Leverage play: Who holds the cards? Heat, Thunder, Westbrook?

Ira Winderman, Sun Sentinel on

Published in Basketball

LAS VEGAS -- In the end, amid the NBA's latest spectator sport, the Russell Westbrook Waiting Game, it comes down to leverage.

In what appears to be a stalemate, all involved can claim an influence advantage in the high-stakes game that includes the Miami Heat's Pat Riley, the Oklahoma City's Sam Presti, and the prime protagonist himself, get-me-out-of-here Westbrook.

At the moment, no one is pushing all their chips to the middle at the table.

At the moment, there is no reason, with the next meaningful game still three months away.

Where it stands with those with a stake in the game:

-- Miami Heat: For a team that seemingly has precious little to put into play after the Jimmy Butler sign-and-trade with the Philadelphia 76ers, the Heat do hold a prime hole card: the expiring contract of Goran Dragic.

With salary-cap relief clearly a priority, if not a necessity, for the Thunder, acquiring the final, $19.2 million season on Dragic's contract would provide both a short-term replacement for Westbrook and needed cap relief starting next summer.

But the Heat also could find takers elsewhere for Dragic, particularly having moved forward with the experiment of Justise Winslow as their starting point guard of the future.

If the Thunder attempt to call the Heat's bluff when it comes to a seeming refusal to toss prospects into a deal (Tyler Herro, Bam Adebayo), Dragic could wind up headed to another team in the interim, which seemingly was an initial play in the Butler trade machinations.

Salary-cap relief wears No. 7 for the Heat, but only as long as he is available from the Heat.

-- Oklahoma City Thunder: The Thunder, of course, could do nothing, at least in the short term. And that could be the best play, to at least attempt to draw another motivated suitor into the equation.

But now that it is out that Westbrook would prefer a deal to the Heat, at least according to ESPN, the Thunder also know there is a degree of pressure on the Heat to not let another one get away, after being linked to Kevin Durant and Gordon Hayward interest in recent free-agency periods.

Presti certainly put the full-court press on the Los Angeles Clippers in the Paul George deal. For a franchise that already has lost James Harden, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Victor Oladipo and, now, George, can the Thunder afford anything less than a perceived trade victory?


And it's not as if rolling, at least for the short term, with Westbrook, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, Steven Adams and Andre Roberson couldn't be competitive.

-- Russell Westbrook: This is where it gets interesting: How much leverage comes with committing the first 11 years of a career to a single franchise?

If Westbrook does not get to a desired destination, does it cast the Thunder as team that does not look out for those who have been loyal?

This, of course, also is not like the Anthony Davis situation last season with the New Orleans Pelicans, when potential suitors were warned he well could up at leave after a season. Westbrook is locked into four highly compensated seasons. He is not walking away from that money.

-- The loyal fans of OKC: And then there is one of the most loyal fan bases in the NBA.

How exactly would it play out if a player who has asked out does not get out, has to suit up in a uniform he attempted to shed?

Remember, Anthony Davis had been just as beloved in New Orleans. Until he wasn't.

Beyond that, for all the picks acquired from the Clippers for the future, what about the moment and star appeal? Dealing Westbrook merely for cap relief would only further reinforce the feelings of abandonment that came with Durant, Harden and others from the 2012 roster that lost to the Heat in the NBA Finals.

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