As every day of this offseason goes on, it seems more and more likely that Russell Westbrook will again be a member of the Los Angeles Lakers next season.
There are still plenty of different avenues that the team can go down if they want to follow through with getting Westbrook off the roster, something that seemed like an inevitability following the failed attempts to trade him at the previous season’s deadline as well as his exit interviews that did little to provide optimism for a different Russ next year. However, the team might be conveying the fact that Russ will probably return in the media due to the most desired avenue being blocked off to them. That avenue would be a trade sending Westbrook to another team in return for two to three long-term-salary rotation players that would allow the Lakers and their capped-out roster to build some much needed depth after nearly all of their veteran minimum signings last season were failures. These theoretical trades would net the Lakers players like the Pacers’ Malcolm Brogdon or the Hornets’ Gordon Hayward.
But maybe those teams don’t want to take the headache of Russ and his expiring contract even if it means getting off of long-term money. And even if they are willing to talk with the Lakers, maybe they require one or both of the 2027 and 2029 first-round picks the team has to attach to Russ. Nearly a month ago, The Athletic’s Jovan Buha reported that not only was the team unwilling to trade away both of those picks to deal Russ, but that they were not even willing to include one of them.
There’s still plenty of time to go before next season, so maybe this is all just bluffing from the hypothetical sides of a Westbrook trade. But if these feelings being conveyed in the media are true from the Lakers and their potential trade partners, there are other, costlier options of getting Westbrook out of L.A. before the 2022-23 campaign starts. One is just straight up buying him and his $47 million contract out. This likely has a near 0% chance of happening given the fact that the franchise has proven itself to be a little cheap for transactions costing them much, much less.
However, there’s a less pricey option of getting Westbrook off the team without having to complete a trade: the good ole’ waive-and-stretch provision.
That term most likely sends shivers down the spines of Lakers fans, as that provision was last used by the franchise to move off of their terrible decision to give Luol Deng a four-year, $72 million contract in the summer of 2016. In 2018, they waived him and stretched out the remaining $15 million owed to him over three seasons, with that money finally coming off the books after this season.
Bleacher Report’s Eric Pincus has detailed how this would work for the Lakers regarding Westbrook, saying the following recently:
Another option is waiving and stretching his remaining salary over three years, which would drop the franchise under the luxury tax. It may be the least costly move to institute change—adding the non-taxpayer mid-level exception of roughly $10.3 million, the bi-annual exception of about $4.1 million and/or greater flexibility for trades.
Two additional years of dead money for Westbrook in the $12-15 million range shouldn’t hurt the Lakers’ future flexibility. They would just defer tax from 2022-23 to the following two seasons since the team isn’t likely to get far enough under the salary cap if James intends to stay with the franchise through 2025.
As it currently stands, the Lakers have the taxpayer’s mid-level exception of around $6.4 million and a litter of veteran minimum contracts to attract free agents to the team. Stretching Westbrook’s contract would drop them below the tax apron prior to the 2022-23 season, allowing a combined $14.4 million in exceptions in addition to the veteran minimums.
Eight million dollars in additional free agency may not seem like much. However, the Lakers could use as much flexibility as they can attain. Also, the exceptions don’t have to go to one single player. Splitting the $10.3 million full exception to two $5.1 million contracts could bring in two impact rotation players while the $6.4 million could only bring in one. That’s without mentioning the $4.1 million bi-annual exception that could bring in a third rotation guy.
To put this into actual examples, let’s use a recent article from The Athletic penned by Jovan Buha and John Hollinger. The two examined what free agents the team could target with the $6.4 million TMLE, coming up with the following list:
Who could the Lakers sign with their taxpayer mid-level exception?@johnhollinger and @jovanbuha size up the potential targets, including Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.https://t.co/jwuKMQusMr pic.twitter.com/wHmYIp0gNu
— The Athletic NBA (@TheAthleticNBA) June 13, 2022
But what if the Lakers could get three of these players after using the waive-and-stretch provision on Westbrook? Imagine a roster of LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Talen Horton-Tucker, Kendrick Nunn, Austin Reaves, Stanley Johnson, Wenyen Gabriel, Gary Harris, Mo Bamba, and the return of manna from heaven… Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Add in four veteran minimum guys and a possible second-round rookie and that team definitely has the ceiling of a middle-of-the-pack Western Conference playoff team that a roster with Westbrook might not have.
The Lakers could also go with the route of using the full $10.3 million exception on a big fish in hopes of making a solid, short rotation to get deep in the playoffs. For example, that exception would allow them more money to offer the likes of Gary Payton II than what the Warriors could offer him in hopes of giving him almost double the amount of money to return to where he — and his dad — once played.
Of course, there’s some cons to go along with all the pros I’ve listed above. Obviously, if LeBron James decides to not sign an extension this offseason and he leaves in the 2023 offseason, then that $12 – $15 million dead cap to Westbrook is going to sting a little more as the team tries to attract another star to fill LeBron’s void. Also, taking around $30 million of Russ’ money off the books only creates additional exceptions; it doesn’t create any additional cap space for the 2022-23 season. It should also be pointed out that this route of action saves the Lakers from trading their 2027 and 2029 first-round picks. This allows them to possibly use them (in addition to THT and/or Nunn) at the 2022 trade deadline to make a splash.
It’s not a decision that should be taken lightly, but hey, this mess that the Lakers created themselves has to be cleaned up somehow.
It’s very unlikely that Jeanie Buss and the rest of the Lakers’ front office will do this. As noted previously, they’re cheap, and there are already reports specifically saying the Lakers will not be considering the waive-and-stretch provision for Westbrook’s contract. However, they could get desperate as this season rolls on and trade avenues don’t open up for them like they were hoping they would while watching Westbrook’s dumpster fire of an exit interview.
Do they actually believe the hope they’re expressing in reports as well as the optimism new head coach Darvin Ham is touting in reference to getting Russ to change? Or are they just as desperate to get rid of Russ as they were when the season ended?
If they are, the waive-and-stretch could be the way for them to keep their draft picks while, sadly, having $12 – $15 million reminders of their past mistake for the next three seasons. But with those reminders, they’ll get to enjoy the rest of LeBron’s twilight that’s still better than most players’ peaks while also gaining better flexibility to re-build a contender as soon as possible.