NBA Trade Deadline: The Oklahoma City Thunder Could Fix the Lakers’ $91.7 Million Russell Westbrook Problem

For one night, all was well in Lakerland. Russell Westbrook hung a poster on three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, and the Los Angeles Lakers came back from a late deficit to beat the Utah Jazz. The win got the Lakers back to .500 at 22–22, a game behind the banged-up Denver Nuggets for an escape from play-in tournament territory.

Struggling on defense and fighting to avoid the play-in wasn’t what the Lakers had in mind last summer when they acquired Westbrook from the Washington Wizards. But the 2016–17 NBA MVP has struggled to find a fit with his hometown team. His defensive liabilities are part of a broader problem with a poorly assembled roster in LA, down to relying on 37-year-old LeBron James to carry the club.

Russell Westbrook’s traveling show on its 4th stop in 4 years

Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder were synonymous for more than a decade. The dying Seattle SuperSonics used their last first-round pick in 2008 to take Westbrook fourth overall before moving to the Great Plains.

He helped fuel a revival of the franchise, teaming with fellow young stars Kevin Durant and James Harden to carry the Thunder to the 2012 NBA Finals. Harden went to Houston the following season. Meanwhile, Durant and Westbrook couldn’t take OKC back to the promised land. The Thunder came agonizingly close in 2016, blowing a 3–1 lead in the Western Conference Finals. Durant left that summer.

While that gave rise to Westbrook’s run of triple-double averages (four in the last five seasons), the Thunder changed directions in 2019 after their third straight first-round playoff exit. They traded Westbrook to the Rockets. Houston, in turn, shipped the nine-time All-Star to the Washington Wizards after one season.

His DC tenure was also brief. After one year, Westbrook headed home to LA.

This season, the Lakers are on the hook for his $44.2 million salary. Given his market value, it’s all but sure Westbrook will exercise his $47.1 million option for 2022–23.

The Lakers have one potential solution, though.

1 team has the cap space to save the Lakers from Russell Westbrook

There is one team that could fix the expensive Russell Westbrook problem for the Lakers. But it's beyond unlikely the Oklahoma City Thunder will.
There is one team that could fix the expensive Russell Westbrook problem for the Lakers. But it’s beyond unlikely the Oklahoma City Thunder will. | Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

The NBA salary-cap and luxury-tax thresholds increased 3% from last season. Nine teams project to be taxpayers this season, including the Lakers. LA’s expected tax bill is roughly $40.8 million, a steep price to pay for a .500 team.

But almost every team in the NBA is operating above the salary-cap line. Every team but one.

Yes, one franchise has the means to take Russell Westbrook off the Lakers’ hands. The team is hard-capped due to using its non-taxpayer mid-level exception last summer.

The problem for LA echoes the driving force of the real estate market — location, location, location.

You see, the one team that could take Westbrook’s increasingly onerous contract off the Lakers’ hands is the team that sent him on his four-teams-in-four-years adventure in the first place. Indeed, the Oklahoma City Thunder are beyond unlikely to do the Lakers a solid.

Even if they were willing to take back Westbrook, general manager Sam Presti would want draft picks to sweeten the deal.

Draft capital is in short supply in LA. The trade for Anthony Davis in 2019 cost the Lakers first-round picks in 2022 and 2024 (or 2025) and a potential swap in 2023. Because of the ambiguity associated with the 2024 pick, the Stepien Rule prevents LA from trading its 2026 first-rounder.

Presti might be convinced to eat the rest of the contract Westbrook signed with OKC in 2017. But he won’t do it for a fistful of second-round picks.

The Lakers are stuck with Russell Westbrook

Russell Westbrook and the Lakers are stuck with each other, likely through next season. LA used James as its de facto point guard the last two seasons. But with Davis hurt, embattled coach Frank Vogel uses the future Hall of Famer at center.

There aren’t any other viable point guard options on the roster. Avery Bradley has played it before, but not for many years and never particularly well. Kendrick Nunn has “PG” next to his name. He’s still recovering from a knee injury.

Beyond that, the Lakers roster isn’t constructed well in terms of potential trades. Nunn and young Talen Horton-Tucker are the only players on the team who aren’t on maximum or minimum contracts. The duo is unlikely to fetch a viable point guard option in a potential trade.

The Lakers made the big splash by trading for Russell Westbrook. Now, even as his inefficient play hangs around the team’s neck like an anchor dragging LA down the standings, there’s not much general manager Rob Pelinka can do about it.

Not even the Oklahoma City Thunder can help.

Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference. Contract information courtesy of Spotrac.

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