The Los Angeles Lakers and Washington Wizards shook up the NBA with a draft night blockbuster. The Lakers sent Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and the No. 22 pick to the Wizards in exchange for the NBA’s all-time triple-double leader, Russell Westbrook.
While I haven’t seen any paperwork, I think we can assume it’s official:
Thank you DC! You welcomed my family and I with open arms from day one. Everyone from the front office, to the training staff, the coaches, my teammates, and the fans. I’m grateful y’all took a chance on me and supported me every step of the way. pic.twitter.com/wTvHQHPIOU
— Russell Westbrook (@russwest44) July 30, 2021
Before we break down the deal, it’s worth noting: Lakers GM Rob Pelinka is just getting started. Free agency opens on Monday — the Lakers have nine remaining free agents from the 2020-21 roster — and the Westbrook splash did not address (and, in fact, exacerbated) Los Angeles’ three-point shooting woes.
The Westbrook trade likely rules out the re-signing of Dennis Schroder, unless he pulls a full 180 and agrees to play Sixth Man on a bargain. Assuming that doesn’t happen, whether the Lakers let him walk for nothing or find a sign-and-trade partner could influence every ensuing decision this month.
The Lakers did want to retain free agent guards Alex Caruso and Talen Horton-Tucker, each of whom could fetch $10 million in 2021-22, though it’s unclear — at this moment — how the Westbrook addition affects their interest and ability to doing so (THT is the Klutch client). Los Angeles can exceed the cap to retain both, though not without complications and stiff luxury tax penalties.
With the 2017 MVP in tow, it’s possible the Lakers’ thinking on Caruso has shifted, especially if they can’t land a sharpshooting two-guard via Schroder sign-and-trade. The Lakers were reportedly close to a deal for Buddy Hield — one of the world’s best snipers — but I’m not sure why the Kings would take (and pay) Schroder, a 2027 first-round pick, and various second-rounders for Hield considering the young backcourt in Sacramento (Schroder would also have to forego free agency to agree to the deal). Hield is under a reasonable contract for three more seasons. Let’s rule that out.
As for Westbrook and the Lakers — whew. A lot to digest. Let’s take a breath and break it down a bit.
First of all, the blockbuster should not come as a total surprise. Westbrook is a Long Beach native who played at UCLA, idolized Kobe Bryant, and owns the unabashed fandom of LeBron James. Buzz had been buzzing.
Westbrook and LeBron when they’re one assist shy of a triple double pic.twitter.com/EJlcEMKybO
— Jimmy (@jimmy_koski) July 30, 2021
Plus, according to…NBA history: stars like to play with proven stars, regardless of Second Spectrum data or Twitter takes. LeBron James and Anthony Davis are always consulted on major moves (ahem, Green Bay Packers) — and there’s simply no way a shake-up of this magnitude gets greenlit without their emphatic endorsement.
Fiscally, the Lakers will be on the hook for Westbrook’s $44 million in 2021-22, and his $47 million (!) player-option for his 15th season, when he’ll be a ripe 34 years old. With Bird rights and a prodigal luxury tax approach, the Lakers could certainly see that contract through. Hopefully, for the Lakers, hometown kid would forego the option and re-work his deal at a lower annual cost, a la Chris Paul and the Phoenix Suns. (Westbrook grew up five minutes from the Lakers’ El Segundo practice facility.)
As of this precise moment on the timeline, the Lakers have Russ ($44M), LeBron ($41M), AD ($35M), and Marc Gasol ($2.6M) on the books for next season…and that’s it, assuming they pass on Alfonzo McKinnie’s $1.9M team option. Including Luol Deng’s $5M check, the Lakers cap sheet amounts to $127.6M — more than $15M over the cap and about $16M under the hard cap threshold (the “tax apron”).
Los Angeles can exceed the cap to retain Talen Horton-Tucker, due for up to $10 million (at most) in 2020-21 at the front of a hefty back-loaded deal. That brings them to $137.6M. At that point, they would be unable to re-sign Alex Caruso for the full mid-level exception (also about $10 million), which would trigger a hard cap. Caruso could take the non-taxpayer midlevel ($5.9M), though that would be awfully generous of him.
If he’s willing to take less than the MLE and far less than what, say, the Cleveland Cavaliers may offer, the Lakers could keep their cult hero with Bird rights. Ideally, both Caruso and THT would take discounts to stay in L.A.
DeMar DeRozan may still seek the Lakers’ full-midlevel.
If they avoid triggering the hard cap, the Lakers can retain or pick up any number of vets at the minimum — Wesley Matthews, Markieff Morris, Jared Dudley, Dwight Howard, Jeff Green, Carmelo Anthony. With a hard cap, they simply can’t exceed $143M for any reason, including mid-season buyouts.
#LakersTwitter will be polarized on Westbrook, and it’s impossible to truly assess the move until the playoffs. But, losing either THT or Caruso — exceedingly more likely now — will hurt, in their hearts and on the hardwood.
The Lakers’ two stated priorities this offseason were upgrading their perimeter play-making and spacing/shooting. Westbrook, an infamously horrid three-point shooter, checks one of those boxes.
Frankly, there isn’t a neat statistical case supporting the Westbrook addition; which, admittedly, is an ironic thing to say about someone who has averaged a triple-double in four of the past five seasons, including 22.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 11.7 assists in 2020-21.
Yet, Brodie’s ultimate advantage as an NBA superstar is his 110% effort when everybody else is going through the motions, and that advantage neutralizes in the postseason when everybody is giving their all. In 111 playoff games, he’s averaged nearly four turnovers per game, shot a hair over 40%, and has reached the conference finals twice. It’s not that he can’t go up a level in the playoffs, it’s just that he hasn’t.
Troublingly, he’s shot 70.4% from the foul line over the past four seasons after hitting 82.3% of his free throws for the first nine years of his NBA career.
Evaluation of this trade will not come in November, or January, or March, regardless of box scores, transition alley-oops, or triple-doubles. For the Lakers, there is one ring to rule them all, and what happens in the regular season will all be an appetizer for the playoffs.
On the flip side, Westbrook’s regular season impact is a guarantee, efficiency stats aside. On a game-to-game basis, he’ll produce more than the supporting pieces the Lakers sent to D.C. For AD and especially LeBron, the idea of having an inspiring and indefatigable teammate like Westbrook to carry the load — emotionally, physically, and ball-handling-wise — will pay dividends. How valuable? Remains to be seen.
At the very least, Russ is a super-charged Dennis Schroder — equally mediocre beyond the arc but more impactful by sheer force of will, even if every defensive slide isn’t as on point.
One thing is for certain: We’ll learn a lot more about the efficacy of this trade next week … and then again in May.
Like it or not: the stars always end up in Hollywood.