SALT LAKE CITY — Russell Westbrook is not a man who forgets. His personality, as detailed by Sam Anderson in The New York Times Magazine, is obsessive. Whether it’s proving his doubters wrong by averaging a triple-double or reminding kid after kid at a community outreach function to tie their shoes, Westbrook is compulsive. And dominating, both in play and personality. He craves control. And so it's unlikely the Oklahoma City Thunder All-Star and former NBA MVP, who is now in the midst of trade speculation, would want to come play in a place where that control has mostly escaped him.
It started in the 2018 playoffs at Vivint Arena. A Jazz fan, video shows, called Westbrook “boy.” And this March, Westbrook was caught on camera arguing with another Jazz fan. He threatened to beat up the fan and his wife. Westbrook said the fan taunted him with “racial” and “disrespectful” comments.
So when he approaches his agent about his options beyond Oklahoma City, is he likely to say, “What about Utah?”
The Athletic’s Sam Amick, per CBS Sports, reported Miami, Detroit and Houston as possible trade destinations based on mutual interest. USA Today also threw out Orlando and New York as potential fits, while The Ringer’s Haley O’Shaughnessy made a case for the Minnesota Timberwolves. You won’t find anyone linking Westbrook to the Jazz, whether from mutual interest or even sheer speculation.
Aside from the notorious history, Utah also just doesn’t need Westbrook. OK, OK, “need” is a loaded word. Nobody “needs” Westbrook. But the Jazz are already equipped to win without him, and in a new way.
But for a minute, let’s imagine the Jazz with Westbrook — or, more appropriately, without starting center Rudy Gobert and backup point guard Dante Exum. That’s one scenario ESPN’s Trade Machine says would be theoretically possible if the Jazz wanted to acquire Westbrook, though it's improbable. The Thunder are unlikely to unload Westbrook for a two-player haul, and the Jazz don’t have many draft picks to sprinkle in. Their next available slot is their 2021 first-round pick.
What about a Donovan Mitchell-Westbrook swap? Mitchell is just the kind of rising young star the Thunder could rebuild around, and the Jazz would get a superstar. The problem there is money.
Westbrook is under a four-year contract that will pay him $38.5 million this year. Mitchell, in the third year of his rookie deal, will make $3.6 million. The math doesn’t work, and it isn’t close. The Jazz would need to offer more, and from the Thunder's perspective, there’s no guarantee Mitchell would re-sign.
How about a Mike Conley-Westbrook swap? The salaries are close — Conley is owed $32.5 million this season. But at 31 and with those dues, Conley isn’t a strong candidate for a rebuild.
It seems the Jazz are better off staying put this season. They’ve created their own version of "The Process" — one not centered on stockpiling draft picks, but on making under-the-radar trades and free agency moves for solid players. They’re choosing stability over stardom. And without Westbrook, they’ll get a chance to see whether it works.
Plus, even in the most likely trade scenario — the one involving Gobert, Exum and (likely several) draft picks — ESPN’s Trade Machine predicted Utah’s record would be one game worse.
The NBA has, for a very long time, been dominated by superstardom. The trend of “super teams” really took off with Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and the 2008 Boston Celtics. It continued three years later with the LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh Miami Heat. The Golden State Warriors, with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and (more recently) Kevin Durant, defined the super team genre for the past five seasons.
The Jazz will not field a super team in 2019-20. But there’s another way that’s been proven effective.
The one-star team with a (sometimes-not-so) decent supporting cast led James to four straight Finals appearances and one win with Cleveland from 2015 to 2018, and Kawhi Leonard was the most important piston in the engine that drove the Raptors to their first NBA title. The Jazz also don’t have anyone like James or Leonard.
Wouldn’t it make sense, then, for Utah to pursue Westbrook? To acquire a star to ride to the championship? Well, Westbrook is unlikely to be that kind of star. As good as the eight-time All-Star and 2017 MVP is, he couldn’t lead Oklahoma City out of this year’s first round of the playoffs, even with fellow star Paul George. Utah is, instead of going for star power, trying to win in a new way: with lots of capable players.
That’s why the Jazz’s biggest offseason moves were trading for Conley and signing forward Bojan Bogdanovic — two good players but not superstars. Utah also got rid of last year’s fourth- and fifth-leading scorers in Ricky Rubio and Jae Crowder, but Conley’s and Bogdanivic’s scoring far outpaces both of them. With their three leading scorers — Mitchell, Gobert and Joe Ingles — returning, the Jazz should be in much better shape than they were a year ago. Their odds of winning a title are 14-to-1 as a result, tied for seventh-best in the NBA with Denver and just one spot behind Houston and Golden State (tied at 12-to-1). And during a year of unusual parity in the NBA, that might be enough.