“Trading for Russ? Bro, you mad?”
Apt reaction to a crazy thought from a madman, isn’t it? Not as I see it. We’re about to pass the trade deadline and, judging by how things have looked during the past few hours I’m leaning more and more toward the feeling that this front office, this franchise, this team, will stay quiet and remain the same. Better to err on the disappointing side of things than dream big when this is most definitively not under my control.
The Knicks are sitting 12th in the Eastern Conference. They are just 2.5 games down from the 10th spot, currently in possession of Atlanta, and only have the now-Beal-less Wizards ahead of them in the 11th place. There is a chance, slim as it is, New York makes the play-in tournament. I don’t want to get past that in terms of expectations, but a couple of lucky bounces might end with the Knicks making it all the way to the postseason. Just imagine!
But let’s be honest for a second here. Do the Knicks really need or even want to make this year’s playoffs? Are we sure the franchise is in a position in which making it there is better than missing out, landing a lottery pick, and improving from there?
And that would lead to the very reasonable question of what the hell this whole Russ trade-chitchat is about? Well, it is precisely about walking the Youth Route, about rebuilding, about finding opportunities, and about fostering the development of the up-and-coming kids already in the team. As stupid as that sounds.
New York is at a breaking point 55 games into the regular season, right on the day in which the trade deadline will become a thing of the past and making it to the Association history books. Ponying up a good chunk of cash this past offseason on vets like Evan Fournier, Alec Burks, Nerlens Noel, and Kemba Walker didn’t sound that bad coming off a surprisingly nice run in 2021. Julius Randle blossomed into a bona fide star and duly earned the praise he got. RJ Barrett didn’t turn into a premature All-Star, but he stayed on an ascendant path. The addition of Derrick Rose, against all odds, was phenomenal. Immanuel Quickley popped out of the left field. Etcetera, etcetera... Then, this season happened. The team kicked off the year nicely but ultimately, it flopped. The franchise is now facing a make-or-miss day on this very Thursday after a seriously concerning run of bad results due to regression, aided by false hopes, and exacerbated by delusory expectations.
The consensus opinion on where to go from here after gauging the fandom temperature at different places—you don’t have to go far to get the pulse of those feelings—seems to be a loud and clear one: ditch the vets, open playing minutes to run with the youngsters, kind of start over, see what happens, stay patient, and grow from a low point taking advantage of the foundation of our Future Knickerbockers being already in town. So, how the hell does trading for Russ help in achieving that? Let me explain.
Making the case for a Russell Westbrook trade
If you have checked your Twitter timeline, logged into Reddit, or just scrolled down the comment section here at P&T, you already know the name has popped up in conversations through the past few days and hours. Russell Westbrook has, at the very least, been considered as a potential target in trade talks regarding New York and, more than anything, a limping Lakers squad hurting for help.
I’m not here to turn this into a boring write-up about what trading Russ away/trading for NYK veterans would mean for the Lakers. As a Knicks fan, I don’t care about what happens with the other side of the deal once the trigger is pulled, and shouldn’t the Knicks do either. As long as you think a transaction benefits you, your process, and your working logic, then whatever the other franchise does with whatever assets they get in return is up to them and them alone. Flip the page, move on, and focus on the stuff you were able to receive.
To wit, here’s my framework of a potential all-chips-in deal between New York and Los Angeles.
Don’t jump to rushed conclusions, folks. I know that the left side of the pic is packed full of not-so-appealing names but bear with me for a minute. I’m going to try and make things easier to digest by putting together my thought process in a series of bullet points up next.
- This is, obviously, a last-resort move trying to solve all of the veteran-linked troubles in one single swap. All of Kemba, Burks, Noel, and Fournier can be dealt to different teams with different needs for different results, but this deal might offer something the Knicks wouldn’t get from making multiple deals: a fully-blank slate from which the franchise could build from without heavy long-term restrictions and ties. And hey, it’s not that we’re away from hitting zeros on the clock, but rather mere hours from getting past the deadline. In other words, we’re running out of time.
- Let’s address the elephant in the room first: Russell Westbrook is bad. How bad? Bad for a contending team such as the Lakers think they are (whether they are or not, I’d leave it to the people from LA to decide; that’s not our business). Not that bad for a team that would be opening the whole lineup for their young players to get more minutes and larger runs on a nightly basis. Russ is a leader. Russ doesn’t know how not to win—or attempt to, at a minimum. That said: Veni, Vidi, Vici... but ultimately, Caput.
- Russ + RJ + Randle as the 2022 and 2023 core. Using this trio for the remainder of the season shouldn’t help the team make a preposterous, ill-fated run toward the playoffs, for much that Thibs would love to while getting bald trying to accomplish the miraculous feat. There would be tons of youngsters involved on a nightly basis, and they’d supposedly go through some growing pains. Can’t call it a full tank job, but the talent level would limit and probably drop the team further down the standings than help climb them—which, at the end of the day, the front office should be happy about and embrace. Speaking of that 2023 season: Russ’ deal would be over by July of 2023, which means Russ could be moved in another trade, or just bought the hell out of NYC as soon as we hit February/March of next season with no costs attached. Win-win.
- Adding Westbrook would clog the cap, which is good! It would limit the Knicks brass to make any heavy transaction today or this next offseason, at least on a broader and very simplistic sense of things. If the FO is really looking to force Coach Thibs into playing the franchise’s prospects (why trade a first-round pick for Cam Reddish if that’s not the goal?) and Coach Thibs is so stubborn not to do so that the FO is cornered into sending the vets packing as a last-resort move, so be it. Not having room for other moves and not having veterans in the roster would turn into playing young guys. As simple as that. Also, no room for short-sighted moves at all should benefit the team in the long run, as we all can agree this current iteration, as presently build and with the assets in place as I’m writing this, has no chance of getting even remotely close to snatching the Larry O’B in the next few years, if ever.
- DeAndre Jordan and Kent Bazemore are on expiring deals, could be instantly bought out. No need to keep any of those guys, as they’re just fillers to make the deal work. They are both on deals expiring this offseason, so there is no problem cutting them to keep those freed minutes available for the kids to take. Worst-case scenario, they remain in the roster just in case a warm body is needed, but that’s it.
- Los Angeles should be willing to throw the 2027 first-rounder into such a deal. They wouldn’t want at first, because nobody is willing to part ways with such an asset—even more when the Lakers currently have no single-player inked past 2025—but the whispers say they should end budging. Toronto is reportedly willing to attach a first-round pick to Goran Dragic (another expiring worth checking by the Knicks FO if no other options are available) to land a proper, playable, floor-raising player (such as, say, Evan Fournier). Los Angeles should thank whoever takes Russ, gives them the chance of adding some viable options, and not see adding that pick to the deal as something objectionable. But we all know that Lakers Exceptionalism is a very real thing, so who knows.
- The state of the rotation after the trade would align with the best developmental path going forward. We’re looking at a potential Russ-Barrett-Grimes/Reddish-Randle-Mitch starting lineup backed up by McBride/Rose-Quickley-Toppin/Gibson-Sims. Call me crazy but that looks like a solid couple of units for a mostly young team. There would be plenty of time to get an idea of what sticks and what does not after a season and a half of playing together. And of course, the main building blocks in RJ and JR would stay put, not turning this into a full-blown rebuilding effort.
- The deal would shed light on a very clear road to follow. Given what we know from past trades (namely the one involving Cam Reddish) and assuming this deal gets done, it’d very clear for everybody to understand under which guidelines the FO would be operating: some soft-rebuilding/strong-retooling job around the cornerstones of the team in RJ and JR. I’d think making this transaction would mean they have learned from last offseason’s errors when it comes to inking veterans to long-term deals and therefore they wouldn’t do anything similarly unproductive this summer. Not saying the franchise can’t/won’t add this or that player—I’d chase a solid, established PG for when Russ/Rose are gone later—but I wouldn’t go on any crazy spending spree this soon. Aim at drafting the best guy available that fits the roster (putting a premium on landing a point guard above all other options because of the glaring need for a floor commander with upside that aligns with this team’s timeline) and handing Mitchell Robinson his long-awaited extension—within reasonable limits, as long as Mitch doesn’t get too ambitious with his request.
Can any of this actually happen, and most importantly... would it work?
I’d answer no to the former, yes to the latter.
First, there is the obvious “we won’t publicly accept we royally screwed it all up” narrative going for both sides. The Lakers added Westbrook to the team this past summer trading three-quarters of their rotation away even though there was a very clear and consensus opinion about how that would never work for the Lake Show. Alas. The Knicks inked a bunch of vets hoping to double-down on their 2021 results and postseason run, and who’s to blame them for the unpredictable regression of Randle. At the end of the day, though, it turned out the FO was fantasizing more than a bit.
Will Los Angeles accept defeat and concede they made the wrong move, trading Russ away just half a season after all of the fireworks they lit on fire in celebration this fall? I don’t believe so. Will the Knicks FO go ahead and force Tommy Thibsy into playing young prospects and building from the ground up instead of relying on underperforming vets, after the massive spending they went for seven months ago? Hardly.
Prediction: this probably won’t happen even if it makes sense for both sides on different levels. Stubborn businessmen are stubborn and confronting opinions stings.
Second, as I already laid out above, I’m positive this transaction would ultimately work for the New York Knicks all things considered. Adding Westbrook might or might not improve the overall results; remember, Russ—along with Bradley Beal—carried the Wizards to the postseason just last year, which was absolutely nutty looking at that squad. Russ knows no limits when it comes to competitiveness, and he’ll stay fully wired into winning from the minute he steps into MSG. It’s as simple as that with Brodie. Sometimes we will have fun watching Russ going at the rim and dunking on foes’ foreheads, sometimes we will get mad at Russ after he shoots a rock that ends up hitting the side of the backboard. Cold world, can’t have it all. The Knicks will get some Ws, the Knicks will get some Ls, but I’d bet on a lottery finish anyway. And that is, at least to me, what this franchise should be aiming for in this particular moment of the Knicks trajectory.
Verdict: don’t overthink it, don’t get shy, navigate the trolling haters dreaming of utopian acquisitions and trade for a very palatable asset in Russell Westbrook. Enjoy Brodie, ride the wave for a year, thank him next February, and kick him out of MSG in time for a reload through the summer of 2023 and beyond.
Future’s bright and New York just has to crack a promising crevice for the light to shine through. Let’s get it rolling.