Every summer since the conclusion of the dreadful 2012-13 campaign that was for the Los Angeles Lakers, the team has experienced similar misfortune on the free agent market.
Dwight Howard left the Lakers in 2013 for the Houston Rockets, although you could certainly argue that both parties ended up being better off than committing the next four or five years to one another. At the time, though, Howard’s departure crushed just about any chance the Lakers had at being competitive the following season, especially with Kobe Bryant coming back from a ruptured Achilles tendon at age 35.
In the summer of 2014, the Lakers had their sights set on LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. While they appeared to at least be in the running for Anthony, the possibility of James donning a purple and gold uniform never came close to fruition. In the end, Anthony re-signed with the New York Knicks, which left Los Angeles empty handed again.
Then of course, the Lakers reportedly botched their initial meeting with LaMarcus Aldridge in 2015, and a follow-up meeting wasn’t enough to keep him from joining the San Antonio Spurs.
Despite the recurring free agency struggles, a few positives did materialize in the form of draft picks that landed the Lakers one of the most promising, young cores in the NBA. The addition of No. 2 overall pick Brandon Ingram combined with enough salary cap space to offer two max contracts had fans optimistic that the team could finally change their luck on the free agent market this summer. Instead, they ended up with Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng both on lucrative four-year contracts.
With this year’s free agency period virtually complete, fans began looking ahead to next summer, considering another salary cap increase is on the horizon and the Lakers could have enough space to offer a max deal in 2017.
All eyes were on one man: Russell Westbrook. The former UCLA Bruin and Southern California native was set to become an unrestricted free agent at the conclusion of next season, and many started to speculate whether he would be interested in returning to Los Angeles to join the likes of Ingram, D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle and Larry Nance, Jr. with new head coach Luke Walton in the fold.
On Thursday, however, the idea of Westbrook signing with the Lakers in 2017 was eradicated when he put pen to paper and signed a three-year contract extension with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
How does Westbrook’s extension impact the Lakers’ potential pursuit of him? The landscape has been altered, but the possibility may present itself again later on.
Obviously, offering Westbrook a max contract next summer is no longer an option for any team. The earliest that he can now become a free agent is in 2018, if he uses his player option to opt out of the final year of his new contract. The first year of the extension is virtually just a pay raise for this upcoming season, which actually only extends his contract by two years with a player option for the second, since he was under contract for the 2016-17 season anyways.
So if the Lakers really want to pursue Westbrook as a free agent as opposed to trading for him, those plans may just be delayed by one season if he elects to opt out in the summer of 2018. And believe it or not, this extension could actually help enhance the Lakers’ odds of landing Westbrook in free agency in either 2018 or 2019, though that may not be saying much.
With such a young core expected to shoulder the brunt of the workload and expectations this season, the Lakers are probably looking at another season that sees them win less than 30 games. As we have seen over the last few free agency periods, when elite players leave a team, they generally go to one that can help them win right away. Perhaps the Lakers find a star player next summer that feels they are the missing piece to a team ready to take the next step, but if there is anything the last three years have taught us, it is to simply never assume that will happen.
Being that the vast majority of key contributors for the Lakers next season will be under the age of 25, the team is probably a minimum of two years away from realistically being considered as a playoff team in the Western Conference, and that’s assuming the young players pan out and Walton becomes an adequate head coach that can develop young talent. Those certainly are not crazy assumptions by any means, but they are also yet to be proven. It could take longer than just two or three years, but crazier things have happened.
Although we have yet to see this group play a single minute with Walton at the helm, it’s perfectly reasonable to expect the Lakers to make major progress over the course of the next two seasons. If Westbrook becomes a free agent in 2018 and the Lakers have vaulted themselves from a 17-win team last season to, say, a .500 team or better heading into that offseason, their timeline would align far greater with Westbrook’s than if he were to be available next July.
Additionally, there are several front office questions that will likely need to be addressed next summer, starting with the role of part-owner and vice president Jim Buss. Will his role be changing? If so, what does that mean for general manager Mitch Kupchak? Landing a marquee free agent while trying to figure out that whole situation? Yeah, good luck with that.
Establishing stability in the front office and seeing progression on the court in terms of talent development and in the win column are necessary for the Lakers if they hope to bring Westbrook back to Southern California in 2018.
Also, for Westbrook, signing a contract extension on the heels of Kevin Durant’s departure will not only garner him more love from the Thunder’s fan base for the time being, but it could also soften the criticism and scrutiny from them and the media if he does decide to leave in 2018 or 2019. He is giving them yet another chance to find the championship formula, and if it doesn’t work out these next few seasons, not many could blame him for heading elsewhere. Currently, though, he is viewed by that city as the loyal savior, and that would be tough to abandon.
Granted, this is all assuming that the Lakers still have the cap space and the itch to acquire Westbrook two years from now, along with him developing a desire to leave Oklahoma City. A lot would need to happen between now and then, but this contract extension could potentially end up helping Los Angeles’ chances of acquiring Westbrook through free agency if the scenario presents itself in 2018.
It would likely still be a long shot, but they would certainly have better chances than they would by going after Westbrook next summer.
Many have already assumed that any notion of trading for Westbrook was squashed as soon as he signed on for potentially two more years in Oklahoma City. According to Larry Coon’s NBA Salary Cap FAQ, that is technically true for six months. With Westbrook signing a new deal with the Thunder, he cannot be traded until January. If things go south for Oklahoma City this season with Durant gone, this would give the Thunder a little over a month to explore trade options before the February deadline while Westbrook’s trade value is at its peak.
With him under contract for at least an additional season, teams like the Lakers might be more inclined to put together a trade package that would land them Westbrook, since they would have at least one full offseason plus the following regular season to convince him to re-sign a new contract.
Westbrook’s new contract boosts his trade value and demands a greater return if the Thunder want to go that route, but it could also entice teams to pull the trigger on a deal, knowing that it would be for more than just a one-year rental.
Of course, things would have to go south in a hurry for Oklahoma City to consider trading away Westbrook before having a full offseason with cap space to try and add more talent with him as the undisputed leader. So the odds of general manager Sam Presti seriously considering shipping Westbrook before next season’s trade deadline are improbable, to say the least.
Basically, this extension gives the Thunder a lot of leverage back in any trade scenario for the upcoming season. A year from now, they could be in the same situation they were in just a few days ago and teams will offer less in a trade knowing that Westbrook could bolt in 2018. But for now, the Thunder hold the cards once again on the trade front for their superstar.
It should be noted that the Lakers’ first round pick is top-three protected again next season. If they miraculously retain yet another highly protected draft pick, that could help incentivize a trade next summer if the situation presents itself again. However, with the team presumably improving by a fair amount due to natural player development and experience, along with a new coaching staff, that pick is in all likelihood going to be conveyed to the Philadelphia 76ers.
For now, the Russell Westbrook option is off the table for the Lakers, and it may never come back. Perhaps the option arises again through a trade or free agency in 2018 or 2019 when the Lakers will almost undoubtedly be more attractive to prospective free agents, if they still have the cap room.
While some fans may look ahead to possibilities of the Lakers acquiring the franchise’s next superstar in the near future, the focus should now solely be on the strong, young core that has been established. That core is the key for the future of the franchise. Whether it is through an organic rebuild or via a blockbuster acquisition, the Lakers’ young talent will determine the success or failure in coming years.
For the time being, the mindset should be focused on these young players. No superstar has come aboard the last three years, and maybe it’s time to stop believing that one will at all. At least, not until the young players are given the time necessary to grow individually and as a unit.
Only time will tell, but if the Lakers continue on the path they have started, a superstar addition may not be needed. The new regime will require plenty of time and patience, but could be what brings the Lakers back to prominence and keeps them there for years to come.