of reasons why.
“Westbrook isn’t a good compliment for anyone, in my opinion,” one Eastern Conference coach told HoopsHype. “He has to be the main guy. He can’t shoot. He needs the ball. He’s not an off-ball player. Hard to play with two max guys who need the ball. Maybe it’s possible, but it seems like two good players instead of Westbrook would be better the way they play.”
For a team that gave up a king’s ransom last summer to land Westbrook, and then transitioned to small-ball mid-season to fit his needs, this experiment has backfired on the Houston Rockets. After this up and down season, Westbrook’s once sky-high value has certainly slimmed down significantly, if there even is any. It seems that running it back with the same small-ball approach next season is Houston’s only move, barring a monumental change.
If this is indeed the case for the Rockets, the only thing they can do is hope for a rejuvenated Westbrook next year, which might not be too far-fetched. Although he closed out the season in treacherous fashion, the 2017 league MVP played some of his career-best basketball after the team switched to small-ball pre-pandemic.
In 23 games before the season halted in March, Westbrook averaged 31.7 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 6.8 assists per game, while shooting an impressive 52.7 percent from the field. Any of that momentum vanished as the NBA restarted back up nearly five months later, but he showed it is possible for him to thrive in this system. Regardless, that sample size will not have any rivaling organizations persistent on a Westbrook trade this offseason with the guard on the wrong side of 30 and owed $133 million over three years.
Despite their flaws, Harden and Westbrook appear complacent with Houston’s odds of running it back and competing next season. After their Game 5 defeat, Harden told the media that, “I feel like we’re a piece away.” Westbrook added, “It’s definitely something you can build off of.” Whether they entertain the idea of a Russell Westbrook trade or not this offseason, it seems almost certain that the Houston Rockets will enter next season with him on the roster.