Detroit — It doesn’t make sense financially, although half the moves in the NBA don’t make sense financially. For the Pistons, it makes sense competitively, to double down and ante up.
Superstar Russell Westbrook is available in trade and the Pistons would be foolish not to make a bid. Does the 30-year-old Oklahoma City guard fit the stated plan or the current roster? Not really, although near as we can tell, the plan is a fluid mix of long-term and short-term goals. So why should the Pistons go for it? Because plans change as circumstances change, if the price is right.
They rarely get a shot at a player like Westbrook, and they're one of the few teams with the pieces to make a deal work. The Pistons reportedly are in a group with the Heat, Knicks, Timberwolves and Rockets that has expressed interest. Miami probably is the most attractive spot, but the Heat just made their big gamble by landing Jimmy Butler.
Any team considering Westbrook will have to weigh the cost, and not just the $170 million left on his contract. There’s the cost of assets surrendered, and if the Thunder demand too much — such as multiple first-round picks — the Pistons should walk away.
This is a complicated situation, and teams are understandably leery. But if the Pistons think it’s too risky to acquire Westbrook, then they shouldn’t have acquired Blake Griffin two years ago. This isn’t just about making a bold splash — although owner Tom Gores would love that aspect — it’s about maximizing investments, and striking when a fascinating opportunity presents itself.
If the Pistons aren’t going to significantly alter their roster to become better than an eight seed, they’re wasting Griffin, 30, and wasting time. Instead of squandering his late-career revival, either trade him — problematic because of his salary — or upgrade the talent around him. With Westbrook, the Pistons at the very least become the most-interesting team in Detroit, and could contend for a top-four spot in a weakened Eastern Conference.
Pieces to get it done
Westbrook was the league’s MVP in 2017 and has averaged a triple-double in points, rebounds and assists three consecutive seasons, historic levels of production. Although his numbers declined last season, he’s durable — missing a total of 14 games the past four seasons — and fiercely competitive, arguably still a top-10 player. He’s not a great shooter and will commit turnovers, but he’s a dynamic scorer and an underappreciated facilitator.
For Pistons senior adviser Ed Stefanski to pull it off, it’d probably take a package like this: Reggie Jackson (expiring contract at $18 million), Langston Galloway (expiring contract at $7 million), Tony Snell ($11 million, two years), and perhaps Kennard, or freshly drafted Sekou Doumbouya, or a No. 1 pick. It’s doubtful the Thunder would take Andre Drummond ($27 million plus an option year) because they’re committed to center Steven Adams.
Again, it comes down to the cost, and this is what Stefanski and the Pistons need to hammer hard — they have leverage here. When the music stopped on the NBA’s wild superstar carousel, with Paul George forcing his way out of Oklahoma City to join Kawhi Leonard with the Clippers, Westbrook was the last star without a seat. In the loaded West, the Thunder no longer are contenders, and while Westbrook was a cherished figure in 11 seasons there, their main motivation now is to unburden themselves of his contract and lighten their luxury-tax bill.
I doubt teams will get into a bidding war for such an expensive gamble, and Westbrook’s gigantic salary actually should reduce the price to get him. If the Thunder ask for Kennard and a No. 1 in addition to the veterans, the Pistons should hold out. Oklahoma City GM Sam Presti already has acquired a staggering six first-round picks, and needs expiring contracts to clear cap space.
Most teams would be petrified to commit so much money over the next four years — in the final season, Westbrook has a player option for $47 million — and there are ample reasons to be nervous. But it has to sting Gores that his Griffin gambit hasn’t produced more than one playoff sweep, with three years and $110 million left on the contract. And it has to be painful to remain patient, in his eighth year of ownership, while the Pistons wait for project picks like Doumbouya and Deividas Sirvydis to develop.
The Pistons played it safe in the draft and got decent long-term value. They also picked up an intriguing former star in Derrick Rose and capable veterans in Snell and Markieff Morris. With another year under Dwane Casey, and another (hopefully) healthy year from Griffin, they could stay the course and perhaps sneak into the playoffs again. Clearly, they’re not interested in a full rebuild, and Stefanski sounded flexible before the draft.
“If we can get a guy who moves the needle to us being top four in the East, Tom (Gores) will pay the (luxury) tax,” Stefanski said. “We have an idea, but you’d better be fluid because it changes all the time.”
You don’t make moves just to sell tickets, and the Pistons should know that by now. The Griffin acquisition didn’t stir the masses at Little Caesars Arena because in a lineup with Drummond and Jackson, the flaws and limitations were obvious.
Plenty of upside
Westbrook is a different beast, a needle-mover for sure. He can alternately be a protagonist and an antagonist, and he famously feuded with Kevin Durant after Durant left Oklahoma City. He’s never been a proficient 3-point shooter (31 percent in his career) but he’s one of the all-time great two-way bulldogs, attacking the basket like few guards ever have.
Yes, Westbrook dominates the ball, but he also creates for others. He’s led the league in assists the past two seasons, after leading in scoring (31.6) in 2017. As much as Griffin needs the ball, he could use some lighten-the-load management, and theoretically, Westbrook could revive Drummond’s pick-and-roll game.
The upside to a deal would be felt immediately, and the downside would be felt in a couple years. But in case you haven’t noticed, the NBA is in the midst of massive change, with Anthony Davis joining LeBron James with the Lakers, Kemba Walker leaping from Charlotte to Boston, and Durant and Kyrie Irving landing with the Nets. You can draft and nurture young guys, but if they become stars, they don’t often stay. Windows for contention are narrower, with more and more “super teams.”
The Pistons remain stuck in the middle, the most difficult position. They can shed all the salary they want and build for the future, but when has a premier free-agent ever opted to come here? Never. You risk waiting years for cap space flexibility you may never get to properly use.
The way you get stars to markets far from the sun and beaches is by trading for them, in essence, kidnapping them. That’s what Toronto did with Leonard, grabbed him for one year and won a championship. Left to their own freedoms, stars want to play with stars.
This is a test of Gores’ competitiveness, of Stefanski’s shrewdness, and one more thing — of Griffin’s status. He has the unselfish, passionate game and agreeable demeanor that would seem to attract others. This would be a great chance for him to expand his leadership by courting a volatile star like Westbrook.
Maybe it’s a longshot and the Thunder end up appeasing Westbrook and sending him to Miami or some other preferred destination. But it’s worth a shot. As always in the NBA, it’s fine to stick with a plan, unless a better one suddenly becomes available.