Russell Westbrook has opted into his Lakers deal, so what’s next?

Russell Westbrook
Russell Westbrook Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Russell Westbrook has proven to be a lightning rod from the time he was acquired by the Los Angeles Lakers up until now. His polarizing play, hard-nosed demeanor, and effervescent presence has almost worked in the opposite way of what the franchise expected. They brought him in to galvanize a team that’d lose their stars at any given moment to injury. Instead, Westbrook’s addition only added to their work on and off the floor.

And now, in a move that should surprise no one, Westbrook has reportedly elected to exercise his $47.1 million player option, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

The decision was largely expected, as the market remains scant, and both Westbrook and the Lakers gave up some things to become a pairing. With this domino dropping, it’s only a matter of time before the Lakers can shape their free agency.

So far, there’s no word on trading Westbrook. That doesn’t mean the front office isn’t weighing their options. The Athletic’s Jovan Buha reported yesterday that although the Lakers are “currently planning on beginning next season with him on the roster”, a trade is “still possible”. Buha adds that the Lakers would “still prefer to trade Westbrook”, but they don’t want to part with either of their 2027 or 2029 first-round picks to do so.

Truly retaining him means that Rob Pelinka will have to work some free agency magic. They have starting slots to fill in their front and back-court. More importantly, they have to flank Westbrook with guys that can, hopefully, cover up for his flaws. They surely cannot repeat the mistake of last season by mailing in their spacing. Avery Bradley and DeAndre Jordan couldn’t have been worse pieces to use alongside Westbrook.

Defense wins championships. The Lakers know this more than anybody, because it is what got them the title in 2020. Their identity shift is what got them on the outs of the playoffs last season. Westbrook is going to have to be the head of that defensive attack if all things remain and no trade is imminent. Newly hired head coach Darvin Ham has been clear in his message for what he expects of Russ.

We all know that this ask is laughable. But deep down, the slimmest of hopes is that the embarrassment of last season and pedigree of Coach Ham can get Westbrook to give passable effort. With the firepower and resume of Anthony Davis and LeBron James, it shouldn’t be a daunting task for Russ to carry a fraction of the defensive load. He has those superstars to support the burden of additions to his role. It’s squarely on Russ to make it work.

This is the biggest season of Russell Westbrook’s career. Next year he can enter free agency. However, he may never make $47 million across the rest of his career let alone next year if this season goes the same way that last season went. So many questions remain for a player that was once in the upper echelon of the league’s greats. He’s now lost his identity as a potential contract fodder part of a trade. How Russ responds to the worst year of his career will tell us if there is a useful career going forward. As fans, we can only hope that he does it with the same vigor that earned him a Most Valuable Player award in 2017.

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