Russell Westbrook played his final game as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers on April 5th, when the team was officially eliminated from play-in contention by the Phoenix Suns.
At least that’s how it felt around that time as well as when the official end of the season came less than a week later. After that came Westbrook’s exit interview where he essentially called LeBron James and Anthony Davis liars while taking little-to-no personal blame for how the 33-49 season ended for the Lakers. This all came after reports of Frank Vogel refusing to bench Westbrook due to the chagrin of the rest of the coaching staff as well as general reports of “mutual interest” in a split this summer between Westbrook and the organization.
So, with all of that calamity laid out above… why does it feel like Russ may play in the purple-and-gold again? Well, leaks and anonymous reports are as much the bread-and-butter of the Lakers’ long history as is collecting Larry O’Brien’s, with the media’s sources causing worry to Lakers fans via the following reports in the past week or so:
- Coaching candidates — recently being narrowed down to Darvin Ham, Terry Stotts, and Kenny Atkinson — have been asked how they’d incorporate Westbrook into the team during the next season.
- It’s been reported heavily that Phil Jackson has Jeanie Buss’s ear with his advisement guiding her through the complicated decisions of this offseason. He has reportedly been a big fan of Westbrook’s in the past according to The Athletic’s Sam Amick (h/t Silver Screen & Roll).
- The L.A. Times’ Dan Woike was able to brush shoulders with many NBA executives in Chicago during the NBA’s Draft Combine, reporting that those executives have stated “there’s really no clarity in what the team is going to do” and that the Lakers “haven’t ruled anything out when it comes to Westbrook’s future.”
- Just yesterday, The Athletic’s Jovan Buha reported the following tidbits regarding the current state of the Lakers’ plans of trading Westbrook:
- “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.”
- “As of now, they have no intention of using a first-round pick to facilitate a Westbrook trade, according to league sources.”
- “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.”
All of the above causes a lot of smoke leading one to believe that this isn’t just an act of desperation by the Lakers to try and create as much leverage as they can muster in a potential trade this summer. And where there’s smoke… there’s a fire being started by the likes of Rob Pelinka and Jeanie Buss who may be letting their pride get in the way of parting with additional first-round picks after already burning one in the initial acquisition of Russ.
Jovan Buha also notes that “it’s not merely a bluff or tactic to try to regain leverage in trade talks.” But… come on.
In my opinion, the past reports created a fog of doubt regarding his future, with no true indication on what was real and what wasn’t as the reports were seemingly coming from unreliable places when it comes to seeing how the team actually feels, with places of origins such as the coaches being interviewed, Jackson’s opinions way, way back in the day, and what some executives in Chicago were hearing.
But this report from Buha not only contains information on actual trade discussions that have apparently already started with multiple teams, but they include a roadblock in talks in the form of teams desiring one of the team’s two first-round picks available to trade this summer (2027 and 2029). At this point of the process, the Lakers are surely not going to leak that they’d be willing to part with a first-round pick. That may cause a team to ask for a second one if the Lakers are just so willing to give up the first! Keep in mind that a team doesn’t join a trade just for shits-and-giggles. These prospective trade suitors are getting something out of this too in the form of shedding their own high, probably long-term contracts that may get in the way of large extensions they may want to give their younger, better players.
The two biggest impediments that would keep the Lakers from trading Westbrook would have been just simply finding a suitor willing to part with multiple high-priced contracts to even make a deal for Westbrook’s $47 million salary legal, with the other being the Lakers’ reluctance to trading another first-rounder. Given the fact that there are already detailed discussions with multiple teams (hello, Hornets and Pacers?) with a little over a month to go until one of these trades can actually be executed, it doesn’t seem like there won’t be a lack of suitors.
So, it all comes down to the Lakers making a decision to maximize their present as well as their future. They’re walking a tightrope in that sense between voluntarily wasting another season of LeBron James and Anthony Davis by forcing them to be paired with the ill-fitting Westbrook, juxtaposed with the other decision that includes mortgaging even more of their future for a roster sans Westbrook that still will probably not be enough to win a championship.
Pelinka, Buss, and the rest of the (growing number of) Lakers decision-makers are sitting at the poker table. They’re trying to hide the droplets of sweat coming down their foreheads. Hell, they may be just saying “Screw it” by wearing sunglasses so that the likes of the Hornets, Pacers, and any other potential Westbrook trade partners can’t tell whether they’re bluffing on not. Are they really against trading a first-round pick and letting Russ be Russ again for their team? The keyword in Buha’s report is that they’re taking this stance “as of now”.
Time shows all front offices’ true colors in the NBA. Only time will tell what the Utah Jazz think of their duo of Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert. Only time will tell what the Phoenix Suns truly think about DeAndre Ayton. Only time will tell with what the 76ers and Nets decide regarding the contracts of James Harden and Kyrie Irving, respectively.
And only time will tell how much the Lakers are willing to pay to avoid another disaster of a year with Westbrook.
This isn’t a sprint, folks. It’s a marathon. Get ready for more of these reports over the next month.