The Utah Jazz traded for Russell Westbrook. Let's file that under sentences no NBA fan ever thought would be written.
Despite rumors of this trade being around for over a year, it still feels weird to say that Russell Westbrook is a member of the Utah Jazz. The Utah Jazz franchise, players, and especially the fans have had an antagonistic relationship with Westbrook for years. Most have assumed, and reputable NBA journalists have reported, that Westbrook would likely be bought out after being traded to Utah. That was until yesterday when Utah Jazz GM Justin Zanik made it clear that a buyout is not the only course they could take.
#UtahJazz GM Justin Zanik said Russell Westbrook has "been great" to talk with and that Westbrook has been complimentary of the Jazz. Could Westbrook play with the Jazz this season??? Here's what Zanik said about it all #TakeNote l @KSLSports pic.twitter.com/KVjnMExN9V— Sam Farnsworth (@Samsworth_KSL) February 11, 2023
For Westbrook, playing out the season for Utah makes sense, especially from a financial perspective. If he agreed to a buyout, Westbrook's future contracts would likely be veteran minimums and mid-level exceptions. If he plays out the season for Utah, he instead has bird rights that allow for more sign-and-trade options next season that would pay him better.
Adding Westbrook to the team would raise many questions from Utah's perspective. How good is Westbrook at this point in his career? Are the Jazz finally truly tanking? Could Westbrook mess that up?
How good is Russ?
Russell Westbrook may be one of the most historically difficult players to analyze. For years the NBA community has debated how effective he is and how much he helps his team win. Regardless of where you stand on this debate, Westbrook will go down in the history of the NBA as an all-time great. He’ll be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He is an MVP. A two-time scoring champ. A three-time assist champ. Nine-time All-Star. Nine-time All-NBA. He's the greatest rebounding guard in NBA history and the king of the triple-double.
At his peak, Russell Westbrook was carrying mediocre rosters to the playoffs year by year. He was one of the most ball-dominant players in league history, sporting the second-highest career usage percentage all-time, behind only Michael Jordan. Westbrook's 41.6% usage in his MVP season in 2016-17 is still a league record.
Everything went through him.
And his team was pretty good. They weren't contenders. They weren't at the top of the standings. But they were a solid playoff team. While many at the time took shots at Westbrook's inability to lead a team to true contention, what he did with that team was remarkable. They won 43 games that season with Steven Adams as the second-best player. Russell Westbrook proved then- and continued to demonstrate in coming years- that he could be the entire offense for his team and drag any roster to the playoffs.
With more talent added to his team, namely Paul George, Westbrook had to learn to share the ball. He dropped his usage to 34% but remained an effective offensive creator. Westbrook and George made a promising duo, as George could play well off-ball. Ultimately, that team still couldn't make it over the hump. A team built around Russell Westbrook looked to have a ceiling. Despite Paul George making a run at MVP, the Thunder couldn't break into elite team status. George then ditched OKC for Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers, and the Thunder decided to lean into a complete rebuild. Russ was traded to the Houston Rockets.
Over the next four three and a half seasons, Russell Westbrook has had to try to do something he hasn't had to do in a long time. He's had to play off-ball. The Rockets were home to one James Harden, the other historically high-usage MVP of the time. There were issues on the court. Westbrook is not a shooter, and Harden was very used to the D'Antoni system of a pick-and-roll surrounded by shooters. They had to adapt. They eventually found a balance that involved staggering Westbrook's minutes with Harden's so they'd each have time as the lead guy. They removed Clint Capela, the only other non-shooter in the rotation. This allowed Westbrook to be who he is; a high-volume creator. When they figured that out, Houston was scary.
The following season, Westbrook became a member of the Washington Wizards. Once again, Westbrook had to play off-ball as Bradley Beal's sidekick. Once again, the team had to learn that Russell Westbrook just can't be effective off-ball. Cue another trade, this time to the Los Angeles Lakers.
If you thought pairing Russell Westbrook with James Harden or Bradley Beal was a bad idea, try pairing him with LeBron James. The two essentially play the same role, but LeBron is better at it. He's LeBron. Once again, Russ was trying to make an impact as an off-ball role player. Unsurprisingly, that didn't work. Eventually, the Lakers had to resort to bringing Westbrook off the bench as a sixth man. They were able to find some success in unlocking his talents that way, but there was still a ceiling on that team. You can't pay Russell Westbrook MVP money and ask him to be a role player. Westbrook's strengths are as the lead ball handler and offensive hub for his team, and he couldn't be that on a team with LeBron James.
Westbrook has the option of playing for a young Utah Jazz team that just so happens not to have a true lead ball-handler. They have elite shooting in the forward positions. They have a team full of willing passers, strong cutters, and great spacing. They even have a screening, rebounding big man somewhat reminiscent of Russ's longest-term teammate Steven Adams. The situation is almost tailor-made for Russell Westbrook. Except for one problem; the Utah Jazz are tanking. Well, maybe they're tanking. Probably. It's complicated.
If the Jazz are indeed wanting to drop in the standings to improve their lottery odds, Russell Westbrook would be a detriment to that. While he is older and isn't the same player he was five years ago, he may still be able to push a team like this to a lot of wins if he's allowed to play to his strengths.
The upside for Utah could come in a couple of different ways. If Westbrook were to play well for the remainder of the season, he could improve his value around the league, making him a good sign-and-trade option that could give Utah assets in the offseason.
There may even be a scenario in which Westbrook plays well for the Jazz and becomes a veteran mentor for the young players throughout a rebuild. He could have value as a player most young players would respect. That said, this outcome feels unlikely. Westbrook will probably want to play for a contender in his remaining years, and Utah probably won't be at that level for at least a few more seasons. While the fit on the court right now may look good, the fit in the long-term roster plans doesn't line up.
To buyout or not to buyout
With all of that said, I think the option that makes the most sense for the Utah Jazz is to negotiate a buyout. That way, Westbrook can play for a contender this year and move on to wherever he thinks is best for his future. The Jazz can continue rebuilding and maybe even drop in the standings a bit. What do you say?
What should the Jazz do with Westbrook?
This poll is closed
Let Russ cook
Whatever happens, we’ll always remember this as the extremely weird time in which Russell Westbrook was a member of the Utah Jazz.