The Los Angeles Lakers’ disappointing season has hit a boiling point following their loss to the Brooklyn Nets with a magnified microscope on Russell Westbrook’s play. In fairness, their five-game losing streak can be attributed to the absence of many players due to health and safety protocols, as well as the long-term absence of Anthony Davis due to an MCL sprain. Still, the Lakers were playing below expectations before this recent stretch, and it’s understandable why Westbrook’s performance can be seen as a reason for that.
The Lakers should explore every possibility to trade Russell Westbrook. Russ will never win a championship with this aloof defense. Not to mention his reckless shot selection. And it's been happening his whole career, even in big moments of playoff games. Russ will never change. https://t.co/fxQLhPwr1X
— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) December 26, 2021
Plenty has been said about Westbrook’s low intensity on defense, his shot selection, and high turnovers over the years. As Kevin O’Connor puts it, those deficiencies have been there for a while to those that have really been paying attention. One of the biggest reasons the Lakers traded for Westbrook was to have that additional star who can help them stay afloat in the regular season when Davis and LeBron James miss time. Westbrook has played in all 34 games for the Lakers thus far and is 8-11 in games in which James and Davis are out.
Despite his deficiencies, the Lakers deserve some accountability for the overall roster construction. The Houston Rockets laid the blueprint on how to optimize Westbrook by surrounding him with defensive versatile players that can also shoot well and space the floor. The Lakers gave up several of those types of players with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma in the trade for Westbrook. They also let Alex Caruso, who is looking like an All-Defensive player, leave in free agency. Westbrook can be a very effective player but the roster needs to be structured in such a way to compensate for his deficiencies and this Lakers roster is not constructed in that way.
So what if the Lakers decide to hit the reset button and trade Westbrook?
Simply trading him will be extremely difficult for the Lakers, let alone recouping similar value and player types they initially gave up for him. In a league where almost every team has their point guard situation settled, it’s hard to identify teams that have a need for Westbrook. And even if there are interested teams, the main reason trading him will be so difficult is because of his contract. He is one of the league’s highest-paid players earning $44.2 million this season and has a player option for $47.1 million for next season he would be hard-pressed to decline.
Westbrook’s contract presents several problems for any team that trades for him. For starters, the team acquiring him would have to send back $35.3 million to match salaries, which could deeply impact the overall talent on their roster. On top of that, his salary for next season could interfere with a team’s future trade flexibility, their ability to stay below the luxury tax, and their ability to generate significant cap space in the 2022 offseason. It appears very unlikely that a team will acquire Westbrook for competitive purposes on his current contract.
Is there any team that could use Russell Westbrook the player?
Let’s say the Lakers decide to move on from Westbrook at all costs without any specific return in mind. When going through the teams that could use an upgrade at point guard, there are more arguments against them trading for him.
For example, the Boston Celtics are a team that could use a more traditional point guard, and Westbrook theoretically could be a decent fit there since their best lineup would have three good shooters surrounding him. A package of Al Horford ($27 million), Josh Richardson ($11.6 million), and Juancho Hernangomez ($7 million) combine for nearly identical salaries for Westbrook, which is important for both teams due to their current luxury tax situations.
However, the Celtics seem to be positioning themselves for a trade for a younger All-Star down the line. All three of those players mentioned earlier make a diverse amount of mid-sized salaries that are valuable for salary matching combinations. If they trade all of them for Westbrook, they’re taking in $44 million this year, and $47 million next year that is way harder to move than those several smaller salaries.
Also, the Celtics are already projected to be over the luxury tax next season but can get under if they waive the non-guaranteed contracts of Horford ($14.5 million guaranteed) and Hernangomez. Having Westbrook’s $47 million on their books next year instead would complicate their luxury tax issues.
What about teams hovering around .500 hoping to secure a play-in spot?
Westbrook is a floor raiser and he showed that in Washington last season as the Wizards wouldn’t have made it to the play-in tournament without him. The New Orleans Pelicans, for example, could use Westbrook but any trade right now would likely cost them three of Jonas Valanciunas, Josh Hart, Devonte’ Graham, Tomas Satoransky just to match salaries.
The New York Knicks seemed like they would be searching for a new point guard but Kemba Walker has made a massive resurgence after being benched for several weeks. Even if the Knicks were interested in Westbrook, they run into the same problems as the Pelicans where salary matching will gut their depth.
If a team trades for Westbrook, they are likely doing so for the contract, not the player. If the Lakers are still intent on trading him, it will likely be to a rebuilding team in a deal that could in essence be a salary dump or a swap of equally bad salaries. Such a deal could require the Lakers to part with their scarce amount of future draft picks or young players, which could disincentivize them from making such a deal.
Who could acquire Westbrook's contract?
If the Lakers trade Westbrook to a rebuilding team, there is no guarantee they’ll be receiving players that could improve them. At best they might be looking at liquidating his massive salary into multiple players who earn less, as well as saving money and creating a trade exception.
It’s important to note that a team projected to have significant cap space in 2022 is very unlikely to acquire Westbrook since his contract could interfere. This includes the Detroit Pistons, Orlando Magic, San Antonio Spurs, who would either have their cap space significantly decreased or lose considerable young talent just to match salaries for Westbrook.
One team that could afford to take on Westbrook’s contract right now is the Oklahoma City Thunder. After trading for and buying out Kemba Walker, the Thunder aren’t projected to have cap space in the 2022 offseason, so they could take on Westbrook’s $47 million for next season. Oklahoma City could generate up to $34.3 million in cap space right now if they renounce their existing trade exceptions and free-agent cap holds. This could allow them to acquire Westbrook by just sending back Derrick Favors and any other salary.
However, the framework starts to get complicated when discussing incentives. The inclusion of a first-round pick or young players is too rich just to part with Westbrook and the Thunder don’t have veterans they could send back that would make that proposition worth it for the Lakers. This deal might save the Lakers a ton of money, but they still won’t have cap space, and the giant trade exception they create would be useless if they trade some of their few remaining assets to get off Westbrook. At this point, the Lakers are probably better off keeping him.
One deal that could make sense, and has been deemed by many as the only logical trade for Westbrook, is to the Houston Rockets for John Wall. Both players have nearly identical salaries and were traded for each other before. The Rockets have contently benched Wall to prioritize their young guards and that will likely be the case for Westbrook if he returns there.
Still, the Rockets have no reason to simply swap Wall for Westbrook despite them essentially having identical contracts for both this season and the next. Westbrook may be the better player, but Wall could be a better overall fit for the current Lakers roster. For Houston, this trade is a wash, so they could seek additional compensation if the Lakers approach them on this. Perhaps the deal can be expanded with Houston sending back several additional veterans who can bolster the Lakers roster.
For example, a Westbrook-Wall swap that also includes Talen Horton-Tucker and for Eric Gordon starts to make more sense for Houston. The Lakers could also get another player included such as David Nwaba under this framework. For Houston, they facilitate Wall for Westbrook but also get a young guard in Horton-Tucker in exchange for Gordon. The Lakers do lose one of their last young players with upside but get a very good player in Gordon who can help them on both ends of the court.
Despite all the criticism Westbrook has received, LeBron James backed him up during his post-game conference following their Christmas Day loss. For better or worse, Westbrook is likely to remain with the Lakers through the end of his contract due to all the obstacles preventing a trade.