Why The Knicks Should Go All In On Russell Westbrook
f you are a fan of the New York Knicks chances are you cannot wait for a star player from the Oklahoma City Thunder to hit free agency. If that player is Kevin Durant then you are mistaken. While Durant is one of the best player’s of our generation, and most definitely the greatest scorer, he does not fit the Knicks’ plan anymore. His running mate, Russell Westbrook, however fits the team like a final puzzle piece. While landing Durant would be the greatest free agent signing in Knicks history — any player that can do this at Rucker Park is always good in NYC — so would signing Westbrook. Here are four reasons Phil Jackson and company should focus their energy on the latter.
I. Another Year to Build
Russell Westbrook does not hit free agency until after next season where like KD in 2016 will be the crowned jewel of his free agent class. Unlike the past five years when the Knicks called the top free agent and were sent straight to voice mail, when Phil Jackson calls Westbrook and even Durant will hear him out and seriously consider coming to the Big Apple. Westbrook hitting free agency a year after KD gives the Knicks an extra year to build on a foundation that looks much better than most expected. Saving money by passing on Durant allows Jackson to target top mid-level free agents (Brandon Jennings, Joakim Noah, James Johnson, Kent Bazemore) to further develop the roster.
II. No Room for Kevin Durant
Unless the Knicks trade Carmelo Anthony or Anthony moves to the bench — both extremely unlikely scenarios — there is no room for Kevin Durant on the Knicks. The rise of Kristaps Porzingis all but eliminates the possible lineup pitch Phil Jackson could have sold Durant of Melo playing power forward. Porzingis has looked like the top-four draft pick no Knicks fan could have possibly imagined and has pretty much locked down the power forward spot for the foreseeable future. One could argue that you could move the 7-foot-3 Latvian to center, but using that as your default lineup will not exactly be the strongest defensive lineup and the Knicks didn’t just pay Robin Lopez $54 million to play twenty minutes a game.
Westbrook on the other hand is what the Knicks are missing. The Achilles heel of this current Knicks squad (fifth seed in Eastern Conference as their ceiling) is their perimeter play. Jose Calderon is a great shooter, nice facilitator, but he is by no means a starting point guard in the NBA anymore. The Knicks have high hopes for rookie Jerian Grant (as do I), but adding Westbrook would not derail that plan. A starting backcourt of Grant at the point and Westbrook at shooting guard would be a formidable duo. Grant is a slash and kick guard who has a great ability to finish at the rim so there would be no traffic between he and Westbrook as the latter can hit any shot on the floor, but loves that pull up jumper from the top of the key. Westbrook may have played the point guard his whole professional career, but anyone that has seen him play knows he’s a shooting guard at heart. Moving him over would not change his game, but enhance it.
III. Timing Is Everything
As I mentioned earlier waiting for Westbrook would require another year of patience. When he hits free agency Westbrook will be 28 years old (will turn 29 at beginning of the 2017–18 season) and Carmelo Anthony will be 33 and in all likelihood out of his prime. That means Westbrook will come in as “the man”, something he has never officially been. At UCLA there was Kevin Love and at Oklahoma City there was Durant. Carmelo Anthony is on par with those names, but at that stage of his career he would certainly be the second fiddle to Westbrook. I think that is one of the Knicks’ top selling points in addition to LeBron James (who will also be on the other side of his prime) not being the undefeatable force he has been in the Eastern Conference.
If Phil Jackson chooses his words correctly he could paint quite the picture for Westbrook. Playing at Madison Square Garden 41-plus games a year, in front of fans that would sell their souls for a NBA Finals game let alone a ring, and a city that can turn you into a marketing star, what’s there not to love? What about Westbrook’s fashion aspirations? He is currently the Marketing Creative Director of Tru Relegion and has an obvious passion for fashion, what better place to play basketball than the fashion capital of the world? New York can give Westbrook the world and it is Phil Jackson, Carmelo Anthony and James Dolan’s job to make that clear.
IV. The Demise of the Lakers
Last season everyone had Kevin Durant leaving the Thunder for the Houston Rockets or home to the Washington Wizards and Russell Westbrook returning home to Los Angeles Lakers to play with college teammate Kevin Love. Since then Love has signed a max deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Rockets look like a mess, and the Lakers are quickly becoming the Clippers. The latter is the biggest reason the Knicks should have high expectations of landing at least one member of the Thunder.
Before the 2015 Draft the Lakers and Knicks were for all intents and purposes were on the same level. Both had an aging scorer with nothing else around them. The Lakers wound up leapfrogging the Knicks in the lottery and landing the second overall pick, taking point guard D’Angelo Russell. Thus far Russell has not exactly been on the same level as Porzingis, Karl Anthony-Towns and Jahlil Okafor, but barring a disaster he will figure it out (coming in and guarding the deepest position in the league is significantly harder than coming in and guarding the thinnest positions in the league).
By 2017 Russell should be on his way to averaging 20-plus and having the ball in his hands a lot. Sharing the backcourt with Westbrook could work, Russell has a similar skill set and playing style of James Harden, sharing the ball with a player that can hit the same shots as you is not exactly ideal. The Lakers are now more likely to go all in on DeMarcus Cousins in 2017 to round out their big three of Russell and Julius Randle. If that is indeed the case the Knicks move up as the team most likely to land Westbrook if he leaves Oklahoma City.
In the meantime the Knicks should not do what they have done too often in the past and focus on the upcoming free agents. They have to continue to get better and win basketball games. Head coach Derek Fisher needs to get better as a coach, Porzingis and Grant have to continue to develop, Carmelo Anthony needs to continue to be the leader he has been this season, and Phil Jackson has to maintain the current core of guys he has. If they can stay this course, when the time comes and Westbrook sits down with Knicks brass there is a high possibility he leaves the room as a New York Knick.
Originally published on Sidelines January 2016