A lot of people have floated the Russell Westbrook-for-Chris Paul trade idea and while it’s pretty much entirely speculation and bored lockout-ists, when someone as smart and level-headed as Kevin Pelton does it, you kind of have to look harder.
You’re Sam Presti (designer glasses and perfectly gelled hair and all). You just signed Russell Westbrook to an extension the second a new CBA is signed. Dell Demps calls you. Chris Paul for Westbrook, straight up.
What do you do?
(If you’re really Presti, obviously you try and negotiate a deal that eventually lands you Paul and Emeka Okafor for Byron Mullens, Cole Aldrich and two second rounders in 2018, but you’re not actually Sam Presti and you don’t actually possess his Jedi mind tricks. So just play along.)
First instinct says to do it. Chris Paul with Kevin Durant and a supporting cast of James Harden, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison sounds like an incredible roster. It sounds like it because it is. But I think there’s a reason the real Sam Presti would pass on it. Meaning you should too.
Keeping Westbrook’s young career in perspective is always important. Because after his solid but erratic rookie season, we all weren’t sure what his ceiling might be. Starting point guard material for sure, but a 20-8-5 guy? An All-Star? A second-team All-NBA guy? Those things seemed like major stretches, especially if you said it would happen just a season later.
The things Pelton and others knock on Westbrook for are accurate. He’s got tunnel vision. He can call his own number too often. He can stall the offense. He gives away possessions. He turns it over too much. He doesn’t see the floor as well as others.
But think back to this list after we watched him those first 82 games. It was a lot longer and a lot uglier. He’s come a long way in just a couple seasons. People say you can’t improve court vision, that it’s something you have or don’t. Well Westbrook’s absolutely improved in that area. He still turns the ball over but they aren’t straight careless giveaways now. Most come on charges where he’s attacking to create or score. (Besides, turnovers don’t mean the world. Jason Kidd and Steve Nash have routinely finished in the top five their entire careers in turnovers each season. You know what starting point guard averaged the least giveaways per game? Derek Fisher. You really want that?)
I’m not saying Russell Westbrook will be better than Chris Paul. He definitely isn’t right now, especially when CP3 is right. I had no issue saying that Paul is the best point guard in the NBA. He absolutely is. But I also think Westbrook is the most promising. I still don’t entirely know what he’s capable of because he’s trended so rapidly upward. I thought 20 points and eight assists a game would be something he could shoot for in our dreams, but he crushed that without much issue at the age of 22 and in his third season. So what’s next?
A lot of people don’t think Westbrook fits with Durant. You can’t have two primary scorers battling for the ball. I think Dwyane Wade and LeBron James would tell you it can work fine, but it’s true — Westbrook’s intended role isn’t to fire up 25 shots a game to Durant’s 20. Westbrook would confirm that every time. But he’s a take-what-the-defense-gives-you kind of player and in the postseason where the fire and brimstone rained down on him night after night, that’s all he was doing. Durant was being doubled everywhere so Westbrook — the Thunder’s second best player and scorer — tried to pick up slack.
Everyone loves the idea of a “pure” point guard, especially in terms of dishing to Durant, but that’s just a word. I think you’re better off having a darn good player next to KD. Let’s face it: All point guards aren’t created equal. Steve Nash isn’t Rajon Rondo. Rondo isn’t Derrick Rose. Rose isn’t Paul. Paul isn’t Deron Williams. Each player is different, for better or worse. Nobody’s perfect. Doesn’t mean a roster can’t work unless some kind of prototype player steps in and fills a role. We aren’t cloning Bob Cousy’s or John Stockton’s here. The point man is different nowadays, like it or not.
But don’t tell me a team can’t win with a scoring point guard either. The Spurs got along just fine with Tony Parker running the show. Parker has never averaged more than 6.9 assists per game in a season, while scoring as much as 22 a game in 2008-09. Westbrook averaged 8.2 assists last year and 8.0 the year before. Parker doesn’t shoot as much as Westbrook but there’s a good reason for it — he doesn’t have to. The Spurs’ order of operations has always been something like 1) Tim Duncan, 2) Manu Ginobili and then 3) Tony Parker. The middle man is key. The Thunder need that bridge player to stand between Durant and Westbrook and help relieve the stress and anxiety of trying to figure out where the ball goes.
Good thing they’ve got that guy in James Harden. Jeff Green was supposed to be the bridge but obviously that didn’t really work out. Harden proved he’s entirely capable of stepping into a secondary scoring role as well as handling ball-handling and distributing duties as well. It’s why Harden starting next year is so important. He’s a mediator. His presence alone in the offense connects Durant to Westbrook much better. The better Harden gets, the better Westbrook gets. It’s less responsibility for Westbrook to handle offensively. He can focus more on playing off the ball, scoring efficiently and using his athleticism to attack and create. Westbrook could be a player that averages 25-7 (also known as Derrick Rose), but at his most effective place, he’s probably something like 18-10-5 with solid percentages.
Westbrook needs to improve in some areas. He knows it. Good thing he’s just, you know, 22 years old. At the rate he’s improved and transformed his game from year one to year three has been kind of incredible. He’s added a solid jumper, sees the floor much better, is under control more, passes the ball more authoritatively, actually understands offense and is capable of running an offense. Don’t forget: The Thunder won 55 games, the Northwest Division and was two fourth quarters away from playing for an NBA title. All with a team that features its top four players under the age of 23. The Thunder got to the Western Finals more because of Russell Westbrook, not in spite of him. People seem to forget that when they start playing with the Trade Machine.
Does Chris Paul dishing to KD sound like a good idea? Of course. But I also like the idea of Durant, Westbrook and Harden building a new and improved Spurs trio. There are other factors to account for like CP3’s health, his contract status and a couple other things which make it all a little less attractive, but it’s more about what makes the most sense in terms of winning now, and long-term.
It’s not even entirely about the future and the “What If?” factor with Westbrook. It’s not entirely about how good he might be. It’s about how good he is now. This Thunder team is a force with Westbrook running the show. The whole team has to evolve and grow a little more to get to a championship level. The whole goal is to win titles and if trading Westbrook for CP3 means that happens, sign me up. But it’s not so easy to just swap parts in basketball and adding CP3 doesn’t guarantee anything.