One of the most disappointing seasons in Los Angeles Lakers history is mercifully coming to an end. The 31-48 Lakers are officially eliminated from playoff contention after falling 121-110 to the first-place Phoenix Suns on Tuesday night. Now, LeBron James and company can look ahead to an offseason that will be defined by what happens with Russell Westbrook.
Even though injuries to James and Anthony Davis didn’t exactly help LA, Westbrook’s struggles encapsulated this difficult season. While the team viewed the 2016-17 MVP as the third superstar on a title favorite, he instead brought the Lakers down with poor shooting, ill-timed turnovers, and a questionable attitude.
If there’s one thing that’s definitively worse than Russ’ on-court performance, it’s his contract. The 33-year-old racked up a cool $44.1 million this season and has a player option for $47 million in 2022-23. Needless to say, the Lakers don’t want to write that check.
The Lakers don’t have many choices when it comes to their Russell Westbrook dilemma. And the ones they do have will all be hard to swallow.
Russell Westbrook’s first season with the Lakers couldn’t have gone worse
Fresh off a first-round exit, the Lakers felt they were an All-Star away from rolling through the West and returning to championship glory. So they traded Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell, and a 2022 first-round pick for Westbrook, who just averaged 22.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 11.7 assists for the Washington Wizards.
Almost immediately, Russ’ fit with LA was suspect. He had a whopping 23 turnovers in four preseason games before carrying over his T.O.-prone ways into the regular season. Once the games started counting, he combined his giveaways with poor shooting as the Lakers underachieved on a seemingly-nightly basis.
While LeBron believed Westbrook would turn things around, it simply never happened. The nine-time All-Star would continue to display stunning inefficiency and an unwillingness to change his style for the good of the team.
With three meaningless games left on the schedule, Westbrook is scoring 18.5 points per game on 44.4% shooting from the field and 29.8% shooting from deep. He is also averaging 7.4 rebounds, 7.1 assists, and 3.8 turnovers in his 14th NBA season.
The Lakers have a no-win scenario with Westbrook
LA took a massive risk by acquiring Westbrook last offseason. Not only did the trade eliminate all of its remaining depth, but it forced the Lakers to build a supporting cast with castoffs on minimum salaries. But it would be worth it if they were able to contend for a second championship in three seasons.
To say the Lakers miscalculated is a massive understatement. Not only did Westbrook underachieve, but they missed the playoffs altogether despite an all-time great scoring effort from a 37-year-old James. Now, they’ll go into an offseason with no money, no draft picks, and seemingly no hope.
While you can expect the Lakers to have a new coach and new role players next season, their problems won’t subside until Westbrook is dealt with accordingly. Simply put, there are three options: Keep, trade, and cut.
Unless Russell Westbrook hates wealth, he’s not going to decline his $47.0 million player option. That figure makes him a pariah on the trade market, which could force LA to hold on and pray for better results next season. In their mind, a new coach could put Russ in a position better suited for his strengths.
Realistically, keeping Westbrook is the least likely option. At this stage, the relationship seems destined to end after this tumultuous season, Not to mention, Laker Nation would be furious if he returned for a more-expensive sequel.
Contrary to what we mentioned above, Russ can be traded this offseason. It’s just a matter of where … and what it’ll cost. One possible suitor is the Houston Rockets, who entertained a reunion with Westbrook ahead of this year’s trade deadline. Though a deal would require LA to part with at least one first-rounder and take back John Wall, who’s due to make $47.3 million in 2022-23 despite playing 40 games in three seasons.
The Oklahoma City Thunder could also make sense, as they’re the only team in the NBA with a soft spot for their former star. But LA would have to move at least one, if not two, first-rounders just to get the Thunder to accept, while also taking back over-the-hill vets like Derrick Favors and Mike Muscala.
Finally, there’s the buyout option. Like the Lakers did with the final year of Luol Deng’s bloated contract in 2018, the Lakers could simply pay Westbrook to go away. But while his $47.0 million would be reduced to $15.6 million in 2022-23, LA would also pay him that total in 2023-24 … and again in 2024-25.
No matter how you slice it, there’s no great answer for what the Lakers can or should do with Westbrook this offseason.
LA must move on from Russell Westbrook one way or another
General manager Rob Pelinka looks like he’s going to have a chance to fix his offseason mistakes. It just won’t be easy or fun, nor is it guaranteed to make the Lakers better in the short term.
But no matter what Pelinka decides to do to remedy his errors, there’s one move that must be made: Westbrook needs to go.
Trading the 33-year-old will certainly force the Lakers to move even more draft capital, something they’ve liberally done since LeBron joined the team in 2018. Beyond that, getting anything of value from a player standpoint will be a win for LA.
As for a potential buyout, Westbrook’s $15.6 million cap hit in each of the next three seasons won’t be ideal for a team that needs every dollar it can to build its roster. Dead money is never a good thing, especially when it’s that much over the course of several years.
Though in the end, both options that involve no Westbrook are better than the alternative of keeping him. Nothing about this partnership has worked and there’s no reason to think it changes next season. Nor is there a reason to believe Russ will suddenly become an efficient player who embraces a new role despite 14 years of playing a specific way.
By trading Westbrook or simply buying him out, the Lakers could finally have room to rebuild their depth. According to Eric Pincus of Bleacher Report, LA would have the ability to use its non-taxpayer mid-level exception as well as a bi-annual exception. It’s not much, but it’s a start for a club that beyond James and Davis needs a drastic overhaul.
The Russell Westbrook era will ultimately go down as one of the greatest failures in Lakers history. Even when he’s gone, the Purple and Gold will be paying the price for years to come.