Russell Westbrook has played his last game as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers. After months of speculation, the veteran point guard is in the process of being dealt to the Utah Jazz as part of a bigger deal that will net the Lakers D'Angelo Russell, Jarred Vanderbilt and Malik Beasley. Of course, just because Westbrook is heading to Salt Lake City that doesn't mean he'll be staying there. According to Yahoo's Chris Haynes, he will likely receive a buyout, and that will allow him to sign with a new team as a free agent.
But where will he wind up? That's a complicated question. The entire NBA had almost a year to register interest in Westbrook on the trade market. Nobody wanted him, but trading for him would've meant absorbing his $47 million salary. Now? He's theoretically available for the league minimum. While his overall performance hasn't been much better this season than it was during his disastrous 2021-22 campaign, he has willingly accepted a bench role and, even if erroneously, risen to the status of Sixth Man of the Year favorite.
Westbrook's days as an All-Star are over. In fact, he probably doesn't deserve more than a minor role on a good team. But the current version of Westbrook has proven that, in smaller doses, he can still contribute to an NBA team. So, what kind of team should try to sign Westbrook now that he's about to become available? The easy answer here is a team without much ambition. Take the Washington Wizards, for instance. Westbrook helped them reach the playoffs two years ago. His deficiencies are significantly more troubling in a postseason setting, but for a Wizards team that's typically just happy to get there and is currently 24-29, Westbrook might be just what the doctor ordered. The Chicago Bulls, whom Haynes reports are interested, make sense for the same reasons. If the goal is just to remain relevant and bring in a few games of home playoff gate revenue, Westbrook can put up numbers and keep butts in the seats.
If he's going to land with a contender, however, the team in question probably needs to have some combination of the following:
- Great shooting. Westbrook has shot below 30 percent from deep in both of his Lakers seasons, but remains athletic enough to get to the rim with proper spacing. He hasn't really had that with the Lakers, but on another team, he could still provide a jolt off of the bench.
- Great defense. Westbrook can engage defensively for stretches, especially against big-name players, but on a play-by-play basis, he's a poor defender. Ideally, his new team will be able to stash him in the corner against the worst opposing offensive player. He can defend the point of attack against backup point guards and provide nice ball-denial against stars when the whistle is friendly, but asking him to consistently stop great scorers is unrealistic.
- Great coaching. If Westbrook is going to join a contender, he's going to do so as a 10- or 15-minute per night player. No winner has the 28.7 minutes per night available that the Lakers have given him, especially for someone who doesn't shoot or defend. Westbrook is going to be a situational weapon if he's signed by a contender. There will be nights when he doesn't play at all. Convincing him to buy into that is going to take an experienced and well-respected coaching staff.
If Westbrook wants to keep putting up empty stats, there will probably be a team or two like the Wizards willing to give him meaningless minutes. If he wants to win, he needs to buy into a smaller role with the sort of team outlined above. Which teams would fit? Four teams stand out.
Los Angeles Clippers
Westbrook defies virtually every principle that the Clippers have been built on. The theory behind their roster is that everybody who plays should either shoot or defend at a high level, and in most cases, they can do both. They purged the roster of explosive personalities like Patrick Beverley and Montrezl Harrell to surround Kawhi Leonard with similarly low-key teammates. Nothing the Clippers have ever really done, except perhaps their 2021 trade for Rajon Rondo, suggests that this is the sort of move they'd actually make.
And yet, they rank 29th in paint points, 21st in fast-break points and 20th in total passes. These problems have persisted for years now. When the Clippers blew a 21-point lead to the Bucks last week, their late-game offense boiled down to missed jumper after missed jumper. When things go wrong for them late in games, that's usually how it happens. They need someone, anyone, who can provide a modicum of rim pressure to create advantages for their shooters. They seemingly knew that in the offseason when they signed John Wall. That move hasn't worked out. Westbrook could be their mulligan.
As a native Southern Californian, he's spoken at length about how much he likes living in Los Angeles. He played with Paul George in Oklahoma City, so there's a preexisting foundation for the Clippers to build upon. Ty Lue has won a championship, so he theoretically has the locker room cache to limit Westbrook's minutes. The Clippers have so many other options at guard that if this doesn't work, they could simply bench him without a second thought. With all of that in mind, the Clippers are probably the contender best-suited to absorb Westbrook. According to Haynes, they are interested, but with a day left before the deadline, that could easily change if they make another move.
The Suns share many of their flaws with the Clippers. They rank 24th in paint points and 29th in fast-break points. Where they differ is in depth. Cameron Payne, who is currently injured, has largely disappointed since his breakout 2020-21 campaign. Landry Shamet, who is also injured, is more of a theoretical bench scorer than a real one at this point. Though he's paid as an elite bench shooter, he's made only around 37 percent of his 3-pointers since arriving in Phoenix. Throw in Chris Paul's age-based limitations and the Suns actually need some stable backup guard minutes.
Of course, signing Westbrook carries its own question marks, especially given his history with Kevin Durant. The Suns have largely staggered Paul and Booker's minutes so that at least one of them is available to run the offense at all times. Would they abandon that strategy and sit both of them at the same time to give Westbrook his own bench lineups? Or could Westbrook function with one of them on the floor? Would Westbrook be comfortable backing up Paul, someone he's seen as an All-Star peer (and Team USA teammate) throughout his career?
Westbrook spent a year with Monty Williams in Oklahoma City, so the Suns should have some idea of what to expect if they pursue Westbrook. His downhill drives could reinvigorate DeAndre Ayton as a lob threat, though in fairness to Phoenix's current guards, Ayton's present shot-selection is a separate mystery. The Suns seem to want to make a splash under new owner Mat Ishbia. Signing Westbrook would be a relatively cheap way to do it.
Denver's net rating drops by 24.4 points per 100 possessions when Nikola Jokic goes to the bench. To put that number into perspective, the difference between the NBA's best team by net rating (the Boston Celtics at plus-6.2) and worst team (the San Antonio Spurs at minus-10) is only around two thirds of that figure at 16.2 points per 100 possessions. The Nuggets effectively go from nearly unbeatable to historically dreadful the moment their two-time MVP goes to the bench.
They've spent years seeking remedies. Their latest plan revolved around the development of Bones Hyland, a second-year guard whose skill in shot-creation is weighed down by his frankly insane shot-selection. Denver spent the entire deadline period trying to move Hyland because they don't trust him not to shoot them out of a playoff game. His defense and skinny frame don't help either.
No one would describe defense or shot-selection as Westbrook's strengths, but he provides an alternative form of bench production for a Denver team that has never been able to maintain a similar playing style when Jokic goes to the bench. Why not lean into the impossibility of replicating Jokic by going in the opposite direction? Surround Westbrook with shooters and defenders and hope for the best. In the postseason, Jokic is only going to sit for a few minutes per game. Westbrook's brand of chaotic basketball might be a valuable change of pace for Denver in those minutes. The last thing exhausted playoff teams want to see for four minutes is a fresh Westbrook barreling towards the rim.
The Heat aren't an obvious basketball fit for Westbrook. They rank 27th in 3-point percentage this season. They have a great defense, but aside from Tyler Herro, they got there largely by funneling minutes to defense-first players rather than scorers. The backcourt is plenty crowded with Herro, Kyle Lowry, Gabe Vincent and Victor Oladipo all playing meaningful minutes. Oladipo checks many of the same boxes Westbrook does in terms of providing athleticism and pace.
But Miami's track record of rehabilitating players at their lowest value is spotless. If there's any team that can convince Westbrook to buy into playing a lesser role, it's the Heat. If there's any team that can find hidden value in his skill set that the rest of the league has missed, it's the Heat. This is what Miami does. Most teams are looking at Westbrook as the declining player that he currently is. The Heat are the sort of franchise that might look at him as the low-risk, high-reward home-run swing that could still be.
So it doesn't make much clear sense. Even with Lowry rapidly aging and Oladipo struggling, Westbrook would probably be fifth guard on the depth chartl. But hey, if you were going to bet on any team to figure out how to make it work for Westbrook, wouldn't Miami be at the top of your list?