The Los Angeles Lakers badly want you to believe that they might not trade Russell Westbrook. They’ve on multiple occasions leaked an unwillingness to attach draft capital to Westbrook if that’s what it takes to get rid of him. A major component of their head-coaching search was seemingly each candidate’s plan to make the most of Westbrook. When Darvin Ham was ultimately hired, he praised the former MVP endlessly. “Don’t get it messed up, Russell is one of the best players our league has ever seen, and there’s still a ton left in that tank,” Ham said. “I don’t know why people tend to try to write him off.”
Nothing a team says at this time of year should be treated as gospel. Remember, the first time Westbrook was traded, the process began with then-Rockets czar Daryl Morey emphatically declaring that he would not trade Chris Paul. “Tweet that I said that,” Morey told ESPN’s Zach Lowe. “Print it. Tweet it twice.” The Finals haven’t even ended. Teams are still negotiating through the media. Perception is reality right now. What the Lakers are saying does not guarantee that Westbrook will return to the team next season.
But it doesn’t guarantee that he won’t be, either. To be absolutely clear, he shouldn’t be. As evidence for that I point to … literally everything that happened to the Los Angeles Lakers during the 2021-22 season. Rarely are absolutes warranted in team-building, but this is an exception: If Russell Westbrook is the starting point guard for the 2022-23 Los Angeles Lakers, they will not win the championship. End of story. Even in the absolute best-case scenario where a humbled Westbrook embraces the all-around role the Lakers envisioned for him, his $47 million salary is an anchor weighing down this roster. The Lakers had 10 minimum salaried players on their roster last season. We’re watching players like Grant Williams, Jordan Poole and even Draymond Green struggle to stay on the court in the Finals right now, and the Lakers are supposed to build an entire rotation off the scrap heap? Even the perfect three-man trio isn’t enough by itself to win a title. LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Westbrook are far from perfect. If the Lakers can’t turn Westbrook into multiple contributing role players, they cannot win the 2023 championship.
Of course, it’s not entirely clear that the Lakers are prioritizing the 2023 championship. If they were, they might’ve already traded Westbrook. There was reportedly an offer on the table for John Wall at the deadline that would have been based around a pick swap rather than the Lakers surrendering a selection outright. They chose not to take it. After the deadline, Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka claimed that there was alignment between him, James and Davis about the team’s inactivity at the deadline. ESPN’s Dave McMenamin reported almost immediately that this was “totally false.” That possible divide between Klutch Sports, the agency that represents James and Davis, and the Lakers themselves, is where the interests of these parties start to diverge.
James is 37. He doesn’t have that many NBA seasons left and would like to continue winning championships while he still can. But the executives building a roster around him? They’d like to stick around for a while. Doing so means more than just ensuring a well-stocked cupboard of assets to rebuild with after James is gone. It means ensuring that you have a job at all when that time comes. And so, they’ve tried to spin the Westbrook deal to anyone who would listen as a move engineered by Klutch. While they seemingly influenced the decision, it must be noted that players and agents cannot make trade calls on behalf of teams. The Lakers themselves had to agree to make the deal, and the executives who made it known that they can be held accountable for it. If Jeanie Buss is willing to fire her own brother, she’ll certainly fire her other executives. Blaming LeBron is an act of self-preservation in part because he can’t be fired. Good luck convincing a 37-year-old billionaire that you’ve traded him to Indiana for a couple of draft picks.
If he’s not happy, he can just leave when he becomes a free agent next summer. Davis can escape a year later. As of next summer, the last remnant of the Davis trade will be a single first-round pick owed to New Orleans in either 2024 or 2025. If the Lakers want to rebuild from there, they can do so relatively cleanly, and perhaps even get a head start by dealing Davis. Things get harder once you’ve committed extra first-rounders to separate, win-now trades. Of course the front office is scared to make such a trade. Get them wrong and they’ll get replaced. It’s simply easier to act like it was all LeBron’s fault. They’ll totally fix it once he’s gone. After all, their track record before he arrived was spotless.
And so, we have a team that is likely entirely aware that Westbrook kills their championship odds, but does not believe that trading him increases those odds enough to justify both the long-term basketball risk and the short-term job security risk to actually pull the trigger. Why endanger the future for something like a two percent chance to win it all?
And if this is the thought process guiding the Lakers right now, it’s Lakers Exceptionalism at its finest. Go ask the Indiana Pacers or Utah Jazz fans how much they’d sacrifice for a two percent chance at a title. Any other team would view James and Davis as two of the greatest players in their history, stars whose joint presence presents such a rare opportunity for teams to contend that every organizational resource should be devoted to their support. At best, The Lakers seemingly view them as just the latest stars to pass through their orbit. At worst? They’re bit players in their internal game of thrones. Winning 17 championships makes it easy to take the possibility of No. 18 for granted.
Which leads us back to Westbrook, the biggest obstacle between the Lakers and the 2023 championship except for the Lakers themselves. So for the moment, let’s take them at their word. Let’s imagine a world in which the Lakers are so apathetic toward the idea of contending next season that they retain a player that all but eliminates them from the title picture. In this world in which the Lakers resolve to put the best possible team around James, Davis and Westbrook without sacrificing any more of their future, what might their offseason look like? Below we’ll attempt to make the best of a truly miserable situation.
The starting point
The Lakers currently have:
- Three players with guaranteed contracts.
- Three players with team options.
- Two players with player options.
Let’s assume all eight are back next season. With seven roster spots remaining, here are the eight players the Lakers will have to start the offseason along with their salaries:
These eight players represent a combined $151 million in salary. The projected luxury tax line is $149 million, so the Lakers are set to pay the tax for the third consecutive season even with almost half of their roster unaccounted for. Here’s what that means for the sake of our roster build:
- The Lakers will have only the taxpayer mid-level exception (projected at $6.15 million for next season) and the minimum to offer to free agents.
- The Lakers may receive no more than 120 percent of any outgoing salary in trades, plus $100,000, regardless of how big or small the salaries in the trades are.
- If the Lakers do indeed pay the tax for the third consecutive season, they would set themselves up to pay the repeater tax if they are above the line in either the 2023-24 or 2024-25 seasons. The repeater tax triggers if a team has paid the tax in three of the previous four seasons. Given the relative frugality with which the Lakers operate, it’s safe to say they’d prefer to avoid this possibility.
Keep in mind that the Lakers have no 2022 draft picks to offer, and we are operating under the assumption that if their 2027 and 2029 first-round picks are off limits in a Westbrook trade, they’re off limits in any other trade. Therefore, if the Lakers are going to trade, they are going to be limited to the eight players listed above.
So what do the Lakers need? Well … a little bit of everything, but here are the points of emphasis:
- Shooting. This is obvious. Westbrook is a total non-shooter. Davis is trending in that direction after making just 23 percent of his 3-pointers over the past two seasons. Anyone who hopes to play in a lineup with both of them has to be able to shoot.
- Defense. The Lakers ranked No. 1 in the 2020-21 season. They ranked 21st last season. Davis can cover up some holes, but shoring up the point of attack is the primary goal here after the Lakers failed to adequately replace Alex Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope last season.
- Size. Shockingly, signing two centers in their mid-30s as the only front-court supplements for Davis didn’t work out particularly well. Given his durability issues, the Lakers need to make some sort of investment in this position. Ideally, they’ll find a center who can shoot so he can play with Davis and Westbrook. More realistically, they’ll settle for someone who can serve the same functions JaVale McGee did in 2020 as a big who can bump with the centers that Davis doesn’t want to and catch lobs in tight quarters.
And so, we now set about rebuilding this roster.
The trade market
For now, we can assume that James and Davis aren’t going anywhere this summer, and if they do, everything you’re about to read is worthless. Johnson and Gabriel simply won’t interest teams enough to make a trade worthwhile. Reaves would, but the Lakers have a possible starter making $1.6 million. That’s really not something they can afford to deal. That leaves two players.
If Westbrook is on the 2022-23 roster and the team has any sort of ambition whatsoever, Talen Horton-Tucker has to be traded. That’s entirely unfair to him. He’s had genuine flashes of brilliance in his three years with a team that was never built for his development, and he could easily flourish on a more traditional young roster. He needs plenty of space and a defined role as a primary ball-handler for stretches of games. The Lakers can offer neither. He and Westbrook combined to shoot 28.6 percent from behind the arc last season. The Lakers scored a paltry 104.9 points per 100 possession when they played together. Add another non-spacer in Davis to the equation and that drops to 102.
Horton-Tucker’s contract makes trading him somewhat difficult. He’ll make $10.3 million next season. That’s not especially cumbersome, but he has an $11 million player option for the 2023-24 season, limiting the value of acquiring him. If he breaks out in a better environment, his new team has to pay him at his fair market value almost immediately. If he doesn’t? They’re on the hook for $11 million for a player they might not want. Considering the hit his reputation took after a disappointing third season, he won’t have too much value, but a younger team looking to offload a veteran might take a swing on him.
The best-case scenario here is probably someone like Terrence Ross. He’s 30, coming off his worst season as a pro and probably couldn’t net a decent pick from another team right now. Maybe the Magic are willing to take a swing on Horton-Tucker, and no matter who they take at No. 1, they’ll have enough frontcourt shooting to space the floor him. If Bradley Beal leaves Washington, it’d be worth asking the Wizards how attached they are to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, but that’s probably a pipe dream.
More likely, they’d be looking at flawed one-way players like Doug McDermott, Kelly Olynyk or T.J. McConnell. If the Knicks plan to re-sign Mitchell Robinson, Nerlens Noel is a center who has succeeded next to Westbrook in the past and might be available. Of course, given his issues with Klutch, he might not be too eager to become a Laker. Oklahoma City has a number of underpaid role players the Lakers would be interested in, but the Thunder tend to prefer draft picks and could surely get some for players like Kenrich Williams and Mike Muscala. The most likely scenario here is that the Lakers won’t be able to dictate terms here. There are going to be a limited number of teams interested in Horton-Tucker. If another team has a playable NBA role player who can shoot, the Lakers should take him.
Nunn’s fit is a bit cleaner. He’s roughly a league-average shooter with at least the physical tools necessary to survive defensively. Coming off a season-long injury, he’s likely not tradable as anything more than salary filler. He’s also played with other ball-dominant teammates like Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic, so he knows how to operate in an offense he isn’t running. These are all good reasons not to trade Nunn, but they aren’t the biggest. No, the real reason to keep Nunn is as competition and insurance for Westbrook.
The Lakers had to bench Westbrook down the stretch of a few games last season. Now they can take things a step further. If he wants to start next season, make him earn the job in camp. Either it will motivate him to change in the ways that the Lakers need him to, or it will prove once and for all that he’s incapable of doing so and that the Lakers are better off starting Nunn anyway. Whether it’s Nunn or someone else, the Lakers need to have another credible starting point guard somewhere on the roster if only to make it clear to Westbrook that last season’s effort and attitude will not be tolerated.
Among 2021-22 Lakers who are on the market, only Malik Monk definitely warrants a roster spot next season if he wants one. Carmelo Anthony could potentially be back. He did his job as a one-note scorer. Kent Bazemore should be welcomed back as well, but after the Lakers buried him last season, he’s almost certain to take his defense elsewhere.
The Lakers can give Monk a 20 percent raise on his minimum salary from last season without touching their mid-level exception, and realistically, that’s probably the most they should offer him. The mid-level exception has to be spent on a wing. Davis needs to play center if Westbrook is still around. That makes James the only proven forward on the roster, but pickings are fairly slim in free agency. The best ones aren’t going to take the taxpayer mid-level exception. That means no P.J. Tucker, Kyle Anderson or Thaddeus Young. T.J. Warren is such a health risk that his market might shrink enough for him to be feasible, but that’s unlikely. There are a number of guards who can defend multiple positions and might settle in this price range, but can’t shoot well enough to play with Westbrook. So long, Victor Oladipo, Bruce Brown and Gary Payton II. Nicolas Batum would be perfect, but his Early Bird rights will almost certainly allow the Clippers to retain him.
That leaves us with Otto Porter Jr. as the only veteran forward left that reliably plays on both ends of the floor. There’s a reasonable chance he’s back in Golden State, but with Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody due more minutes, someone is going to get squeezed out there. A bolder option? Danuel House Jr., who played with Westbrook on the 2020 Rockets and is coming off the best defensive stretch of his career in Utah. Taurean Prince has made strides defensively, but he’s still from far reliable on that end of the floor. He’s a last resort here.
After this signing, all the Lakers will have left to offer is the veteran’s minimum. It won’t have the same appeal to ring-chasers that it did a year ago, but Los Angeles is always desirable, and more importantly, the Lakers can offer something few contenders can: playing time. Players who sign with these slots could potentially start or close games. That’s valuable to free agents hoping to cash in next summer. Let’s say Monk walks and Anthony stays. With a mid-level player incoming and likely at least one undrafted free agent as well (the Lakers tend to do quite well in that department), we have four remaining roster spots. Without knowing what, if anything, Horton-Tucker gets traded for, the four biggest holes left here are a big man who can shoot, a traditional big man, a defensive-minded wing and a shooting-minded wing. Here’s a brief sampling of their possible options at each spot with only the minimum to offer.
So what kind of team are we looking at here?
Without knowing who fills the Horton-Tucker salary slot, we’re looking at a roster that’s probably pretty similar to last season’s. Nunn returning might give the Lakers a point guard upgrade on Westbrook. Reaves likely starts at shooting guard, and the mid-level signing is the front-runner at small forward. The bench is filled with minimum-salary signings.
If this is underwhelming to you … well … it should be. It’s the basis of my “the Lakers cannot win a championship with Russell Westbrook” hypothesis. The truth of the matter is that a team above the tax line that is totally unwilling to surrender future draft capital really doesn’t have many avenues toward improvement. That is especially true when its incumbent point guard all but eliminates any player who can’t shoot or defender from fitting into your roster. It’s really hard to build a winner when you’re a beggar that also has to be a chooser.