Lakers offseason analysis: Russell Westbrook, Darvin Ham, free agency and expectations

There is always something to talk about with the Lakers.

In just the last couple of weeks, Russell Westbrook’s future with the franchise seemingly flipped, Darvin Ham was hired as head coach after a nearly two-month search, and LeBron James became the first active billionaire North American athlete (and might start a podcast).

To analyze the state of the team ahead of its pivotal summer, senior NBA writer and front-office expert John Hollinger and Lakers beat writer Jovan Buha discussed the Ham hire, Westbrook’s future and trade market, realistic free-agency targets, expectations for next season and more.

Jovan Buha: Let’s start with Darvin Ham, the newest arrival in LakerLand. What do you think of the hire? And how confident are you that Ham can maximize next season’s roster? Is that even possible if Russell Westbrook is still a Laker?

John Hollinger: The old saying is that the 12-inch sideways move from the top assistant’s chair to the head coach’s is the longest distance in sports. We don’t know exactly how this will work out because Ham hasn’t been a head coach, at least at this level. (He did spend a year as a head coach in what was then known as the D-League, but that was over a decade ago. If you know any lifelong New Mexico Thunderbirds fans, you can ask them how it went).   

That said, there is a lot to like with Ham. (Full disclosure: I’ve been able to see under the hood a bit too, as we interviewed him to be a top assistant with us in Memphis several years ago). He has a rare combination of personality and gravitas that should establish him in the locker room relatively quickly, he knows his Xs and Os and he believes in player development. Plus, the history of Mike Budenholzer lieutenants has to be a very encouraging sign. Taylor Jenkins, Kenny Atkinson and Quin Snyder have experienced success after being on Bud’s staffs in Atlanta and/or Milwaukee, just as Ham was.

As for Westbrook, fitting his game onto a flawed roster is going to be a challenge for any coach; it won’t matter what play the coach draws up if it ends with Russ clanging a 15-footer off the top of the backboard. The Ham hire is a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t cure last season’s woes by itself. The Lakers need more talent.

Buha: Oof. That visual. You just gave me flashbacks to all of the clanked jumpers I witnessed last season. 

Speaking of Westbrook: How do you see his trade market unfolding?

The latest I’ve heard, and reported, was that rival teams have been demanding at least one future first-round pick (2027 or 2029) from the Lakers to take on his expiring $47.1 million contract. The Lakers, as of now, have no interest in attaching a first-round pick to dump him.

They’re essentially in a standoff with potential suitors. My guess is one side eventually caves and the Lakers get a deal done. But it’s less of a certainty than it seemed to be a few weeks ago.

Perhaps at the trade deadline there could be some appeal to taking on a massive expiring contract if another team is looking to clear their books and get out of multiple multi-year contracts.

Hollinger: I see little to no hope of trading Westbrook before the season starts, with one exception: If some prominent, heavily compensated player becomes so disgruntled with his situation that he starts pushing for the exits. In that case, a package of Westbrook’s expiring deal and unprotected firsts in 2027 and 2029 might be compelling.

Obviously, it’s going to be difficult for that to happen given that nobody has any games scheduled between now and October. (Well, except for Boston and Golden State). Which is why I think it’s far more likely that the Lakers end up carrying Westbrook into the season and trying again as we get closer to the trade deadline – again, with the end-game being to convert Westbrook and future draft equity into a star.

That deal may not materialize at all, which would result in Westbrook being in L.A. all season. If so, taking their medicine with Westbrook’s expiring deal is better than giving up draft equity just to be rid of it, taking on ugly future money (i.e. Gordon Hayward or Tobias Harris) or using the stretch position and eating into what is a very good cap situation after this season. 

Buha: In the increasing scenario that Westbrook is still on the roster to start the season, what adjustments do you think they can make to smooth his fit alongside James and Anthony Davis? 

I, like others, have proposed the idea of him coming off the bench. I think that partially alleviates the spacing issues with the starting group and slots Westbrook into a more appropriate role as a bench scorer. Of course, there’s little indication he would ever go for that, as evidenced by him laughing when a reporter asked Ham about that hypothetical possibility at the new coach’s intro press conference. 

Assuming relative health for James and Davis, it’s difficult for me to see the Lakers finishing higher than 6th or 7th in the West if Westbrook is still playing a prominent role. That may be the case even if they trade Westbrook, given how stacked the West is, but I think he lowers their ceiling with his glaring limitations on both ends. There is little, if anything, to be encouraged by his play or his fit in Los Angeles after last season.

Which brings me to another thought: Just because Westbrook starts the season on the roster doesn’t mean he has to play. In the worst-case scenario, could we possibly see a John-Wall-in-Houston situation where the Lakers send him home and are just better off building a team around James, Davis and a bunch of complimentary role players?

Hollinger: I don’t think they’re at that point yet, mainly because the rest of the roster looks to be so bad that surely they would need Westbrook to fill some capacity. It’s hard to say you’re building a realistic contender when you’re paying somebody $47 million to stay away. Most other situations like that have been with teams that knew they weren’t playoff-caliber. 

This is particularly true since the rest of the roster isn’t exactly loaded. The Lakers will again be filling out the last several places on the team with minimum exception guys and Austin Reaves types, so I suspect Westbrook will still be an upgrade on what those players can provide. Could they get him to buy into being a sixth man, where he wouldn’t get in the way offensively so much when James or Davis are on the court? 

Buha: If anyone can do it, I’m going to assume it’s Ham. He certainly won his press conference. I can see why the Lakers hired him. He has the necessary gravitas for the high-pressure job — even if he doesn’t view the position that way — and is incredibly charismatic. He also has the benefit of not being Frank Vogel in Westbrook’s eyes.

I still don’t think the Lakers bring Westbrook off the bench, at least not to start the season. I just don’t think Westbrook has accepted where he’s at in his Hall of Fame career. He can still put up empty triple-doubles, but he actively hurt the Lakers on both ends last season in ways it mattered. I think his non-existent screen navigation and poor help defense were even worse than the way-off jumpers and mind-boggling turnovers. 

Plus, I’m not sure how much more the Lakers can do to accommodate him. At some point, the sacrifice has to go both ways. Westbrook didn’t just take aim at Vogel in his tone-deaf exit interview. He denied the notion that James and Davis encouraged him to be himself, despite their repeated public support and willingness to slide up to their non-preferred positions to help spacing. He said he never felt truly welcomed by the franchise. I’m not sure the Lakers will be as delicate with his feelings next season, though that clearly runs the risk of further alienating Westbrook. Fences have to be mended, to some extent.

But for argument’s sake, let’s say Westbrook is on the roster and is still a key contributor. What surrounding pieces will help the Lakers become as competitive as possible around James, Davis and Westbrook? Who are some realistic free-agent targets? I recently wrote that I think they need at least two 3-and-Dish wings with solid size, a stretch-5 and a ball-hawking guard. The obvious challenge is they’re only projected have the taxpayer mid-level exception (roughly $6.3 million) and a slew of minimum contracts at their disposal.

Hollinger: That’s the overarching issue facing the Lakers: they need to get at least two more starting-caliber players without having any money or assets. How the heck do they pull that off?

To some extent, they have to hope the lure of a big role on a prominent team will offset the lack of cash, and/or that there might be some free agent(s) who face an unexpectedly chilly market and turn to L.A. on a one-year deal with a player option. One potential answer I could think of is Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who might not have his partially guaranteed deal picked up by Washington and could benefit from a reunion with his 2020 championship teammates. Of course, he might not ever become a free agent.

A few other players who make sensible target for the Lakers with their tax MLE include Gary Harris, Damion Lee, Mo Bamba, Taurean Prince and Aaron Holiday. Each has his warts, but that’s what the Lakers are dealing with at this price point. 

They might also have to get creative and look in some other nooks and crannies: overseas players, unwanted reclamation projects, and the like. Could they revive John Wall? Could they lure T.J. Warren on a “1+1” deal if his foot checks out? Could they get Danuel House to take a one-year minimum deal? Can Kevin Knox be salvaged?

Buha: That list of prospective names is, uh, not inspiring. I think the Lakers and Lakers fans would welcome a Caldwell-Pope reunion. He was an ideal complement to James and Davis with his near-elite role-player combination of spot-up shooting, transition finishing and one-on-one defense on either backcourt position. 

I think Harris, Warren, Bamba and Prince each could serve valuable roles in Los Angeles’ rotation. But none of these guys – outside of perhaps a healthy Warren – are necessarily high-level difference-makers, and that’s an issue when the player the Lakers sign with their taxpayer mid-level exception will immediately be in contention for the third-best and/or third-most important Laker.

This past season was probably the worst-case scenario for a James-and-Davis-led Lakers team. I don’t think it can get worse.

From your viewpoint, assuming the Lakers bring back Westbrook, make the right moves around the margins of the roster and enjoy reasonable health, what’s an optimistic outlook for next season’s team? Can they earn a top-six seed in the West? Fight for home-court advantage behind another All-NBA James season and a bounce-back campaign from Davis? And then, what’s a more realistic projection?

Hollinger: I’m with you that it probably won’t be as bad as a year ago … probably.

Here’s the thing: They need Davis and James to be healthy, and they need the version of Davis that played in the 2020 bubble and not the one that can’t make a jump shot anymore. The entire premise of the Lakers being at least puncher’s-chance dangerous rests on the idea that they have two of the top 10 players in the league. If they don’t? This is gonna be rough.

I think the top of this Western Conference will be a pretty unforgiving place, too. Golden State and Dallas were this year’s conference finalists and I don’t think they’re going anywhere. Phoenix might lose Deandre Ayton but won twice as many games as the Lakers. Memphis had the league’s second-best record despite its youth, Denver and the Clippers return injured stars and will be massively better. Behind them, younger teams like New Orleans and Minnesota seem legit and could have a Grizzlies-like jump ahead of them. 

Soooo … just cracking the top six is going to ask a lot from this roster. Without 140 or so combined games from James and Davis, it may be hard to get the 47 or so wins it will likely take to get there. On paper, it tops out as an absurdly top-heavy team that can threaten on any given night, but pencils out as a worse version of the Brooklyn Nets.

More realistically, if either of the two stars misses time and/or isn’t able to play at an All-NBA level, I think they’re going to be fighting to be in the play-in tournament again. The only wild card that could change that destiny is if they parlayed Westbrook and the two future firsts into a third elite player, one that left them with enough star power to offset the fact that this likely will be one of the league’s weakest rosters from spots 4 through 17.

(Photo: Tommy Gilligan/USA TODAY Sports)

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