It’s time to take the leap.
No, this is not an overreaction to the viral clip of Russell Westbrook avoiding a huddle in the middle of Wednesday’s preseason loss. But it may be an overreaction to preseason developments at large.
It’s time for Rob Pelinka and the Lakers brain trust to take the plunge and trade Westbrook to the Indiana Pacers, a transaction that is by all accounts available if they are willing to part ways with two first round picks to acquire Buddy Hielf and Myles Turner.
Anyone that has talked to me about basketball since the Lakers were eliminated from playoff contention knows my general aversion towards the numerous rumored trades that would end the Westbrook experiment once and for all. That’s not due to some internal belief that the Lakers can figure things out with the LA native. As optimistic as I am about Darvin Ham, I don’t view him as a miracle worker. And I don’t see a world in which the Lakers are legitimate title contenders with Westbrook – former MVP and all – on the roster.
Still, I (and evidently the Lakers themselves) resisted the idea of Westbrook trades because of the overall cost of that business.
Moving two more first round picks to correct a mistake and further place the team in asset management hell was a terrifying proposition. None of the potential moves called at me that they would turn the Lakers into a title contender. A Big Three of LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Kyrie Irving sounds nice in theory but when consider that you can’t rely on any of those three to play even 70 games a season, the role player depth is what it is, and the baggage coming with Irving (no small issue at all)… well then forgive me for not being excited by that prospect.
All of the other rumored trades had their own issues. I made my peace that Westbrook would be on the roster once again and that the Lakers will effectively punt one of their final seasons with James in tow to give themselves a chance at a hard reset in the summer of 2023.
But preseason has created a shift in my thought process. I recognize how silly it might be to make a decision based off of some of the most meaningless basketball you’ll ever see, but I’m not the vice president of basketball operations for the NBA’s marquee franchise and so I’m allowed this space.
The shift in opinions for me isn’t really based on what Westbrook has done at all. The point guard has had some nice moments in October, including displays of a supposedly new 3-point stroke that might take some pressure off the Lakers’ woeful spacing. He’s also had some of those classic Westbrook moments that we have become accustomed to after just one season of Lakers basketball.
It actually has a lot more to do with the positive feelings I’ve had watching some of the other players on this roster.
Kendrick Nunn has been supremely impressive during this preseason run. You would have been forgiven if you forgot what the former Heat guard was capable of; after all he missed the entirety of his first season in purple and gold due to a bone bruise. He’s very quickly reminded everyone why the Lakers signed him in the first place.
Set aside the actual numbers for a second – and they have been quite impressive – and ask yourself, who was the last Lakers guard to be this capable of pulling up from deep off the dribble? Who was the last Lakers guard to be this complete of a scorer, be it shooting from deep off the dribble or off a pass or driving to the rim and finishing inside? Nunn may not be unique as an archetype across the NBA, but that’s exactly what he is for the Lakers who have been missing that type of player for years.
Next to Nunn, one could argue that Austin Reaves’ development has been the most important finding of the past few weeks. The sophomore guard looks more confident than he ever did last season; he is no longer just a surprising defensive weapon and a savvy cutter. He’s a legitimate threat to handle the ball, run pick-and-rolls, pull up for jumpers and draw fouls at the rim.
We all know what Patrick Beverley and Dennis Schröder are capable of after seeing them for years either torment the Lakers or torment others for the Lakers. Even Lonnie Walker IV in his limited time after an injury kept him out of the team’s first few preseason games has shown flashes that he could be better than we initially thought.
Those are five guards that deserve playing time. Five guards that, despite their differences and limitations, all seem like much more well-fitting puzzle pieces for James, Davis, and Ham. Five guards who are not the defensive liabilities that Westbrook is.
For weeks after free agency, my feeling was that the Lakers simply did not have enough good players, that their fatal flaw was as much about quantity as it was about quality down the roster. I no longer feel that way. The team has quite a few quality role players available for the stars to build chemistry and understanding with; what they need are a couple of difference makers that bridge the gap between the two superstars and the six or seven pure role players that currently look like they can play major playoff rotation minutes.
Insert Buddy Hield and Myles Turner.
Start with Hield whose role would be clear. Even with Nunn’s showcasing of his 3-point stroke and the addition of players like Walker and Thomas Bryant who are not shy about shooting from deep, the Lakers lack the no conscience, consistent ability to hit three, four, five shots from behind the arc that Hield would bring. It’s a skillset they sorely lack regardless of what limitations the former Sacramento King brings with him.
Turner is the more interesting part of this trade. At his peak, the big man is one of the most impactful defenders in the league, a terrifying shot blocker who alongside AD could surely dominate the paint. Consistency and health are concerns. An expiring contract that the Lakers would feel pressure to renew (at a likely extremely high cost) after trading two picks is a significant factor that often goes understated.
But it’s a risk that has an incredibly high floor. Turner brings shot-blocking. He brings at least as much 3-point shooting as AD, if not way more. He brings athleticism and liveliness. He is an insurance policy if Davis is hurt but he also pushes AD to his favorable power forward position (in the event that Bryant and Damian Jones – who I personally have been a bit disappointed with in preseason – do not produce enough to stay in the rotation) which has the added benefit of making James a small forward and reducing the impact that the lack of big wings on the roster would have.
For a thought experiment, imagine the number of lineup possibilities that a rotation of Beverley, Hield, James, Davis, Turner, Schröder, Nunn, Reaves, Juan Toscano-Anderson, and Bryant/Jones brings. That’s not even including the guy the Lakers spent their mid-level exception on this season! Also imagine for a moment the flexibility it brings them to move one of those centers and one of those guards for a more reliable wing option at the trade deadline.
I still expect the Lakers to hold out before they take the leap. Whether it’s to see if Westbrook’s fit is redeemable (by all accounts they will experiment with him as a bench player as well),l or to see if Indiana’s price goes down as they get closer and closer to losing Turner for nothing, it’s an understandable decision.
But every day that passes without a trade is another that could be used to build chemistry with an upgraded roster.
Every day that passes is another where we are not seeing the full potential and capability of a team that is showing the slightest signs of life. The Lakers can’t miss this golden opportunity that is falling into their lap.