With Oklahoma City reportedly receptive to trade inquiries on eight-time All-Star Russell Westbrook, Miami has conveyed interest, according to multiple league sources.
His elite skills and relentless competitiveness fit what the Heat wants in a player, as one person who has spoken to the Heat said.
And a Westbrook-Heat pairing has elicited considerable reaction from NBA analysts in the past two days, with two former All-Stars viewing the Heat as a legitimate Eastern Conference contender if Miami can land Westbrook and pair him with Jimmy Butler without giving up too much in return.
“They would be a contender,” ESPN analyst Chauncey Billups said. “If he goes there, some other players have to leave. ... You’ve got to have depth. ... [But] the tenacity of those two guys, the heart, the will, and effort of those two guys, Jimmy and Russ being able to play [together], I feel they will have a chance every single night.
“Jimmy is not a guy that needs the ball every play for 24 seconds. So I think he and Russell could possibly co-exist. When you have another goon besides you, you feel good going in every night. I still think Russell has a good future in the league, averaging a triple double.
“The only issue I ever have with Russell is he has just one gear. There are times during the game, particularly at the end, he needs to take it down a notch, slow down, and make the proper plays. His greatest strength is also his greatest weakness. You have to deal with that when you have great players.”
ESPN’s Paul Pierce sees it this way if the Heat lands Westbrook: “In the Eastern Conference, they’ll be a contender. But think about this: Russ has played with [Kevin Durant], [James] Harden, Paul George. I’m not taking anything away from Jimmy Butler, but he’s not as talented as those guys. But because you’re in the Eastern Conference. you have a chance. Say there’s an injury here or there to Milwaukee, I think the door is wide open.”
ESPN’s Amin Elhassan, the former Suns’ front office executive, said Westbrook — who has averaged a triple double each of the past three seasons — is still worth the $171 million remaining on his contract over the next four seasons.
“I talked to him, and I think I see him in a Miami Heat jersey,” said his former Thunder teammate, ESPN commentator Kendrick Perkins. “That’s where I think he fits best.”
Former All-Star Vince Carter, doing work for NBA TV this summer, said of a Butler-Westbrook pairing: “I’m sure those guys could make it work. Two guys who are strong personalities but great players. It’s possible [Westbrook] can keep his athleticism [for several more years]. He’ll put the work in.”
Former NBA center Brendan Haywood, now an NBA TV analyst, said “Miami would be the best fit. [But] he might have to acknowledge he has to make some changes in his game.”
ESPN’s Zach Lowe is far less convinced about the potential of a Westbrook-Butler pairing in Miami.
“I do not think they would be a contender in the East with Russ and Jimmy,” he said. “I think they’re a tier below. I don’t like how they mesh. There’s not enough shooting with Russ and Jimmy. They would be a tough out every night, but I don’t think they can win the East. That’s a huge amount of money for a guy who’s already trending the wrong way and has not developed a jump shot. When you start to lose the athleticism, the jump shot is what saves you. I’m not sure he has it.”
So is Westbrook really diminished from the player who won MVP in 2017?
The erosion in three-point shooting is a concern, especially for a player who likes to pull up and take so many of them (411 of them last season, with 119 makes). He was never a great three-pointer shooter (30.8 career), but he has dipped from 34.8 percent during his MVP season to 29.0 last season, his worst since 2009-10.
He boosted his field-goal percentage to 45.4 three years ago but was back down to 42.8 last season. So that’s a concern.
His scoring average dropped to 31.6 his MVP season to 22.9 last season, but that isn’t as big a concern as the efficiency. He still commits turnovers in high volumes (4.5 last season). And he’s a 30-year-old who relies on athleticism, albeit a player who has been highly durable.
Nevertheless, he’s still one of the best players in the league and has done something largely unheard of — averaging triple doubles each of the past three years. What’s more, his 11.1 rebound average and 10.7 assist average last season were career highs.
“He’s incredibly productive and he’s healthy,” Elhassan said. “And he’s good. He’s played 314 of 324 games the last four seasons, averaging over 34 minutes per game.”
The Athletic reported Monday that OKC is now receptive to taking trade calls on Westbrook. But one element that Miami cannot offer OKC is immediate cap and tax relief. But that might be less of an issue, because the Thunder is only $2 million over the tax threshold after trading Jerami Grant to Denver on Monday.
But because the Heat is hard-capped at $138.9 million for the next year — as a result of the Butler sign-and-trade — and because Miami will be only about $1 million under the hard cap after eventually signing Tyler Herro, the Heat must send OKC contracts at least equal in value to Westbrook’s $38.1 million next season.
One way to avoid this is to include a third team. But no team has the money to absorb a significant Heat contract into cap space. Dallas would have been a potential option as a facilitator before the Mavericks traded for Delon Wright on Sunday.