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Whither Russell Westbrook?

The Thunder’s divisive star might be the next to move on from Oklahoma City.

Portland Trail Blazers v Oklahoma City Thunder - Game Three Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

We knew Kawhi Leonard’s decision in NBA free agency would change the fate of multiple teams. We never expected one of those teams to be the Oklahoma City Thunder. But here we are, with Kawhi — the most reclusive, solitary NBA star in the league — recruiting Paul George so effectively he requested a trade from the Thunder one year after committing to a 4-year deal with OKC after taking no meetings with any other franchise.

Now a report from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski indicates that the Thunder and their last star remaining, Russell Westbrook, the man who convinced George to stick around a year ago before an ultimately disappointing 2018-19 season, are looking at exit strategies.

Westbrook is due $170 million over the next four years, he’s 30 years old, and his reputation is extremely divisive. On one hand, smart analysts like ESPN’s Zach Lowe consider his contract an albatross based on the massive size (approaching $50 million on the back end) and the cracks in Westbrook’s game that only deepening with age. Athletic volume scorers with bad and worsening shooting numbers don’t usually age well. Most analysts probably agree that the deal is an anchor, not an asset. Certainly plenty of fans outside Oklahoma do.

But then there’s this other side of Westbrook’s reputation. The side that has him making five straight All-NBA teams and eight of the last nine. The side that had him finishing in the top five in NBA MVP voting four straight years until last season. Even ignoring the contract, you’d probably have trouble getting half of the most prominent NBA analysts to agree Westbrook is a top-20 player despite him being named as a top-10 or top-15 player via All-NBA balloting by the media five straight seasons. Opinions on Russ are all over the place.

The contract narrows the range of opinions — that’s a lot of money for a player who did have an especially poor shooting season. More importantly for Westbrook’s reputation, the league has continued to prioritize shooting over everything. We saw it with the Rockets and Warriors, and the twin ascendance of the Splash Brothers and James Harden. We saw it with the Raptors. We see it with the new Nets.

Westbrook is really out of vogue. And that does matter, because whatever team trades for him in the next few days or the few years will need to sell the acquisition to their fans. If the entire basketball world’s view of Westbrook goes sour, as it threatens to do now that George has fled and now that the Thunder haven’t won a playoff series without Kevin Durant, it makes it that much harder for Westbrook to get a fresh start.

It only takes one team, and Thunder GM Sam Presti has proven adept at making enormous trades when you least expect it. There are a few teams out there who could convince themselves trading minimal assets for an 8-time All-NBA guard, a one-time MVP who — love him or not — electrifies the court when he laces up is worth the downside risk in a few years. The Thunder haven’t missed the playoffs, even in the tough West, since Durant left. Granted, two of those three years featured Paul George. But for an Eastern Conference team looking for a spicy injection to get them over the hump at the cost of future cap space, Westbrook could be an attractive option.

Presti has more work to do if he intends to rebuild around Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and the bevy of picks the Clippers traded for George. Steven Adams has a tough but shorter contract. Many thought OKC’s big move this summer would be to trade Adams to a team that struck out in free agency to cut a massive luxury tax bill. But all that cap space dried up pretty quickly as deals got leaked fast and furious. Most of the obvious candidates to absorb Adams’ deal disappeared.

Danilo Gallinari, picked up to make salaries fit in the George deal, expires this summer, and trying to trade him sooner will face similar issues as for Adams despite the shorter, cheaper commitment and Gallinari’s ability to score at a high rate. If the Thunder can move off Westbrook with some immediate tax savings, keeping Gallo to keep the team marginally credible might not be a bad idea. We just watched a team whose top scorer was Gallinari make the playoffs in the West, after all (though the Clippers were much deeper and more well-rounded than these Thunder).

Dennis Schroder is young enough and his deal isn’t that bad. Jerami Grant is an asset at under $10 million a season. Andre Roberson’s contract expires next summer. There’s not a whole lot else to do in a rebuild. The big project is Westbrook.

Whatever happens now, Westbrook will go down as a legend in Oklahoma City, even though he never brought a championship to town. He stuck with OKC when other stars did not, and he’ll be remembered as a favorite son because of it. But active appreciation might have to turn into fond nostalgia soon before the national mood on Westbrook goes all of the way out.