The Los Angeles Lakers made an extremely bold move by trading for Russell Westbrook this offseason. While the players the Lakers traded should have been replaceable in theory, it was the return that was critiqued at the time of the trade.
Russell Westbrook is one of the bigger names in basketball but he has not been very successful throughout his career. Not only was his lack of success concerning, but the fit alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis was picked apart.
Thus far, the critics of the Westbrook trade have been correct as Westbrook has played awfully to start the year. He ranks 75/84 in Box Plus/Minus among players with at least 400 minutes and even with LeBron out, he has not been able to help the Lakers win games.
This has many Laker fans concerned about the team’s ceiling this season and for good reason. What is even more concerning, though, is how this Westbrook trade could impact the future of the Lakers.
The Russell Westbrook trade very well could put the Los Angeles Lakers back in the dark ages.
The worst stretch in franchise history was from 2013 to 2019. The Lakers not only missed the playoffs six years in a row (they more than doubled the number of years the franchise missed the playoffs), but they were consistently one of the worst teams in the league.
That dry spell was ended when LeBron James decided to take his talents to Tinseltown and Anthony Davis decided to sign with Klutch Sports and force himself to LA. They won a championship in 2020, were bounced early in 2021 and now, the future of this partnership is in jeopardy because of the Westbrook trade.
Now, there is a chance that this does work out and the Lakers figure it out and make a run in the playoffs. There is no in-between, though. The Lakers don’t “figure this out” and lose in the Western Conference Finals. They either figure it out and make the NBA Finals or it goes up in a fiery mess. And right now, the latter feels more likely.
The biggest hindrance with the Westbrook trade is that it gives the team no financial flexibility. Westbrook is owed $44 million this season and $47 million on a player option that he will accept next season.
If this does not work this year there are no outs for the Lakers. The team has to just shuffle veteran minimum pieces and that is not going to solve the team’s problem. If this does not work this season then it probably is not going to work next season with everyone one year older.
Then we look at the contract of the other two stars. LeBron is a free agent after next season and by then he will be 38 years old. Even if he stays in LA, he is not going to be the same player (he is already missing a lot of time) and will be overpaid. He has to take a salary cut to make it work.
And at that point, LeBron will probably only sign a one-year deal to keep his options open the following year to potentially play with his son, who will be eligible for the 2024 NBA Draft. That is assuming LeBron’s body can even hold up that far.
LeBron is not going to be the same guy and there is a chance that Anthony Davis notices that. If this Westbrook thing blows up in the Lakers’ face then Davis could get soured with the team. He has a player option after the 2023-24 season that he could use to get out of his deal and leave the team.
That means that the 2023 summer is going to be extremely important. The Lakers will no longer have Westbrook’s contract on the books and they have to sign a superstar free agent to keep Davis interested in staying in LA. If LeBron wants to stick around then he absolutely is going to have to take a pay cut so it can even be possible for the Lakers.
So who could be available? James Harden will be a free agent at 34 years old (he already is starting to look out of shape), Nikola Jokic could be a free agent but also could get a massive extension from Denver, Bradley Beal could be a free agent but also could get a massive extension from Washington and Kyrie Irving will be a free agent… if he is still in the league.
The team will have no assets to trade for anything so they will have to bring in Harden, Jokic, Beal, or Irving to likely convince Davis to stay. Maybe the team can try and run it back for one year with just LeBron, AD and role players and sign a star the following summer. Paul George, Damian Lillard, Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson and a slew of others will be free agents.
But that is a huge what-if as LeBron might not even be an all-star anymore at that point.
And once again, if things start to blow up with Westbrook in LA then Davis might get soured on it entirely. Just look at every other star Westbrook has played with (Kevin Durant, Paul George, James Harden), they all wanted to leave the team they played for with Westbrook.
With little draft capital and the potential for it to all blow-up, there is a chance that Russell Westbrook puts the Los Angeles Lakers back in a basement that will feel impossible for the team to climb out of.