Why bringing Russell Westbrook back would be a colossal mistake for the Lakers

What would it look like if the Los Angeles Lakers pivot and keep Russell Westbrook next season?

It’s a question the organization has been asking itself over the last few weeks as it regroups from a disastrous 2021-22 season.

Though Westbrook can technically become a free agent and leave L.A. this summer, all indications point to Westbrook exercising his $47.1 million player option by June 29 and entering the offseason as a Laker.

As The Athletic’s Sam Amick reported last week, the Lakers are now strongly considering the possibility of keeping Westbrook because of the hardball stance the league is currently taking in trade negotiations.

Teams have been demanding the inclusion of at least one first-round pick to take on Westbrook’s massive expiring contract, according to league sources. Rival teams know how much of a public trainwreck last season was for the Lakers, and they’re not looking to do Los Angeles any favors by helping them off of Westbrook’s contract.

The Lakers have four options with Westbrook: they can trade him, waive and stretch him, buy him out, or run it back with him next season. Rivals believe Los Angeles has to trade him ahead of training camp because the situation is untenable, especially after Westbrook’s exit-interview comments deflected blame toward LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the rest of the franchise.

But the Lakers don’t subscribe to that theory. As of now, they have no intention of using a first-round pick to facilitate a Westbrook trade, according to league sources.

And it’s not merely a bluff or tactic to try to regain leverage in trade talks. That may be an ancillary motive, sure, but per league sources, there is a sentiment among some within the franchise that the right coach and a better supporting cast could smooth over Westbrook’s awkward fit with James and Davis.

Despite the Lakers’ due diligence with their various roster-building paths, retaining Westbrook would be a grave mistake.

There is no salvaging the situation. He’s unwilling to adapt — and clearly unaware that he needs to. Unless the Lakers are willing to punt on another James-Davis season, their best option is to either trade Westbrook — and send out a first-round pick or two if the market doesn’t soften — or to send him home and proceed without him next season.

There is little evidence that Westbrook can be the player the Lakers need him to be, even with a new head coach and if the Lakers can somehow manage to improve their supporting cast with players that bolster Westbrook’s skill set.

Westbrook’s numbers were solid on the surface — he averaged 18.3 points, 7.1 assists and 7.5 rebounds in 78 games last season — but he was a central figure in the Lakers’ struggles. He ranked last among all Lakers in plus-minus (minus-211 in 2,678 minutes) and had the second worst on-off net differential (minus-2.4) among the nine Lakers that played 1,000-plus minutes last season. (Only Avery Bradley was worse at minus-4.3.)

Westbrook failed to live up to his $44.2 million salary and his billing as a third star. Most advanced metrics portray him as a barely positive player or a net negative. His demise has been debated for years, but this past season, Westbrook starkly dropped off in multiple categories. There were more areas in which he hurt the Lakers than helped them.

Westbrook is still seemingly at his best when he’s running the show offensively — it’s no coincidence his best offensive performance came in Charlotte without James and Davis on the floor— but he ran the show terribly last season. The Lakers were 0-5 with Westbrook as the only star and 20-32 (a 32-win pace over 82 games) with Westbrook and only one of James or Davis.

Westbrook can no longer carry the burden of successfully being the offensive focal point, which is precisely what the Lakers brought him in to do when James and/or Davis miss time due to injury.

He doesn’t fit next to James or Davis, who both are at their best with the ball in their hands and when closer to the paint. They need surrounding teammates that can shoot 3s, space the floor, cut in a timely manner, screen and relocate without the ball. Westbrook does none of those things.

James, Davis and Westbrook were just 11-10 together — a 43-win pace over an 82-game season. The Lakers had a minus-3.5 net rating in the trio’s 393 minutes together, a mark worse than the Lakers’ minus-2.9 net rating as a team. Los Angeles was technically better when its three stars didn’t share the floor. That’s a problem when trying to build out starting and closing lineups with Westbrook.

Here is a table of how the Lakers fared with different combinations of James, Davis and Westbrook together last season, per Cleaning the Glass.

Combination

  

Net diff.

  

Poss.

  

James, Davis, Westbrook

-3

818

James, Davis

-1.6

377

James, Westbrook

-0.3

2,081

Davis, Westbrook

-5.4

1,330

James

-5.5

1,024

Davis

1.1

398

Westbrook

-7.3

1,340

That table, obviously, isn’t encouraging. The only positive combination is Davis by himself. The next-best formula is James, plus a star running mate. Every other combination struggled.

An exception is found when we dig deeper: The Davis-James-Westbrook trio had a -0.1 net differential in 590 possessions without a traditional center, according to Cleaning the Glass. But even that is only mildly promising. With optimal conditions (no center clogging the lane and two shooters around them, in most cases), the Lakers were still a slight negative with their three stars on the floor.

That is their only path forward if they keep Westbrook. The Lakers’ next head coach, who will have to put a plan in place in case they keep Westbrook, should start there: Davis has to play center exclusively. It’s the only way to make the offensive spacing kind of work.

That should already be the case — and to his credit, Davis logged 76 percent of his minutes at center last season, the second-highest figure of his career. Davis, however, has historically preferred to play alongside another 7-footer that can handle the more physically grueling center assignments.

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that the Lakers retain Westbrook. Is it possible for L.A., equipped with a taxpayer midlevel exception ($6.3 million), minimum contracts and Talen Horton-Tucker, Kendrick Nunn and two future first-round picks (2027 and 2029), to build a team that could compete with the Western Conference’s elite?

A younger, longer and more defensive-minded roster would be a step in the right direction. So, too, would greater health throughout the season and more continuity from the start of training camp. The priority for the next head coach will be someone who preaches accountability and commands the locker room stronger than former head coach Frank Vogel did.

But which team from this list would we pencil in the best version of the Westbrook Lakers ahead of?

That’s without mentioning several other West wild cards in Utah, Minnesota and New Orleans.

Utah’s future depends on what happens with Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and Quin Snyder. Minnesota and New Orleans are two upstarts that just gained valuable confidence and experience via impressive first-round showings. Minnesota should be better moving forward as Anthony Edwards ascends into stardom. New Orleans is expected to get back its best player, Zion Williamson.

James and Davis are great enough to help the 11th-seeded Lakers jump several of those teams next season. But with Westbrook back in the fold, it’s difficult to see the Lakers being better than a No. 6 or 7 seed. That may be the Lakers’ ceiling, with or without Westbrook. But their ceiling is undoubtedly higher in the scenario that they swap Westbrook for multiple rotation players, particularly players that can shoot and defend better than he can.

If these playoffs have shown anything, it’s that offensive spacing and, conversely, the ability to contain an opponent in space defensively, is as important as it gets in the NBA. Westbrook is a glaring minus as both a shooter and defender. How are the Lakers supposed to survive four rounds with him logging 30ish minutes and hurting them on both ends?

For things to work with Westbrook, the Lakers need him to make the adjustments to his game that he’s shown zero willingness to do.

If last season’s version of Westbrook is present, the Lakers may win more games, and slot a few seeds higher, by virtue of a new coach, better health and better surrounding pieces. But they’ll still be a first- or second-round out. They’re not winning a championship with that type of player in their rotation. And as James, vice president of basketball operations Rob Pelinka and the franchise proudly claim, winning a championship is all that matters for the Lakers.

If Westbrook was ever going to change, last season was the time. He promised James and Davis he would, yet he didn’t. Why would next season be any different?

This brings us back to trading Westbrook.

The good news for the Lakers is that Westbrook’s trade value should progressively increase as the trade deadline approaches. He’s a gigantic expiring contract — that has value to rebuilding teams or teams looking to shed salary as they retool their rosters. No NBA contract is untradeable. Teams are unlikely to play hardball forever. It only takes one rival to change their mind.

Expiring contracts no longer hold the value that they used to, as most teams have become smarter with long-term planning, how they build out their cap sheets and, most importantly, player contracts have shortened. But if a team is looking to get off multiple undesirable multi-year contracts, acquiring Westbrook could be their easiest path to do so.

Of course, it’s not that straightforward. Any team trading for Westbrook is doing so for financial purposes, not because of his on-court value (which pales in comparison to his $47.1 salary figure).

Therefore, most teams will be looking to either waive and stretch him — still retaining long-term salary on their books — or to buy him out, which could be a tricky process considering how few teams have cap space and the nonexistent leaguewide market for Westbrook currently. Trading for Westbrook doesn’t automatically wipe a team’s cap sheet, at least not this season. Some teams will continue to demand draft compensation for that additional headache.

The primary challenge on the Lakers’ end is finding rotation players that can help them this season and, conceivably, beyond. The Lakers’ ideal version of a Westbrook deal would look like the rumored Indiana and Charlotte packages, based around acquiring multiple starter-level rotation players in exchange for Westbrook and Horton-Tucker/Nunn (and possibly a pick, depending on Indiana’s package).

Malcolm Brogdon, Myles Turner and/or Buddy Hield — one year after the nixed Hield-to-the-Lakers deal with the Sacramento Kings — would each fit seamlessly around James and Davis. Gordon Hayward, Terry Rozier, P.J. Washington, Kelly Oubre Jr. and/or Mason Plumlee present less upside and more uncertainty, but it would be the type of reshuffling the Lakers’ shallow rotation needs.

The Lakers could also explore trade-dumping Westbrook to a team like Oklahoma City (before June 30), Indiana, Portland, Detroit, Orlando or San Antonio to duck under the luxury tax so they can use both their non-taxpayer midlevel exception ($10.3 million) and biannual exception ($4.1 million), though that would obviously require draft compensation and wouldn’t bring back any depth. Westbrook can’t be traded until he exercises his player option.

The Lakers are unlikely to waive and stretch Westbrook, as that would further compound their mistake with his salary negatively affecting their future cap flexibility. It’s also unlikely that the two sides are able to agree to a buyout for the aforementioned reasons regarding the cool market for Westbrook.

In the scenario that the Lakers can’t find a trade that they find palatable — certainly a possibility — sending Westbrook home would be the next-best scenario. It wouldn’t be ideal to eat his salary for the 2022-23 season, but it would be even less ideal to run back an ill-fitting core.

It’s no longer a guarantee that James and Davis can remain healthy for 82 games after back-to-back injury-riddled seasons. And the Lakers are seemingly better off developing a more egalitarian offensive approach around their role players than trying to use Westbrook’s inefficient and volume-based attack.

Both sides seemingly want to move on from each other. There is also significant value for the Lakers in establishing continuity as early as possible next season. Keeping Westbrook around to try to move him by the trade deadline would disrupt that continuity and make it more difficult for the Lakers to build a coherent roster and rotation.

Westbrook should remain a Laker if there is no other option. It’s better to keep him than to make a bad trade. But the Lakers’ best chance out of their current predicament is to not have Westbrook on the floor — be it by trading him to another team or by sending him home — on opening night.

(Photo: Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)

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