Russell Westbrook is not the risk the Orlando Magic should take

If the Orlando Magic want to go all-in now, helping the breakup of the Houston Rockets might be their path. Mandatory Credit: Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports
If the Orlando Magic want to go all-in now, helping the breakup of the Houston Rockets might be their path. Mandatory Credit: Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic are getting close to needing to push their chips in and take a risk. The apparently available Russell Westbrook is not that risk.

It did not take long for the NBA to crank back to full gear even before the transaction window reopens Monday ahead of Wednesday’s NBA Draft. Yes, the league never disappoints when it comes to intrigue whenever a deadline nears. Everyone is always looking for their edge.

And so the league got its first major bomb of a rumor on the eve of the NBA Draft and an offseason transaction window that will last about two weeks before training camps open.

Shams Charania of The Athletic reported Russell Westbrook wants out from the Houston Rockets. And now the engines of the Trade Machine are starting to rev back to full gear — they were already humming with thoughts of a Chris Paul or Jrue Holiday trade, but this was the first that seemed to kick them into overdrive.

Almost immediately the mentions for @OMagicDaily were filled (and it had even started a few hours before the rumor came out) with Orlando Magic fans asking how the Magic could acquire Westbrook, whether it was worth it or demanding the team make a change or some splashy move. It was impossible not to entertain the idea, even for a little bit.

For sure, acquiring Westbrook would be a splashy move. This is a former MVP and nine-time All-Star who averaged a triple-double for three straight seasons. He had a “bad year” last year averaging 27.2 points per game, 7.9 rebounds and 7.0 assists per game for the Houston Rockets.

But this is not the move to make. Westbrook is 31 (32 on Nov. 12) and clearly in decline. He made only 47.2-percent of his shots last year and has shot worse than 30-percent from deep in five of his last six seasons. A player who relies on his athleticism, Westbrook is clearly slowing down and cannot be the ball-dominant player he once was.

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  • The Magic are right to explore and consider any move that comes across their desk.

    This is the kind of risk Orlando will have to make eventually. The kind of risk the team is trying to align itself for. The whole point of making the playoffs as a 7- or 8-seed with this limited roster is to be in the conversation for a star like this.

    The question is whether this risk is the right one or whether another one will come along that puts the Magic in a better position.

    This is not the risk to take. But what it does show is the Magic are in position to make the trade. And it is a reminder that president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman will have to take a risk eventually. And that perhaps standing still much longer will leave the team passed by.

    Why Westbrook?

    First, there is nothing yet to connect the Orlando Magic to Westbrook. Reportedly the Detroit Pistons, Charlotte Hornets, New York Knicks and LA Clippers are the teams most connected to Westbrook at this point. But clearly, these are the beginning stages.

    Speculation is running wild at this point.

    It did not take long for even members of the national media — including Dan Devine of The Ringer — to piece together a framework for a deal that would send Westbrook to the Magic. At least some in the national media thought this might be an interesting idea for an Orlando team starved for star power.

    Admittedly, I started piecing some of these players together for a deal. It is mostly a game of math to get to Westbrook’s astronomical salary.

    Some combination of Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier, Terrence Ross, Markelle Fultz, Mohamed Bamba, Al-Farouq Aminu and James Ennis would likely help the Magic reach that massive $38.5 million salary number for the 2020 season. Keeping Nikola Vucevic would be a necessity so the magic could compete and give Westbrook some type of support when he arrived.

    It is clear there is a way to make the numbers work. The Magic would just be giving up a lot to get him — at least two, if not three, starters and one of the Magic’s young players and perhaps a pick to take back Westbrook and maybe one other player from the Rockets.

    Opening the window

    It would be crazy not to consider making a deal for Russell Westbrook. The Orlnado Magic need to explore every avenue to improve, no matter how outlandish. And Westbrook is still a player capable of warping defenses with his athleticism and downhill attack.

    At best, Westbrook gives the team a bit more of a star name to put on the marquee — not that the marquee matters with limited fans allowed in stadiums in the 2021 season — and a few more national TV appearances.

    He would be the star player the Magic have been waiting for. Someone the team could truly configure a team around and make them more nationally relevant. The kind of player that might attract other players to join in.

    Still, how much better does this make the Magic? Does this get them out of the 7- or 8-seed ringer? Is this the move that Weltman wants to tie his entire tenure to?

    There feels like a lot of uncertainty. The Magic would inevitably have to give up a lot to tie themselves to an ageing, declining player who will make $41.0 million in 2021, $43.8 million in 2022 and has a player option for $46.7 million in 2023.

    Orlando Magic
    Orlando Magic /

    Orlando Magic

    This would essentially give the Magic three years — one with Jonathan Isaac out with an injury — to put themselves in a championship position with Westbrook as their centerpiece. That certainly does not mesh with the kind of slow methodical build that Weltman has preached.

    Positioned to deal

    But this whole exercise and the framework that people outside the Orlando Magic’s orbit seems to believe exists shows the Magic are building the right way. They are collecting the kind of assets and players that could swing this kind of trade that ties so much of this roster together.

    Orlando is doing things the right way.

    But whether this build is successful and the Magic climb out of this seeming rut they are in will depend on the risk they ultimately take. Jeff Weltman is seemingly keeping his assets together, trying to maintain their value to make that big all-in move to supplement and tie the roster together.

    The question he has to ask is how long is too long? When will the pressure to play his chips be too great to pass up? Or when will time run out for him where he has to do something to create change?

    Magic fans are certainly eager to see the team go through some change and transition. Indeed part of the team’s overarching goals this offseason is to begin shifting toward the kind of roster Weltman ultimately wants to build. That is why every move needs to come with purpose.

    But still, a star is that missing piece. And the Magic need to stay in a position to get one when they come on the market like this.

    Clearly, Orlando can amass the pieces that become attractive for a certain type of star. Nobody dismissed the structure of an Orlando Magic-Houston Rockets deal out of hand. There is something there.

    But Orlando needs to wait for the right risk. They need to wait for the right deal to push their chips in and tie their future — and for Weltman, his future.

    Russell Westbrook might be a big name — the kind of perimeter star the Magic have not had since Tracy McGrady was in a Magic uniform — but he is not the risk this team should take. He would not make the team appreciably better or improve the team’s overall outlook — not unless he was bringing someone else to town.

    The Magic will have to take a risk at some point. They have to continue waiting and positioning themselves for the opportunity. They are clearly capable of being in play for these conversations.

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    The question now is what is the right risk and what will make Weltman put his chips in play?