The Lakers’ Russell Westbrook quandary: The plan to handle this season and beyond

When the Lakers’ disastrous 2021-22 marketing campaign got here to an finish in early April, it appeared inconceivable to many individuals near the state of affairs that Russell Westbrook would ever put on the purple and gold jersey once more.

The commerce market was certain to be difficult, with the mixture of Westbrook’s struggles and his fiery character certain to minimize the percentages of any group being prepared to tackle a future first-ballot Corridor of Famer on the decline — one who’s owed $47 million within the forthcoming ultimate yr of his deal, no much less. However the grand famous person plan that was concocted inside LeBron James’ dwelling the earlier summer season had fallen so flat, had impressed a lot frustration and uncomfortableness alongside the best way, that the Lakers couldn’t probably take into account operating it again. Proper?

Incorrect, apparently. No less than for now.

With coaching camp roughly every week away and the group lately conducting players-only exercises at its El Segundo observe facility, the prospect of Westbrook being a part of the Lakers’ program — once more — is turning into extra actual by the day. And sure, sources say, that’s nonetheless the case after the Friday information from our Shams Charania that veteran level guard Dennis Schröder is returning to the Lakers this season.

But, whereas the Lakers have been hopeful the Westbrook experiment is perhaps successful this time, sources with information of the state of affairs instructed The Athletic that the prospect of Westbrook coming off the bench is being strongly thought of.

At a minimal, it appears clear Westbrook must outplay new addition Patrick Beverley and Schröder if he’s going to retain his beginning function. As with most lineup constructions forward of coaching camp and the season, it stays a really fluid state of affairs. However sources say first-year head coach Darvin Ham, with the total backing of the group, is prepared and prepared to make no matter tough rotation selections would possibly lie forward within the curiosity of group success.

Assuming Westbrook isn’t traded anytime quickly — and there are sturdy indications he received’t be — a ultimate dedication shall be most depending on how coaching camp and preseason take form. The Lakers are anticipated to have a number of different battles for beginning roles, together with Lonnie Walker IV vs. Austin Reaves at taking pictures guard and Thomas Bryant vs. Damian Jones at heart. Solely James and Anthony Davis will enter camp with a beginning function intact.

James will maintain a players-only minicamp in San Diego forward of the Lakers’ coaching camp, which begins with Media Day on Sept. 26. Barring a commerce, that minicamp would be the begin of determining roles throughout the roster — most notably who will begin at level guard. The mixture of Beverley’s arrival, the Schröder addition and the group’s dedication to do no matter it takes to enhance this season, it appears, has put the onus on Westbrook to discover a manner to slot in right here.

Irrespective of how massive or small his function is perhaps.

However to grasp why the Lakers are taking this surprising method, holding onto a participant whose displeasure was on full show throughout his exit interview in mid-April and who struggled so mightily all season lengthy, you need to look forward to subsequent summer season.

Irrespective of how compelling this marketing campaign is perhaps.

The 2023-24 imaginative and prescient

Think about it’s July 2023, and the Lakers will not be solely flush with sufficient free-agency money so as to add one other maximum-salary-level participant but additionally in possession of their first-round picks from 2027 and 2029. Sure, these are the identical picks that so many individuals anticipated them to surrender as a part of a Westbrook commerce that had as soon as appeared so inevitable however which finally by no means occurred. In accordance with a high-level Lakers supply, their refusal to do Westbrook offers with Indiana and Utah which were mentioned in varied capacities for months has every thing to do with this hopeful imaginative and prescient for his or her future past this season.”

As uncomfortable as this Westbrook expertise has been — and would possibly but nonetheless be — this best-case state of affairs outlook is the driving power behind their shocking option to move up probabilities to half methods with Westbrook. Within the absence of a deal they honestly consider returns them to title-contender standing, sources say, Westbrook is very more likely to stay.

Because it stands, the Lakers solely have James ($46.9 million), Davis ($40.6 million) and rookie Max Christie ($1.7 million) below contract for the 2023-24 marketing campaign. (Jones additionally has a participant possibility price $2.6 million.) With the wage cap projected to be $134 million, Los Angeles may create upwards of $30 million to $35 million or so in cap house. If their broadly recognized curiosity in Brooklyn’s Kyrie Irving isn’t glad through commerce by then, Irving may reunite with James the straightforward manner when he’s an unrestricted free agent. Different notable free brokers may embody Khris Middleton (participant possibility), Fred VanVleet (participant possibility), Andrew Wiggins, Tyler Herro (restricted) and Jordan Poole (restricted).

These are the sorts of high-level choices that might be on the market, as long as they don’t comply with tackle any gamers whose offers run past this season in a Westbrook commerce. Add in that retaining the first-round picks may open up all kinds of impactful alternatives on the commerce market, and also you begin to see why there’s such a powerful reluctance to make any strikes that might hinder this plan.

Including Westbrook to a group with LeBron James and Anthony Davis didn’t work out because the Lakers had hoped. (Kirby Lee / USA At this time)

What’s extra, it’s price noting James and Davis have participant choices for the 2024-25 marketing campaign. If these partnerships are going to proceed, it might be clever for all concerned to finish the prior season on a excessive notice. And as Lakers proprietor Jeanie Buss made clear in a late-August interview with The Athletic, the notion of the now 37-year-old James retiring in a Lakers jersey is taken into account a serious precedence.

If solely it had been that simple.

The plain threat of this method is that it leaves the 2022-23 season in critical limbo, a sacrificial lamb of kinds with the hopes of higher instances forward (when James, by the best way, would spend a lot of the season as a 39-year-old). So the place does this optimism come from {that a} group involving Westbrook can nonetheless work? Sources say all of it stems from hope surrounding Ham and Davis.

When the selection was made in April to fireplace former coach Frank Vogel, his dealing with of the Westbrook state of affairs was recognized to be an essential issue within the inside calculus.  Conversely, Ham satisfied Lakers officers in the course of the interview course of that he had the character and presence essential to salvage this case and is seen by his new bosses as a doable game-changer right here.

He vowed to demand a reset of their tradition, emphasizing protection with the group that was ranked twenty first within the league final season. He expressed a willingness to make the robust selections with gamers who weren’t assembly his requirements and, thus, weren’t pleased with their roles — irrespective of their wage or standing. The Lakers, it appears clear, are assured Ham can deal with no matter comes his manner.

“Darvin is fearless,” Buss mentioned within the interview with The Athletic. “He’s sturdy. It’s for coaches to determine stuff like this. That’s what makes them coaches. You understand, I lived with a coach for 17 years by the title of Phil Jackson. … That is what the challenges are. It isn’t nearly placing out a sport plan and simply letting them take over. It’s about managing personalities. And Coach Ham is ready and fearless in terms of stuff like that.”

There’s a sure irony in that the modern-day Lakers are navigating these dynamics on the identical time a team-sponsored present about their final 4 many years is providing weekly reminders that historical past does, in actual fact, repeat itself. The newest episode of “Legacy: The true story of the LA Lakers” on Hulu recounts the times of Nick Van Exel struggling to mesh with Magic Johnson after the Lakers legend returned from his retirement.

Then got here Derek Fisher, who shined in his level guard function en route to 3 championships earlier than having to yield (unwillingly) to Gary Payton (Fisher, who signed with Golden State in that 2004 summer season, would later reunite with the Lakers to win two extra). Imperfect level guard matches are nothing new in Laker Land, in different phrases, and coaches corresponding to Del Harris, Jackson, Vogel and now Ham have been anticipated to determine it out at each flip alongside the best way.

For Ham’s half, it might be a large boon if Davis may handle to remain wholesome for these subsequent seven-plus months whereas returning to his All-NBA type of two years in the past. Reality be instructed, there’s a sturdy perception amongst some Lakers officers that Davis’ play — and his availability — are maybe a very powerful components of all of them.

“I might have cherished to have seen what this group would have regarded like in the event that they stayed wholesome,” Buss mentioned within the dialog with The Athletic. “It’s actually robust to win when Anthony Davis isn’t on the court docket. LeBron was damage lots of the season. However Russ (who performed in 78 video games) confirmed up each sport and performed onerous each evening.”

But it surely’s the 29-year-old Davis who has performed simply 49 p.c of the Lakers’ regular-season video games (76 of 154) since they received the title due to accidents, this after the magical 2019-20 marketing campaign through which he performed 86 p.c of the regular-season video games (62 of 72) and was arguably their greatest participant within the postseason. If he can replicate these halcyon days, the pondering goes, then possibly the Lakers shall be again within the playoffs and on the highway to title rivalry once more.

However even when James, Davis and Ham handle to mesh, can Westbrook nonetheless play a pivotal half? And if he’s finally requested to come back off the bench, will the longer term Corridor of Famer fall in line or struggle again within the sort of manner that would show disastrous for all of them? These are the questions that may probably be answered within the early stretch of the season.

The Westbrook quandary

The organizational religion that the Westbrook state of affairs could be rectified is definitely not impressed by his debut Lakers season, which was an abject failure by any measure.

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The Lakers’ counterpoint to final season is that they by no means noticed what they may’ve been as a result of they had been by no means complete. The supporting solid rotated all season due to accidents, getting older and inconsistent efficiency, and their famous person trio solely managed to play three consecutive video games thrice. It was difficult to develop cohesion for a bunch that wanted to rely extra on chemistry than most different contenders to attempt to offset the pure limitations of their stars’ match collectively.

This season’s supporting solid is a lot better on paper. As James’ late Might tweet about Ham’s hiring made clear, gamers are excited to play for Ham and his teaching employees. If the Lakers are more healthy — which is way from a certainty, clearly — subsequent season’s group ought to get pleasure from higher outcomes.

Nonetheless, the Lakers had been simply 11-10 with their three superstars on the ground collectively final season — a 43-win tempo over the course of an 82-game season. They had been outscored by 3.0 factors per 100 possessions with the trio enjoying collectively, per Cleansing The Glass. The group struggled with each a standard heart (-10.4 internet differential with DeAndre Jordan or Dwight Howard) and Davis at heart (-0.1 internet differential), although the latter technique was clearly simpler.

Even when a second season collectively generates higher chemistry, the group’s 3-point taking pictures and perimeter protection stay regarding. Westbrook’s taking pictures struggles are well-documented (he shot 29.8 p.c on 3s and posted a 51.2 true taking pictures proportion final season), however his defensive effort and efficiency had been additionally a serious difficulty. There’s an affordable probability Westbrook exacerbates the roster’s weaknesses, barring a considerable turnaround.

Westbrook and Austin Reaves attended Darvin Ham’s introductory press convention. (Gary A. Vasquez / USA At this time)

The Lakers are assured Ham can determine one of the simplest ways to get probably the most out of Westbrook. The nine-time All-Star level guard, who made it clear all through final season that he wasn’t a fan of Vogel’s method with him, has already linked with Ham in a manner he by no means did with Vogel. Ham has publicly championed Westbrook throughout a number of interviews over the summer season, together with dubbing him a starter in an interview with Andscape again in early July. Ham has mentioned Westbrook, who attended Ham’s introductory information convention, the Lakers’ first summer-league sport and Beverley’s introductory information convention, is absolutely purchased in to what the Lakers are asking of him.

However that concept might be put to the check if the Lakers determine to deliver Westbrook off the bench.

When Ham was requested about the potential for Westbrook coming off the bench throughout his introductory information convention in early June, Westbrook, standing off to the facet with a number of teammates, laughed on the notion. Furthermore, Westbrook’s former agent, Thad Foucher, strongly implied quickly after being fired by Westbrook that the Lakers star wasn’t on board with the Lakers’ projected function for him subsequent season (and that was with Westbrook nonetheless anticipated to start out, as Foucher famous).

Final season’s teaching employees feared they might lose Westbrook in the event that they benched him, in line with league sources. The Lakers had been cautious with how they dealt with Westbrook, however with the previous MVP on an expiring contract, there seems to be much less concern with how he would possibly deal with a smaller function.

Concerning the Westbrook trades that by no means transpired, two themes emerged within the failed talks with a number of groups: The Lakers’ lack of curiosity in taking up future cash (a la Utah’s Mike Conley), and their refusal to supply the dear first-round picks which may yield a better return down the road.

The Lakers mentioned a four-team commerce with Utah, New York and Charlotte forward of the Donovan-Mitchell-to-Cleveland commerce, in line with league sources. One preliminary iteration of a four-team deal would have had Bojan Bogdanović and Terry Rozier going again to Los Angeles.

In current conversations with the Jazz, the Lakers have focused Bogdanović, Jordan Clarkson and Malik Beasley, in line with league sources. The Lakers’ want to land the Pacers’ Buddy Hield has additionally been well-chronicled, with the previous Kings guard practically coming their manner through commerce final summer season. The 29-year-old 3-point specialist has been a focus within the Lakers’ offseason talks with Indiana as nicely — alongside Myles Turner — however a deal will not be anticipated on that entrance.

So it’s, then, the Westbrook expertise continues.

Because the Lakers put together for the 2022-23 season, the group is making an attempt to strike the difficult stability between contending within the brief time period and sustaining its choices in the long run. The Lakers will solely make a commerce in the event that they calculate that it’ll enhance this season’s roster sufficient to warrant the doable draw back of taking up longer-term wage and/or giving up their useful picks on the finish of the last decade. As issues stand, it appears unlikely they discover a deal that reaches that lofty threshold. Their motivations may change because the season unfolds and so they get a greater sense of the roster’s potential.

Within the meantime, they’re betting on Ham to determine the Westbrook match — together with whether or not he’s simplest as a starter or off the bench — and improved well being for James and Davis alongside a greater, youthful solid of function gamers.

It’s a bet irrespective of which path the Lakers select, with long-lasting ripple results that may probably form the remainder of their decade.

(Prime photograph of Russell Westbrook: Mark Blinch / NBAE through Getty Pictures)