Reports Suggest Knicks Might Trade For Russell Westbrook. That Would Be A Major Mistake.

According to a report in Thursday’s New York Post, Knicks president Leon Rose’s and the New York front office “likely would turn some of their attention toward Texas if Westbrook is placed on the market.”

SNY’s Ian Begley reported Wednesday that some agents believe the Knicks “would poke around on a potential Russell Westbrook trade if Houston makes him available,” with Begley adding that Westbrook “saw New York as a welcome landing spot last summer when Oklahoma City was talking to teams about potential trades.”

With Rockets general manager Daryl Morey resigning, Houston will very likely explore all available options to reconstruct their roster. Considering they have more than $123 million in guaranteed salary in each of the next two seasons, they would be foolish not to consider trading Russell Westbrook. 

But the Knicks would be foolish even to consider such a move.

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Yes, Westbrook would be a significant upgrade in terms of talent, especially for a Knicks franchise that has been searching for a quality point guard for the better part of two decades. (Just how bad has the Knicks PG play been this century, you ask? Consider this: Over the last 15 years, from the start of the 2005-06 season through the end of the 2019-20 campaign, the Knicks franchise leader in assists is Carmelo Anthony.)

And make no mistake, Westbrook, a nine-time All-Star, a two-time All-Star Game MVP, and the league’s Most Valuable Player just three years ago, can still play at a very high level. In 2019-20, he averaged 27.2 points, 7.9 rebounds, 7.0 rebounds and 1.5 steals. Per Basketball-Reference, the only players in NBA history to match or exceed those per-game averages in those categories throughout a full season are LeBron James (in 2009-10) and Michael Jordan in (1988-89).

Over the second half of this past season, Westbrook was one the most effective and (surprisingly) efficient scorers in the league. Starting on December 7th, Westbrook scored at least 20 points in a career-high 36 straight games (the longest such streak in the NBA last season). During that 36-game stretch, Russ averaged a whopping 30.7 points while shooting a scorching 50.5% from the floor. Westbrook scored 40+ points four times this season (which is the most 40-point games in a season by a Rocket besides James Harden since Tracy McGrady had four such games in 2007-08).

Yet, the most important numbers when it comes to considering trading for Westbrook are his annual salary figures over the next three years: 

Here they are:

2020-21 (age 32): $41.4 million

2021-22 (age 33): $44.2 million

2022-23 (age 34): $47.1 million

And while Westbrook’s field goal percentage rebounded nicely this past season, his 3-point percentage plummeted to 25.8%. In fact, he became just the fourth player in NBA history to attempt more than 200 3-pointers, and shoot below 26% from downtown. And, over the past three years combined, Westbrook is the only player in the league to attempt more than 700 treys and shoot below 29% from behind the arc. 

This is especially noteworthy considering Russ will celebrate his 32nd birthday next month and has been exceedingly dependent on his otherworldly athleticism throughout his Hall-of-Fame career. As I have detailed previously, Westbrook’s success has stemmed from his ability to blow by defenders and violently explode toward the basket. As he creeps into his mid-30’s and his unmatched athletic edge begins to fade, it’s difficult to envision him transitioning successfully to the next stage of his career.

The Knicks, who have lost at least 45 games in each of the last seven seasons, are at the start of a long rebuild and nowhere near championship contention. Trading for Westbrook and his onerous contract might theoretically make sense for a team that is one piece away from a title, but the Knicks are most definitely do not fit that criteria. 

For New York, acquiring a player that will earn north of $47 million (accounting for more than 40% of the team’s cap space) two years from now, after said player turns 34, would be a massive mistake.

While this year’s free-agent crop is relatively weak, a few quality point guards are set to hit the open market, including Fred VanVleet, who will be unrestricted. Instead of committing to pay a 32-year-old Westbrook $132.7 million over the next three years, signing the 26-year-old VanVleet (who is about to enter his prime) to a four-year contract in the neighborhood of $80 million would be a far, far wiser allocation of the franchise’s resources. 

To their credit, the Knicks have recently avoided the front office mistakes that have tripped up previous regimes, such as trading for an aging superstar with an albatross of a contract. New York has patiently protected its salary cap space by refusing to dole out long-term contracts and, as a result, are projected to have a league-high $100 million to lavish on free agents in the summer of 2021, when a bevy of superstars are will hit free agency. In addition, the Knicks own the rights to seven first-round draft picks over the next four years. (The OKC Thunder are the only team in the league with more future first-round selections over that same period.) 

Leon Rose and company should focus on fleshing out the New York roster around 20-year-old RJ Barrett and 22-year-old Mitchell Robinson, along with their two first-round picks in next month’s draft, while maintaining the invaluable asset of cap flexibility moving forward.

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