Last evening, it was reported that Rockets guard and former MVP Russell Westbrook “wants out” of Houston, per The Athletic’s Shams Charania. Soon after the initial report, there was a tweet from an NBA reporter that listed the Hornets, among many other teams, as a potential suitor for a Westbrook trade.
It did not take long for the rumors to ramp up. This is the tweet/video that set Hornets Twitter on fire this morning;
Shortly after the Shams Bomb, Yahoo! Sports and CelticsBlog’s Keith Smith tweeted out what he’s been hearing from his sources in Charlotte’s front office;
I'm told there is a bit of divide in Charlotte on Russell Westbrook. Some see him, with a few other additions, as enough to get the Hornets into playoff contention again the East. Others see the best path forward to keep a clean cap sheet after this season. https://t.co/D68bAIUpIq— Keith Smith (@KeithSmithNBA) November 12, 2020
First off, it would be a monumentally stupid decision to trade for a 32-year-old ball-dominant guard with $132M remaining on his contract one year before the Hornets finally have a clean cap sheet and a substantial amount of young talent and assets, and I think most people here will feel similarly. This type of move is exactly what kept the team as a perennial eight-seed during the Kemba Walker years; acquiring high-priced veterans that don’t move the needle short-term and ham string your salary cap long-term.
Now, what would a trade for Westbrook even look like? Mitch Kupchak is a smart guy, so it can be presumed he’s treating Westbrook and his contract as a negative asset, meaning the Rockets will have to pay to get rid of him rather than receive valuable assets in return. The only problem with that; Houston owns just two first-round picks between the 2020 and 2027 drafts and has zero young assets on their roster. Essentially, the Rockets can offer Westbrook and those two picks in exchange for expiring contracts. That’s just not enough compensation for the Hornets to go $132M in the hole and force Devonte’ Graham, PJ Washington and Miles Bridges to take a collective backseat as they began to show promise and embraced being the faces of the franchise.
Since it’s become clear that the franchise had shifted to a rebuilding/culture-establishment approach to team-building, both on the court and off, the thing that would explain a sudden change in direction within the organization to acquire a player like Westbrook is a push from the higher-ups to start contending for the playoffs again — and we can’t put that past Michael Jordan. It took a long time to convince him to tear it down a rebuild. It isn’t implausible that he got fed up with losing — and the negatives that come with it, like playing one national TV game last season and being fourth-to-last in attendance — and wants to use this offseason where they have cap space and a top-three pick to bolster the roster for playoff contention.
I have just one thought about that; MJ is a gazillionaire, and this team has made it past the first round FOUR TIMES since its inception in 1988. Using one rebuilding year where they finished 10th in the East while finally getting a sense of direction and some exciting young players to build around as an excuse to haphazardly piece together a fringe playoff team is an absolute crock. Let your decision-makers call the shots instead of ruining the prime years for yet another talented point guard, missing the playoffs the next two years is worth it if the team collects players that keep them in the hunt to compete for a championship — not just a playoff birth — from 2022 to 2028. I sense the “divide” mentioned in Smith’s report would be between Kupchak and his scouts/executives and Jordan’s ownership group, which makes sense given the interviews Kupchak has given over the team’s layoff.
The most likely scenario, though, is that Kupchak is running a clinic on how to employ a pre-draft smokescreen. Trading for Westbrook would go against everything the Hornets have done since Kemba left, and since Kupchak is not Rich Cho, it’s safe to assume he isn’t going to pull anything out of left field. This rumor could be used to drum up interest in Westbrook from other teams that are closer to contending, aka teams Westbrook could actually help. Charlotte has plenty of cap space to be used as a third team in any big trade for a star when the team acquiring him doesn’t have ample cap space. Since the Rockets have few draft picks to offer in exchange for Westbrook’s contract, perhaps Westbrook could be routed to another team that does have draft capital, and that team can send some of it’s outgoing salary to the Hornets in exchange for a pick(s). Charlotte has been making it known that they are willing to be used as a salary-dump destination in exchange for assets.
The Charlotte Hornets have let it be known that they are willing to take on bad contracts from other teams, if they can pick up draft picks and/or young talent.— Keith Smith (@KeithSmithNBA) November 12, 2020
The Detroit Pistons have toyed with the same idea. The New York Knicks seem less inclined at the moment.
As is the case with the Hornets draft preferences seemingly changing by the day, this rumor could just be an example of Kupchak mastering the smokescreen. These are not the Hornets of old, and until given substantial evidence to the contrary I refuse to believe that they are considering doing dumb things. No NBA media members seemed to have sources deep within the Hornets organization prior to this, so why should we assume the rumors are true now?