After striking out by swinging for the fences and dealing for D’Angelo Russell just over one week ago, Paul George’s abrupt exit from Oklahoma City has sparked The Next Great Debate in Timberwolves fandom: whether or not to trade for the Thunder’s feisty, explosive guard Russell Westbrook.
On Monday Eric wrote a compelling case for why the Wolves should venture into trade talks for the Thunder’s former MVP, but I’m here to offer a counter argument about why such a trade is not in the best interest of this team’s future.
For starters, this whole scenario feels unnervingly familiar. The Wolves catch wind of a gritty superstar who is suddenly up on the trade market – one who is in his prime, but with above-average wear-and-tear on his body and a reputation for having a strong yet volatile personality. Ringing any bells?
There’s no point in rehashing the outcome of the Jimmy Butler Ordeal; we all suffered it together. But it feels a little short-sighted and impulsive for there to be calls for the Wolves to aggressively pursue a deal like this when we’re less than a year removed from the worst of Butler’s wrath.
Even beyond the number of minutes Westbrook has already played (he had logged 2,500+ more than Butler when comparing their first eight seasons in the league), his game is incredibly demanding physically. And at the age of 30, with four knee surgeries under his belt, his game has likely reached its tipping point already. He’s still a blur up and down the court with unmatched explosiveness, but it’s not irrational to question whether he can maintain that level of intensity for even part of the four years remaining on his contract at this stage in his career.
His physicality notwithstanding, Westbrook has taken the style of play from a previous era to such an extreme that he is woefully behind where much of the modern NBA is today. He’s a 31 percent shooter from deep over the course of his career, with his two most recent seasons landing below the 30 percent mark. Consider that with the sudden decline in his free throw percentage (he shot just 66 percent from the line last season and 74 percent the season prior, compared to his career average of 80 percent) and you’ve got a formula that could get out of hand very quickly.
And in case you forgot, I invite you to watch his most recent minutes played on an NBA court, perhaps the worst stretch of possessions during his professional career:
He’s always been a strong finisher at the rim, but even his career field goal percentage is just 43 percent. Do we really want to pair such an inefficient and unreliable shooter next to Karl-Anthony Towns? Defenders are already blatant in how much they sag off of Westbrook when he’s beyond the arc. Pairing him with Towns is essentially begging teams to double KAT even more aggressively than they already are.
Speaking of Towns, he is essentially the reason why fans are clamoring for this trade to happen, which I absolutely understand. It’s not lost on me that the Wolves need to maximize their efforts in appeasing him while he’s healthy, young and under contract. But is this truly in his or the team’s best interest? I know how fun Westbrook is to watch, but can you imagine Towns allowing him to snatch up his rebounds just so he can stat-pad his third triple-double in a row?
Beyond that, I’m not even sold on them as a formidable pick-and-roll pairing. They could do some damage until teams start going under screens and diving with Towns to the basket. Westbrook can’t shoot long-range and Towns doesn’t have the ferocity that Steven Adams does when banging down low.
I understand that potentially moving Andrew Wiggins or Jeff Teague or Gorgui Dieng in this deal is beneficial for the Wolves in getting those contracts off our books, but look at what we get in return: what Zach Lowe recently called the second worst contract in the league, which amounts to $170 million over the next four years.
If the Wolves can get by simply trading Andrew Wiggins for Russell Westbrook, then, what the hell, maybe. But probably picks are going to be involved after looking at the load Oklahoma City recently brought in from the Clippers. And even if the Thunder aren’t sifting for picks, the potential for Westbrook’s contract to get significantly worse over time is pretty high, whereas there are plenty of poor teams in rebuild mode that have front offices dumb enough to bite on a deal for Wiggins when he inevitably reaches that brief stretch in the season where he’s suddenly shooting 45 percent from three and hustling with fervor (before regressing and slowing down to his lazy lope). Wiggins is only 24, after all – the Suns or Knicks are bound to bite eventually, if all else fails.
I may not be as low on Andrew Wiggins as most people, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t reckoned with the fact that his career thus far has been an outstanding disappointment. That doesn’t mean you throw him away out of spite. In fact, we should consider the fact that his career has been plagued with considerable change season after season in terms of the roster and coaching personnel. Maybe some continuity will do him and the rest of this Wolves team some good.
In one of his recent columns, Zach Lowe, writing about something else entirely, stopped to opine for the importance of continuity:
“Two years ago, a GM told me ‘continuity is the lost currency of the NBA.’ I liked that. There is a tendency as teams load up to assume those who stand pat have fallen behind. But basketball is a rhythm sport. Teams improve as players develop deeper familiarity with each other. Continuity can be a strength. It might grow more powerful amid crazy year-to-year turnover...At some point you have to stop fetishizing the transaction game and build an actual basketball team.”
Let’s think about that notion in the context of this Wolves franchise. Karl-Anthony Towns is 23 years old and is under contract for the next five years. That means Minnesota has at least a few years before they need to take any sort of trade request from him seriously, meaning they have some breathing room to thoughtfully construct the team surrounding him. The focus should be on building a roster that fits his timeline, not retrofitting that timeline to accommodate a former MVP who is already on the decline – that would be a backwards approach.
Does adding Russell Westbrook to this team win you the West next season? Or the following season? No? Then abort.
Making an impulsive move like this sacrifices continuity, chemistry and experience for this young Wolves core. And I actually like Russell Westbrook! I think his personality is great for the league and he’s fun as hell to watch live, but he demands too much attention and does not fit the timeline or vision surrounding Towns. Let’s take a step back and let this team grow.