Has the Time Come to Pull the Plug on L.A.’s Russell Westbrook Experiment?
The time may have come for the Los Angeles Lakers to rethink their decision to trade for Westbrook. Integrating Russ is not working as planned and the Lakers could be at a critical crossroad in their quest to win the championship.
The Lakers may need to change or reduce Russell Westbrook’s role or even consider trading him in a last shot attempt to salvage what may be a second straight lost year in LeBron James’ rapidly fading championship window. Trading for Russell Westbrook in the first place was a bold and risky move designed to reduce the workload and extend the career of LeBron James. Pulling the plug would be tantamount to admitting the move was a mistake.
Per reports, the Lakers have already discussed the possibility of trading Russell Westbrook for Ben Simmons, a move orchestrated by and Rich Paul, who’s the player agent for LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Ben Simmons. Right now, the Sixers have no interest in trading for Westbrook but that could change as we near the trade deadline and Philly GM Daryl Morey has to decide whether to trade Simmons now or wait until next summer.
The one sure thing is the Lakers need to figure out how to make Russell Westbrook work if they have any serious hopes of winning a championship. Here are five questions the Lakers must answer about Russell Westbrook:
- Was the Decision to Trade for Russell Westbrook a Mistake?
The Lakers’ Russell Westbrook problem has been they have not had a chance to see Russ playing alongside fellow superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis or alongside projected starting role players due to injuries and Covid.
The result of James’ and Davis’ injuries has been Russell Westbrook spending only 291 minutes alongside LeBron and AD out of 2,056 minutes available this season, which then forced Russ to be the second rather than third option. There’s a big difference between how many minutes and touches Russ would get as third option versus being forced to function as the Lakers’ second option. It’s hard to predict what will happen when AD and Nunn are healthy.
That puts the Lakers in the unenviable position of not knowing whether they can make the Russell Westbrook experiment work as the February 10 trade deadline approaches and time to make major changes get shorter and shorter. With Anthony Davis out at least for the rest of this month, the Lakers know going small is their only option and they’re going to continue to struggle to hold their own on the glass and in the paint until they make a trade.
The best the Lakers can say right now is they need a midseason trade to get more size to transform their microball lineups to the small-ball-on-steroids lineups like in the bubble for the Russell Westbrook experiment to work.
2. Can the Lakers Change or Reduce Russell Westbrook’s Role?
The word around the league was don’t expect Russell Westbrook to change how he plays but the Lakers have already seen that Russ is willing to change and adapt his style of play to help the Lakers win an NBA championship.
What’s been obvious is Russell Westbrook loves being home in LA where he can spend time with his family. What’s also been obvious is he knows he’s going to have to change how he plays if he wants to be successful on Lakers. The Lakers may not be the last chance saloon for Russell Westbrook the way it was for Dwight Howard but, after being on four different teams the last four years, Russ realizes that Los Angeles is where he wants and needs to be.
So what changes does Russ need to do for this experiment to work for the Lakers? First and foremost, Russ does need to improve his ball security, shot selection and defensive attention, and adjust to being just the third option. That means deferring to LeBron James or Anthony Davis or Malik Monk or Austin Reaves or Lakers players who are better 3-point shooters than he is. It means understanding and embracing your role as the Lakers’ third superstar.
Russell Westbrook is clearly ready and willing to adjust to his role as the Lakers’ third superstar. Unfortunately, Anthony Davis won’t be back until February so the Lakers will need Russ to carry more of a load until then.
3. Can the Lakers Get Better By Trading Russell Westbrook?
While the Lakers believe they can make the Westbrook experiment work, there are enough questions to make it criminal if Rob Pelinka and the Lakers’ front office didn’t do their due diligence on the option of trading Russ.
Because of the history and close relationship between the Los Angeles Lakers and Klutch Sports, a Russell Westbrook for Ben Simmons trade still has to remain a possibility despite Daryl Morey saying he’s not interested in Russ. The 3 years and more than $100 million left on Ben Simmons’ contract has not helped his trade value as teams are wary of his mental state. Chances are Russell Westbrook could easily be the Sixers’ best offer for Ben Simmons.
But there are other teams who could be interested in Russell Westbrook as a way of selling tickets and creating interest. Teams like the Sacramento Kings, New Orleans Pelicans and the New York Knicks immediately come to mind. Now that the Lakers have paid half of Westbrook’s $44 million salary for this year, there may be teams interested in trading players with longer contracts for him in order to get his $47 million expiring contract to create cap space.
While the Lakers aren’t going to be actively looking for Russell Westbrook trades, they’re going to look at every option to improve their roster, even if it means sweetening a Russ trade with THT, Nunn, and even Monk or Reaves.
4. Could the Lakers and Russell Westbrook Modify His Contract?
While the Lakers will have a better chance to trade Russell Westbrook this summer due to his $47 million expiring contract, there’s a path for Russ and the Lakers to modify his contract to give the Lakers more breathing room.
The Lakers need to find a way to re-sign Malik Monk, whom they signed as a free agent to a minimum veteran contract, but who will due for a raise at least to the Non-Taxpayer Midlevel Exception of around $10 million per year. Enter an agreement between Westbrook and the Lakers where he opts out of the last year and $47 million on his contract and then signs a new four year deal for $100 million, saving the Lakers $22 million in salary next season.
That would enable the Lakers to re-sign Monk for the $10 million NT MLE, rebuild the roster while staying under the $140 million hard cap that using the NT MLE to sign Monk would require and avoid paying any luxury taxes. Alternatively the Lakers other option is to allow Russ’ $47 million expiring salary to create cap space so they can sign a third superstar. At end of 2023, Anthony Davis’ $40.6 million is projected to be the Lakers’ only salary.
Should the Westbrook experiment work the Lakers will have multiple options. The can negotiate a new contract for more money to replace next season’s $47 player option. Or they can re-sign or replace him in free agency.
5. What Are the Lakers’ Best Options for Russell Westbrook?
The Lakers have spent half the season already trying to figure out how to make the Russell Westbrook experiment work. It’s unlikely they’re going to pull the plug and throw their roster into more chaos. They want stability.
Unless the Lakers decide they cannot achieve that stability with Russell Westbrook as point guard, they’re going to continue to try and make Russ work. They’ll do everything they can to upgrade the starting lineup. Ultimately, the Lakers’ season will come down to whether LeBron James and Anthony Davis are healthy and playing at their best come the playoffs. The Lakers just need Russ to be a major facilitator to unleash LeBron and AD.
The Lakers understand they need another elite starter in the form of a 3&D big, either a stretch five like Myles Turner or stretch four like Jerami Grant to make their small ball lineups as effective as in their bubble championship. They also still firmly believe in the goal of trading for Russell Westbrook to reduce the workload and physical toll and extend the career of LeBron James. The Lakers will make a trade because they can’t waste a year of Lebron.
The Lakers are going to double down on the superstar big three of LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook. This is a win-now season for a win-now team. Lakers top priority is upgrading role player size and defense.
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