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NBA Free Agency Notebook: Russell Westbrook Trade Destinations, Christian Wood’s Growing Value, More

Credit:

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: Russell Westbrook #0 of the Houston Rockets.

Let’s take a moment to look around the league at what is becoming a rapidly insane offseason. We know from multiple reports that NBA free agency will begin next week on Nov. 20 at 6 p.m. and that the salary cap will remain the same as last season’s figure ($109.1M).

As teams line up for moves before next week’s draft and with free agency on the horizon, rumors of trades and potential signings have been flying all over social media. Let’s address some of the more interesting ones.

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Russell Up the Rumors

That splashing sound you hear is Mike D’Antoni and Daryl Morey rowing rapidly away from the sinking ship of the Rockets.

After Mike D’Antoni left, the organization’s line was that Morey wasn’t going anywhere, and that they were still competing for a title. After Morey left, the organization’s line was that they weren’t blowing the team up and were still competing for a title.

Then on Wednesday, Shams Charania first reported that Russell Westbrook has asked out.

James Harden reportedly wants to stay, and Kelly Iko and Sam Amick reported on the long-standing culture issues in Houston that led to Westbrook’s decision. Westbrook reportedly wants to go somewhere he can be the type of tone-setter he was in OKC, essentially, the rock of the organization.

Two executives with recent talks with Houston were caught off guard by the news. “Last few weeks, the word was that they were all in, and no one was on the table, literally no one in the rotation,” one executive said.

So it’s fair to say there’s a level of disarray internally.

Westbrook’s contract is enormous. He’s owed $41 million this season and $44 million next season. Just to send out enough money you have to either gut your team or trade a big contract which presumably belongs to a good player.

League sources polled in the aftermath of the Westbrook bombshell expressed skepticism towards a robust market for the aging superstar. Still, a short list of suitors is lining up.

Let’s start with the Charlotte Hornets. There are a number of angles here that make sense for the Hornets to be the team that bites the bullet on Westbrook’s contract.

For starters, Charlotte’s general manager, Mitch Kupchak, was the longtime Los Angeles Lakers GM. With Westbrook hailing from LA and having played at UCLA, there are connections there. More broadly, however, Kupchak as an old school GM is likely to be more receptive to the opportunity to add a star and resist concerns related to Westbrook’s contract hit and analytics disappointments.

Charlotte, quite literally, cannot do better; their draft pick in this year’s underwhelming draft is third and unlikely to garner a better player than Westbrook, even at this point. They need a foundational star to help set a tone, which is exactly what Westbrook reportedly wants.

The Hornets have just $32 million on the books for next season, which seems like a good thing, to have a clean cap sheet and flexibility, especially with the cap going down.

However, it also means the Hornets will have to provide multi-year deals with the standard bump that small markets like Charlotte have to give players. “Yes,” you reply, “but isn’t that still preferable to paying Westbrook $132 million over the next three seasons (including his $47 million player option for 2022-23?

Honestly, probably not. Westbrook still had long stretches this season where he was a phenomenal player. He’s flawed, limited, and stubborn. But you can build a high-floor team around him with a pick-and-roll finisher (like PJ Washington) and shooting, which he never had around him in OKC.

Westbrook won’t make the Hornets a title contender, but that’s kind of the point; he’s better at establishing a team’s floor than opening their ceiling.

Other teams believed to have interest include the Knicks, Suns, and Magic for similar reasons. There’s no telling what the Rockets’ timeline is, or what the fallout will be from Iko’s report that outlines a number of players unhappy with how last season went.


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Christian Wood, Hot Commodity 

Wood, somewhat surprisingly, has emerged as the name most often floated as a free agency target. A journeyman who bounced around from team to team and had a stint in the G-League, Wood has showed flashes as a rim runner for years.

He took a leap last season with the Detroit Pistons once they shifted to all young players. He averaged 22 points and 11 rebounds per 36 minutes, shooting 57% from the field, and most notably, 39% on 3-pointers.

Wood has from a good rim runner to a great one. Watch him jet on this sequence and how fast he covers ground.

But Wood has added levels to his game.

Here on the catch, he counters to the baseline and finishes. Not all bigs can do this:

Wood didn’t shoot well from 3 off the dribble, but he’s got the capability to do it, which I never saw coming:

And he can find space to spot-up when traditional bigs hang back on him, like he did here:

Wood had the second-best on-court Net Rating of any player in the rotation for the Pistons last season (a low bar, but still impressive).

Notably, the Pistons were better defensively with him on-court than off, and Synergy Sports ranked him in the 73rd percentile in individual defense, including allowing just 41.5% shooting at the rim. Some of those numbers overestimate his defensive impact, but he’s not a zero on that end.

Watch this two-way sequence that caught my eye:

League sources believe several teams have circled Wood in free agency, including Charlotte. Pairing Westbrook after a trade with Wood would give him a pick-and-roll partner like Westbrook had in OKC, only with more spacing.

There’s talk of the Boston Celtics possibly making a move for Wood as well. The Celtics were limited in the playoffs because of their lack of impact in the frontcourt. Daniel Theis played well but lacks Wood’s versatility as a pick-and-roll partner.

Detroit has openly made it known they’re looking to take on contracts in exchange for picks and assets, but league sources maintain that doesn’t mean the Pistons won’t re-sign Wood, either.

In a truncated market, Wood looks to land a major payday.

More News Around the League

  • The Atlanta Hawks are looking to potentially trade the No. 6 pick in next week’s draft for a ready-made player with the hope of competing next season.
  • The Phoenix Suns have eyes on Fred VanVleet in free agency (or did until Westbrook came on the market). The Suns are another team that’s been linked to Westbrook talks. If Westbrook goes elsewhere, expect the Suns to try and outbid the Raptors for FVV, if they can clear cap space. That might mean Kelly Oubre is gettable on the trade market.
  • The Nets are looking to re-sign Joe Harris, but if Harris is looking for a change in scenery, the Hornets, Magic, Bulls and Nuggets are among the teams expected to have interest.
  • Nothing is off the table for the Milwaukee Bucks after another disappointing playoff exit. They have aggressively pursued wing upgrades in the past few weeks, they are not looking to just run it back.
  • The same can be said of the Celtics, who have offered combinations of their multiple picks and their veteran stars. The Ringer reported their interest in Jrue Holiday on Thursday, and separately suggested Kemba Walker might be available.
  • League executives are bracing for a confusing draft night given how much trade noise there has been. Nearly every team in the top 10 is believed to have made their pick available in trade talks, and every team with a pick after has researched moving up. This is standard but the density of the noise is greater this year. It’s not believed to be a good draft class, so of course, teams are talking themselves into this being a market inefficiency moment of opportunity.
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