Pistons Lead

Every Argument For and Against Trading for Russ

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Pistons Lead analyst Vivek Sevak contributed to this story.

When the news broke earlier this weekend that Kawhi Leonard would be joined by Paul George in Los Angeles, the NBA world was set ablaze. There were so many consequences of this move and fans were left wondering where the proverbial dominoes would fall. One domino most closely affected by this move was that of Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder. Having lost their third bonafide star in the past 10 years (Harden, Durant and now George), the Thunder are now faced with the difficult decision of what to do with their mercurial dynamo of a point guard – Russell Westbrook. Enter the Detroit Pistons!

The 30-year-old, former MVP point guard has long been loyal to the Thunder, but it seems his time in Oklahoma may finally be up. The Thunder are for the first-time ever being receptive to trade inquiries for Westbrook.

Shortly after George was moved to the Clippers, the rumor mill was buzzing with word that the Pistons were interested in Westbrook.

Given all of this, is Westbrook a good gamble for Detroit?

The Argument For Athleticism

In the words of the Brodie – “Why Not?” The Pistons have been a middling franchise for the better part of 10 years now and have no signs of being a true contender in the East with their current roster construction. They have only had two playoff appearances in the past 10 seasons, both of which ended in first round sweep exits. They have only had two seasons in the past 10 years where they finished with a record .500 or above. The chances of landing an MVP-caliber talent like Westbrook for the Pistons has been historically very slim due to Detroit not being known as a popular free agent destination. If Detroit wanted to accumulate high-caliber talent in the past, it has mostly been through the draft or via trade (Hamilton, Prince, Drummond, Griffin, etc.)

Last year, the Pistons squeaked into the playoffs after an all-time great season out of Blake Griffin and managed only to be swept by the Bucks in the first round. Clearly the franchise as constructed is not going to be able to capitalize on Griffin’s diminishing prime while he remains in Detroit. The Pistons have been in dire need of a spark to shake up the roster like the way the Griffin trade shook them two years ago.

Offensive Fit Argument

From a basketball perspective, the Pistons have struggled tremendously with athleticism and play making. They have very few players on the roster who can create their own shot. Westbrook would immediately solve both of those issues for the Pistons and would give them an upgrade to Reggie Jackson, the likes of which Detroit hasn’t seen in decades. Just look at Westbrook’s assist/turnover ratio of 2.4.

For all the criticism that he is a “stat-chaser”, he still manages to distribute the ball well. While his play style may be similar to Jackson’s in that he too often plays “hero ball”, he is tremendously better equipped to actually be the hero than Jackson ever was or will be. This is due largely in part to the tremendous athleticism that Westbrook possesses. He would kick the motor in motor city to overdrive and would tremendously help the Pistons’ offensive pace along with transition offense.

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While Westbrook does not check off the Pistons’ need for perimeter shooting, he could be a valued addition to the team’s overall perimeter shooting effectiveness by simply being a very proficient drive-and-dish player. Westbrook has the uncanny ability to blow by his defender and draw help defense using his first step and strength. Detroit would need to provide him with better spot-up shooters than they currently have on the roster, but the potential is certainly there.

Proven Reclamation Possibilities

Speaking of that first step and athleticism, many of the opponents of a Westbrook-to-Detroit deal have cited waning athleticism as a reason for why they wouldn’t want him in Detroit. Guess who else people said that about just two years ago? That’s right, Blake Griffin was long thought of as just a lob-catcher known for high flying dunks without the ability to remake his game, and he sure proved the entire NBA community wrong last year showing great evolution to his skills.

Who is to say that Griffin couldn’t help Westbrook figure out how to improve the other aspects of his game so that as his athleticism declines, he can still be effective? The two stars would be perfect complements since Griffin is a great post player and has developed a knack for perimeter shooting as well.  Westbrook can be the driving facilitator that Griffin hasn’t had since he played with Chris Paul on the Clippers. A Westbrook-Griffin pairing may be risky, but it also may just be the kind of dynamite needed to explode onto the scene in a newly wide-open Eastern Conference.

A Plea for the Gambler’s Chance

In the end, it is going to have to come down to the Pistons’ leadership having a real introspective moment.  Hopefully they will figure out what the soul of this franchise currently is.  Pistons’ owner Tom Gores has stated on numerous occasions that the team is in “win-now” mode and thoroughly believes they are only one piece away from contention, but is that what he truly means? Is this Pistons team actually going for the championship while they have a closing window of opportunity with Blake Griffin, or is this merely a ploy to drum up some intrigue about the team and sell tickets? We may never know, but one thing seems clearer by the day and that is that Russell Westbrook may not be perfect, but he is perfect for trying to achieve both of those possibilities.

Westbrook will likely put them closer to becoming a contender while Griffin’s window of opportunity can still be capitalized. Additionally, Russ will undoubtedly help the franchise in other ways.  Selling more tickets and bringing some excitement to a fan base that has been dying for something (anything at times) to cheer for.  Gores may be right about the Pistons only being one piece away from contention.  Drummond and Griffin have been a very good duo together thus far despite being not the conventional star duo.  Maybe what the Pistons need is just that – another player who goes against the grain of the current NBA but has just enough of the current skill set required to excel. Enter Russell Westbrook – the Bad Boy that Detroit has been waiting for all along.

Narrative Case Against

While he is still an All-NBA performer, Russell Westbrook is clearly on the decline.  His scoring average has dipped by nearly ten points over the two previous seasons.  Brodie did still average a triple double– his third consecutive season doing so.  Unfortunately there are constant comments of him stat padding in a way that does not benefit winning.  The chances of him stealing rebounds from teammates or forcing assists over an open layup should give fans pause.  Dwane Casey’s system lends itself to ball movement and chemistry on the floor.  Westbrook is a system unto himself so significant adjustments are required.

Statistical Case Against

Efficiency-driven numbers also do not favor the former All-Star. His shooting splits this year were one of the factors that led to the Thunder’s struggles throughout the season.  His career averages indicate a future Hall of Famer.  When compared to his numbers just last year, things look bleaker.

  • Career: 23 ppg / 7 rpg / 8.4 apg / 80.1 FT% / 30.8 3P% / 43.4 FG% / 18.6 FGA / 3.6 3PA / 7.1 FTA
  • 2018-19: 22.9 ppg / 11.1 rpg /10.7 apg / 65.6 FT% / 29 3P% / 42.8 FG% / 20.2 FGA / 5.6 3PA / 6.2 FTA

The increase in rebounds and assists are definitely a bonus if the above-referenced slights prove false.  However, taking six 3s when his average is as low as it is would be a drain on any offense.  Combining this with the progressive dip in free throws is a red flag.  This indicates he is no longer as aggressive in driving down the lane.  Therefore, Westbrook needs to change some things about his offensive game if he is to help contribute to winning basketball.  Westbrook has not won a playoff series since Durant left, even though he played with George and Oladipo.  Adjustments may simply be a thing of the past.

Financial Case Against

In terms of off-the-court concerns, the contract is the albatross in the room.  Westbrook is another example of the failed “super max deal”. Teams have either passed or signed the player only to look into moving them not long into the contract.  The remaining money on the contract breaks down as follows:

  • 2019-20 (age 30 season) $38,506,482
  • 2020-21 (age 31 season) $41,358,814
  • 2021-22 (age 32 season) $44,211,146
  • 2022-23 (age 33 season) $47,063,478

These numbers are more of a problem when considering Blake Griffin will earn $34, $37 and $39 million through 2022.  Paying two 32-year-olds who have a history of bad knees and reliance on athleticism a combined $83,168,174.  This will make any other roster moves mostly impossible.  Given that, any winning in this era would need to occur in the first two years of the deal.

To that end, the Heat are seen as the favorites to make a move for Russ despite being in a worse cap situation than Detroit.  The Pistons are in a far better position financially to make a trade, but the question then becomes, “Would they want to?”.

Future Case Against

Finally, any package that involves more than expiring contracts should be questioned by the fan base.  Reports from many insiders indicate that the market for Westbrook is lukewarm at best.  Some are hinting that the Thunder may have to attach an asset to move the contract.  Therefore, any deal that has Detroit including their young talent as well as future draft picks should be considered desperation.  Why should the team give up the future if Oklahoma City would have to do so?

Realistically, a move like this will only increase the ceiling of the Pistons season by five – seven wins.  This move likely still leaves them trailing Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Indiana.  They will be competing with Brooklyn, Miami and Boston for this seeding as well.  Imagine you can convince yourself they are at the top of that group.  Is the cost of assets and salary cap flexibility worth very little movement that may also naturally occur?  Often times the best deals are the ones that are most measured, not the gambles.  If the price is right, Westbrook can be a sensible risk.  If it gets too high, the Pistons will likely be striking out more on wins than the Tigers.

Coming Together

At the end of the day, both sides of the debate want the same thing– for the Pistons to make the decision that will set them up for future success.  No matter the Twitter debate wars and hot takes, no one truly knows which side is right.  That is part of the fun of what this NBA off season has been.  The decision does not solely fall on Ed Stefanski and Tom Gores.  Miami, Houston and Minnesota are reportedly sniffing around the Thunder.  There is always a mystery team that will surface when you least expect it.  If nothing else, it is refreshing to all Pistons fans to be back in the star discussion.

Follow us on Twitter @PistonsLead for the latest offseason Pistons news and insights.

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