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The Los Angeles Lakers could make multiple, franchise-altering decisions during the 2022 NBA season.
Chief among them is the future of $47.1 million floor general Russell Westbrook, who appears like a prime summer trade candidate, but only if the front office is willing to make sacrifices in the exchange.
Those sacrifices—either subtracting draft picks or taking back bloated contracts (or both)—could be easier to make with a firmer grasp on LeBron James’ future. He becomes extension-eligible in August, but without a new agreement, he’s only signed through the 2022-23 campaign. The Lakers are not expected to get a commitment from James before the draft and free agency, per Bleacher Report’s Eric Pincus.
Without that commitment, L.A.’s long-term outlook is as clear as mud. So how should the front office handle the Westbrook situation? We’ll explore all sides of that question here.
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Westbrook is 33 years old and has more than 35,000 regular-season minutes under his belt, so it’s possible his struggles this past season were tied mostly to natural decline.
However, his biggest issue in L.A. has been with fit. Frankly, his style doesn’t suit this roster, and his salary doesn’t work with the payroll.
Shedding him in a trade could create flexibility on both fronts. Ship him out, and the Lakers would almost assuredly bring back a more complementary talent. A three-and-D contributor would be ideal, but really, even shooting or defensive specialists would make life easier on James.
As for the financial picture, the Lakers need more digestible deals to facilitate trades. Turning Westbrook’s $47 million into a couple of more manageable amounts could grease the gears for separate swaps.
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Westbrook remains a high-level contributor.
That was sometimes hard to see this past season, when everything that could go wrong for the Lakers did, but it’s true regardless. It was one of the least productive campaigns he’s ever had, and he still exited it with per-game averages of 18.5 points, 7.4 rebounds and 7.1 assists. Only four other players (all of them All-Stars) posted 18/7/7 lines.
There still aren’t many players who go end-to-end quicker than Westbrook. He can still put players on a poster. He is still a prolific passer and is just one season removed from winning three assists titles in four years.
The Lakers would lose talent in a Westbrook trade, and the sacrifices wouldn’t stop there. Unless they take back terrible contracts (which could muddle the payroll long after James leaves), they’re almost certainly giving up at least one first-round pick, which could otherwise be spent in a different trade.
In other words, L.A. will pay a not-insignificant price to trade a talented player for a player (or players) who isn’t as talented.
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This answer hinges on the franchise’s willingness to spend.
If the Lakers could do a Westbrook deal without giving up a first-round pick, they should be all over it. However, that would mean taking back bloated contracts that will run longer than his expiring deal—and longer than James’. It’s a big risk if James winds up leaving next summer, but it arguably gives next season’s group the best shot at a title, so maybe the organization feels that it’s worth it.
That would be an easier call to make if the Lakers knew James wasn’t going anywhere, but it doesn’t sound like they’ll have that assurance. So, they would have to take the plunge and hope either James decides to stick around or helps lead another championship run before he goes.
Again, it’s a risk, but is it less risky than running it back with Westbrook and hoping next season doesn’t go as poorly as this past one? You could certainly argue that.