(Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Article written by Zach Zola (@ZachZola1)

When the Rockets were disposed of in 5 games by the Los Angeles Lakers, many Rockets fans were quick to point the finger at Russell Westbrook.

To be fair, I was one of them. I mean, how can you not throw a good chunk of the blame at a guy who shot 42% from the field, 26% from three, and averaged 4.2 turnovers per game over the series? Not to mention the trash talking while down 30 and the verbal altercation with Rajon Rondo’s brother.

But hey, even Westbrook himself seemed to recognize his shortcomings:

All in all, it was a fairly unimpressive postseason for the former MVP and a far cry from his production back in February.

With the offseason approaching, there have been musings of potential Westbrook trades from NBA writers and Rockets fans alike. Shipping off Westbrook and his 40+ million dollar contract would be a difficult, but not impossible task for GM Daryl Morey.

However, despite his inefficient playoff production in 2020, the Rockets have no business even entertaining the idea of trading Russell Westbrook.

Let’s get into some of the reasons below.

Return Value

This first point is relatively simple. With Westbrook’s gigantic contract, the Rockets have no realistic path to getting enough value in return for him.

Westbrook has three more years left on his contract, and will be making around 47 million in 2023. With the way the salary cap works in the NBA, there are very few teams that would even have an ability to take on Westbrook in the first place. I’ve seen some people point to lower markets who might want someone like Westbrook to drive fan interest, but there is not much that the Rockets would be able to pry away from these teams to make it worth it (unless you’re a big Harrison Barnes fan).

In terms of players that could feasibly be traded for Westbrook straight up, one name that has been thrown around is Blake Griffin.

Sure, the money would work, but does this actually make the Rockets better?

The answer is of course not. And this is the case with any realistic trade target that could match contracts with Westbrook. Even if there were a promising offer on the table, the Rockets would likely have to attach picks to Westbrook given his contract, age, and poor playoff performance.

Despite all this, there are certainly still Rockets fans who would prefer to just get rid of Westbrook – no matter the cost. Trading him, though, would leave the franchise in an awkward spot that would be difficult to recover from.

Harden’s Mindset

When the Rockets traded for Russell Westbrook, they were reuniting him with former teammate and good friend James Harden. The deal – in large part – was due to Harden’s rift with Chris Paul and his desire to play alongside Westbrook for the first time since 2012.

I wrote about my original skepticism with the trade due to fit (and due to my lasting anger from the 2017 MVP race), but I decided to overlook it because of how much Harden and Westbrook seemed to want to play together. Growing pains aside, I was sure that the two friends and hard workers would almost certainly find a way to make it work. Even if this was a naïve way of thinking, there is no denying that Harden actively sought out the opportunity to play with Westbrook and was going to do everything in his power to make it work.

This is perhaps the biggest reason why turning around and trading Westbrook would be a big mistake. If you trade him, you not only lose Westbrook, but you also risk losing Harden.

Unless he is flat out lying, it is clear that Harden wants to run it back with Westbrook. Entertaining the idea of trading Westbrook would likely upset Harden and cause him to distrust the organization. This could lead to a lack of effort during games, or even a trade request – something that I shouldn’t even need to write an article about to describe how dumb of a move that would be.

Even more so, we have seen Westbrook help Harden more than any other teammate has in the past. Harden is a superstar, but he is a flawed superstar. He has often come up short in late game situations, and tends to lose focus at points during games. With Westbrook in Houston, though, Harden has had someone there to help him neutralize these tendencies.

This clip above was one of my favorite moments of the season, and something that we had never seen in previous years: a teammate actively letting Harden know when he made a mistake.

Chris Paul sometimes tried to, but never to this extent. Ideally, we would wish that Harden wasn’t so stubborn sometimes, but we have seen time and time again this season that Westbrook is able to bring out the best in him personality wise. He is probably one of the few players in the NBA that Harden will actually listen to and take criticism from to heart.

If you trade Westbrook, you lose that. No player on the trade market could replicate this ability.

Westbrook’s Play Pre-Bubble

Back in February, the Rockets traded away center Clint Capela for Robert Covington – leaving them with no player in the rotation above 6’9″ (sorry, Tyson).

The main purpose of Daryl Morey’s idea of mega small ball was to gain spacing on offense for Westbrook to thrive. Earlier, with two non-shooting starters on a volume shooting team, the Rockets lacked enough consistent perimeter threats. After the trade, without Capela clogging up the paint, Westbrook had an easier ability to drive to the rim or kick it out to an open shooter.

And for a long stretch of games, it worked really well. Take a look at what he does off the dribble here with this much space:

Over the month of February, Westbrook averaged 33/7/6 on a ridiculous 55% shooting from the field. With his new freedom on offense, he was scoring at will and was as efficient as he’s ever been in his NBA career.

In other words, the system worked. The Rockets were winning games and Westbrook was playing at an elite level (sure, the Rockets might have went a bit too far and will hopefully sign a big guy who can ALSO stretch the floor this offseason, but that’s an article for another day).

This is a far cry from how Westbrook looked in the Bubble, though. Take a look at this clip below, where Westbrook is given even more space than in the one above:

Rather than play to his strengths and take it straight to the rim, Westbrook settles for a three point jumper – an extremely inefficient shot for him that he had all but stopped taking during the regular season.

There are two conclusions that one could draw from this play and from many other ill-advised postseason plays from Westbrook:

  1. He’s washed.
  2. He wasn’t in game shape throughout the Bubble.

It would be unreasonable to give Westbrook a total pass on his Bubble performance, but it’s fair to say that something wasn’t right. Just prior to the Bubble, Westbrook tested positive for Covid which ended up giving him very little time to workout and prep for the restart. Additionally, he injured his quad halfway through the seeding games and was forced to sit out for most of the First Round. During the playoff games he did play, Westbrook was simply not himself. He settled for 3s, made lazy passes, and often looked like he had forgotten how to dribble.

As Rockets fans, we’re allowed to recognize and criticize this performance. However, we also have a responsibility to recognize the All-Star level output he was giving us before the NBA shutdown.

There is no telling which Westbrook the league will see in 2021. It would be a shock, though, if the guy we saw back in February just completely disappeared. Trading him away because of a few bad weeks would probably be an overreaction.

Closing Thoughts

In recent years, the Rockets have made it a pattern of trading away anyone not named James Harden after – at most – a few seasons. This has put a dangerous precedent in place, where every player on the roster could feel as if they’re expendable at any given moment.

In a macro sense, how would trading away Westbrook look to a free agent? Would anyone really want to join a team that is in such consistent flux?

(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

In my eyes, moving on from Westbrook this quickly would indicate a complete lack of organizational stability, marking Houston as a place that you go to for a year before being promptly traded somewhere else. Whether the fit with Harden is perfect or not, the Rockets are in a position to stick with Westbrook for the long haul. As discussed above, the current roster is essentially built around his strengths. Trading him would not just be letting go of one player, but an overhaul of an entire system.

Rather than trade Westbrook, the Rockets should look to bring in more players to fit the current mold.

Small ball ultimately failed in large part due to of tired legs. Westbrook’s disappointing play was one thing, but the extreme amount asked of each individual player on both sides of the court was too much to sustain over multiple 7-game series’ (especially once Danuel House put basketball on hold).

At the end of the day, the Rockets just need more capable bodies. It will be difficult, but there are paths toward improvement through free agency and through trades. We have seen how good Westbrook can be, leading me to genuinely believe that he and Harden are still a championship-caliber duo if both are playing well. With the departure of Mike D’Antoni, the Rockets will ideally find a coach willing to expand the rotation and keep the team fresh for the postseason.

So for now, put away the trade machines and let Morey go to work finding as many impact players as he can this offseason that will help Westbrook and the Rockets continue to build on their strengths.

Unless your trade machine involves Eric Gordon. In that case, go crazy.

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