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Two games into the 2022-23 NBA regular season and it’s time for the Los Angeles Lakers to face reality: They need to figure out a Russell Westbrook trade.
On its face, the Lakers’ 103-97 loss to the L.A. Clippers Thursday night shouldn’t be the impetus behind a major shakeup. They almost beat the Clippers! Westbrook battled on defense down the stretch! LeBron James had a dunk that made people tweet! And he came with a pair of blocks (and one goaltend) that solicited droves of “Year 20 😤” responses! Anthony Davis survived a back injury scare in the third quarter to return! And did I mention they almost beat the Clippers, who are good and deep and actual title contenders?!?
This is all sort of the point. “Almost” is the Lakers’ ceiling. And every game they let this version of LeBron wander through middle of nowhere with this supporting cast is franchise malpractice.
If the latest news is any indication, the big move—or any move at all—the Lakers need isn’t coming anytime soon. Here’s what Adrian Wojnarowski said on ESPN’s NBA Countdown (h/t Hoops Rumors’ Luke Adams):
“I’m told to expect Rob Pelinka and the Lakers to wait until post-Thanksgiving, 20 games into the season. And see what teams may start pivoting who don’t start off well, who decide that they may start to unload players and perhaps get involved in the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes.”
Um, yeah, no. The Lakers cannot afford to wait 20 games. Seven of their next 18 come against probable tankers, but they could very easily lose the other 11. And starting off 6-13 in this year’s hellfire of a Western Conference is akin to consigning yourself to the play-in race. That’s inexcusable, always, when you have LeBron. But especially when you have LeBron in his age-38 season.
To be sure, this isn’t about Westbrook alone. The Lakers’ problems run so much deeper than Westbrook. He’s merely a symptom of the disease that is Los Angeles’ ass backwards roster construction.
General manager Rob Pelinka and the rest of humanity watched as LeBron made recurring trips to the Finals and won multiple championships in Cleveland and Miami surrounded by shooting and, oftentimes, defensive depth. Heck, Pelinka and the rest of the Lakers front reaped the firsthand benefits of that model in 2020, when they won the NBA title. Their response to watching proven models rack up titles was to drown LeBron (and Davis) with a supporting cast of non-wings and non-shooters each of the past two seasons.
Los Angeles has opened this season shooting 19-of-85 from deep—22.4 percent. That is putrid. And totally expected.
Yeah, you don’t expect Kendrick Nunn, a career 36.5 percent shooter from downtown, to go 0-for-7 on triples during any given game. Ditto for Patrick Beverley, a career 37.7 percent three-point shooter, and his 1-for-6 bricklaying on Thursday night.
The rest of the roster, though? This is very much in line with the makeup.
Westbrook is quite literally one of the worst three-point shooters in league history. Among every player to hoist at least 2,000 career treys, only Charles Barkley converted his at a lower clip.
On most nights, even Davis is part of the Lakers’ shooting problems:
Kirk Goldsberry @kirkgoldsberry
Anthony Davis is the least efficient jump shooter in the NBA over the last 2+ seasons.<br><br>Among 178 players that have attempted at least 500 jump shots since the beginning of the 2020-21 season, Davis has logged the lowest eFG% on those shots at 35.99 – no other player is below 40 <a href=”https://t.co/Ug4DD5QQiB”>pic.twitter.com/Ug4DD5QQiB</a>
Dealing Westbrook alone isn’t a panacea. But moving him is also their only play. They don’t have another expendable salary anchor. His expiring contract stands alone—and at $47.1 million, it’s so massive they’ll need to compensate a team just for swallowing it, since no one in a position to acquire Westbrook can hope to do anything other than waive him or broker a buyout.
There’s also no telling what the Lakers can get in return. Myles Turner and Buddy Hield both help. Are they worth both the Lakers’ 2027 and 2029 first-rounders?
In a vacuum, maybe not. Those picks are so far off in the distance that they may wind up being gold-plated assets—high lottery selections from a franchise still transitioning out of the LeBron era. Sending out could-be gems for non-stars doesn’t sit right.
Then again, the Lakers cannot afford to care. Their obligation isn’t to the 2027 and beyond rosters. It’s to the one they’ve assembled now, around the talent and window of a soon-to-be 38-year-old, who’s currently wasting away on a team barely fit to sniff the play-in tournament.
And right now, they need shooting. And wing defense. And wings, period. And depth, any depth, that doesn’t leave them depending on an aging LeBron playing 37 minutes on a Thursday night in October or on free-agency-rental Lonnie Walker IV to be their third-best player.
Waiting out the market does nothing. Maybe a different crop of trade candidates develop. Awesome. The Lakers will probably get outbid for any splashier names by teams that can, you know, convey first-round picks within the next three years.
The time for Pelinka and Co. to act was over the offseason. They didn’t. In lieu of that, the team can and should and must settle for making a trade now.
Sure, we could view the Lakers’ Thursday night loss as an almost-win or innocuous letdown they can build upon. Or we can view it, and the opening-night loss to the Golden State Warriors, for what it is: proof they’re on the verge of wasting yet another season.