The Los Angeles Lakers are at a critical juncture in their current era of basketball. They still have LeBron James and Anthony Davis under contract next season, however, they are currently without a head coach and have a big decision to make regarding Russell Westbrook. The decision to trade for Westbrook has proven to be a costly mistake, with previous reports indicating that the feeling is mutual between both sides that Westbrook should play for another team next season.
But not so fast…
The Athletic’s Sam Amick has reported some information regarding the Lakers’ current coaching search that deals directly with Westbrook. The reports make it seem like the 33-year-old point guard may actually be back with the team next season if the front office’s recent interviews with coaches are any indication.
“Yet though it remains unclear who will replace the fired Frank Vogel, with Kenny Atkinson, Adrian Griffin, Mark Jackson, Darvin Ham and Terry Stotts among the known candidates, we continue to learn about how Lakers officials see their own roster by way of the coaching search itself. More specifically, the notion of Russell Westbrook remaining part of their program is seeming more real all the time. Despite the widely held belief that the Lakers would find a way to trade Westbrook before the start of next season, sources say their coaching candidates have been asked to discuss how they would use him in their system during interviews. The takeaway for candidates, it seems, is that maximizing Westbrook’s presence after his disastrous 2021-22 season is considered an important part of this job.”
If you’re a Lakers fan and you’re getting ready to pull out your hair at the thought of having to watch Westbrook in the purple-and-gold for another season… I ask that you take a second and think about a possible ulterior motive for the above report to be leaked to Amick.
We all saw the season that the Lakers had with Westbrook. That also means that all 29 other teams in the league saw the same disastrous season. Before this report (as well as a previous report indicating that the front office saw Frank Vogel’s handling of Westbrook as a reason the results were so bad), it was a poorly kept secret that the two sides would be trying to move on while Westbrook opted into his $47 million player option next season.
This may be a desperate effort from the team to try and increase its leverage in trade talks with prospective teams that they may deal Westbrook to. Although many may scoff at the idea of the Lakers being able to build up leverage through anonymous sources given the season that everyone saw, it should be noted that the teams the Lakers may be dealing with (Hornets or Pacers come to mind) are also somewhat desperate to get rid of their own players that would theoretically be involved.
There’s not many players in the NBA with a whopping, expiring $47 million contract like Westbrook will have for the 2022-23 season, as the Lakers may be wanting to at least make it seem like they’re completely fine with bringing him back to make a team want to lower its demands for the Lakers to provide one of the two first-round picks they can attach to Westbrook in a deal.
This would line up with recent rumors and reports around the trade deadline that said the Lakers were against parting with first-round picks given the fact that they may be in another rebuilding phase sooner rather than later if LeBron James were to leave after the final year of his current contract… which happens to be next season.
However, maybe these discussions truly are happening with coaching candidates. Amick’s reporting seems to indicate that this report is coming straight from coaching candidates, and honestly… would that be such a bad thing? Even if the Lakers are willing to attach a first-rounder, maybe they don’t end up finding a partner to take on the notorious headache that is Russell Westbrook. Given that possibility, it’d be foolish for the team to not at least hear a coach out on how they’d incorporate Westbrook into their system.
But maybe this is even more than power positioning through the media or just ensuring that a possible hired coach is prepared to deal with the Westbrook experience. Amick reports that reportedly heavily involved Phil Jackson has voiced his opinion (and support) on keeping Westbrook. Within Amick’s report, he indicated a heavily detailed opinion that has come from Jackson in his continued advisory role to Lakers owner Jeanie Buss. The story surrounded the signing of Gary Payton back in 2003, and how Jackson adapted to the situation that he did not want.
“When the Lakers’ late owner, Dr. Jerry Buss, insisted on adding Payton in the summer of 2003, that meant Jackson had to convince Derek Fisher to come off the bench. And considering those Lakers had won titles in three of the previous four seasons with Fisher starting, this wasn’t a welcome situation for Jackson to have to handle. Yet though they didn’t win it all, the Lakers did manage to return to the finals that season (where they lost to Detroit). The comparison, it seems, was made to make the point that the coach (and his staff) should somehow find a way to find the Westbrook solution. Again, the strong signs continue that the Lakers are preparing for the possibility of Westbrook remaining.”
No matter how real the possibility is in Westbrook staying with the Lakers as well as whether or not this report is more about true facts or power positioning… there’s no guarantee that Russ will be on a different team next year.
If I was a Lakers fan reading this, I’d mentally prepare myself for that to be a possibility so that they’re not extremely disappointed once training camp comes around and we see pictures Tweeted from the team’s account of Russ laughing while practicing with the team.