New Lakers point guard Russell Westbrook was always going to be a bit of an awkward fit with incumbent superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Just how awkward the fit could get was on display during his regular season debut Tuesday night, in a performance so bad that James had to console him.
"I told Russ to go home and watch a comedy," James reflected in his postgame presser. "Do something that can put a smile on his face. He's so hard on himself. I told him, 'Don't be so hard on yourself. It's one game.'"
Sure, it was just one game. But even still, yikes. In a 121-114 loss to the Warriors, Westbrook scored eight points on four-of-13 shooting from the floor and coughed up the ball four times, to go along with five rebounds and four assists in 35 minutes of action. His plus-minus rating of -23 was the worst on the team (and in the game) by a significant margin. The 6'3" veteran, a former nine-time All-Star and the 2017 MVP, is set to earn $44.2 million this season.
The Lakers sacrificed a ton of depth, plus some draft equity, to add a starry name in the form of the 32-year-old Westbrook during the 2021 offseason. Against the Warriors on Tuesday, the club could have certainly used the defensive acumen and long-range shooting of swingman Kentavious Caldwell-Pope or forward Kyle Kuzma (a more erratic shooter than KCP, but certainly more reliable than Westbrook), both now with the Washington Wizards.
Is it too soon to wonder if the Lakers can get some depth back, so as not to waste James's 19th NBA season?
Westbrook is a ball-dominant guard who can't shoot and has slipped as a defender. He has never been much of an off-ball cutter, the role he'll need to learn to be effective playing alongside James while in his 14th NBA season. Westbrook has not connected on over 31.5% of his high-volume long-range shooting output since his MVP season. Can he turn things around in time to regain his All-Star form with LA? Or should LA cut its losses?
Again, yes, it's just one defeat so far (plus the six preseason losses), and odds are pretty good Westbrook will return to some semblance of his standard output in the nights to come. But why not at least kick the tires on adding some more oomph to this shallow Lakers team through a Russ deal?
Below are some appetizing candidates. It should be stressed that in no way is there any rumor of a trade in the works, this is all pure brainstorming by a somewhat concerned fan. Due to the exorbitant nature of Westbrook's $44.2 million salary, most of these deals involve the Lakers taking back more players than they are sending out, and thus they would need to waive or trade other players to make the deals work. The money should check out (thanks, ESPN NBA Trade Machine!), but would the hypothetical trade partners be willing?
Sixers Receive: Russell Westbrook. Lakers Receive: Ben Simmons, Isaiah Joe, Jaden Springer
To reappropriate the Instagram catchphrase of a certain current Lakers point guard, why not?
This could theoretically benefit both parties, plus the value of Simmons as a trade asset is depreciating with every fine and suspension. A three-time All-Star and All-Defensive First Teamer, the 25-year-old Simmons is nevertheless a flawed player who now must be viewed as a possible chemistry killer and a massive offensive liability in playoff games. But Simmons is an above-average passer, and though he may present similar floor-spacing issues to Westbrook, is a spectacular, switchable defender across every position who doesn't need the ball in his hands nearly as much on offense. LeBron James also has historically been adept at managing mercurial personalities (at least, for a time). Also, Simmons shares a certain power agent with James and Davis.
For two over-the-cap teams, traded players' salaries must be within 125% of each other, plus $100,000, per the current CBA. Thus, a couple cheap players must be included on the Philadelphia side of the equation. Though the Lakers would probably prefer to bring back a perimeter sharpshooter like Seth Curry or old friend Danny Green in the deal, Sixers team president Daryl Morey would do his darnedest not to give up much value in a trade. Morey could cobble together two relatively low-usage pieces, like second-year shooting guard Isaiah Joe and rookie Jaden Springer. The Lakers would have to waive a handful of their minimum-salaried players.
Westbrook, still a borderline All-Star last year, could serve as a galvanizing locker room leader with the Sixers, a dogged lead guard who could help the team remain a force during the regular season. An assertive, ball-dominant guard with good passing and rebounding skills would benefit the current shooting-heavy Sixers lineup around All-NBA center Joel Embiid. Like Simmons, Westbrook's issues as a shooter and defender could hurt Philadelphia in the postseason, but he would certainly never be unwilling to shoot late in playoff games.
Spurs Receive: Russell Westbrook. Lakers Receive: Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Thaddeus Young
In Murray, the Lakers could add a young, defensive-oriented combo guard who doesn't need the ball in his hands to be effective, plus a savvy, versatile veteran front court piece in Young with above-average passing acumen who could fit in perfectly alongside James and Davis. White would help replace the loss of Westbrook's offensive output.
The Spurs get an (aging) star in Westbrook that at least will make them a fun playoff team again, albeit a 45-win first round exit.
A big caveat to this, from San Antonio's perspective: the team is just coming out of an era where it featured two older former All-Stars and sniffed the playoffs a handful of times. With the club now focused solely on developing its youth, offloading two of their prized young guards in Murray and White, whose ceilings remain something of a mystery (though they may not sniff All-Star status), for Westbrook may not interest the Spurs. The Lakers would most likely want to throw in at least one of their minimum salaries in this deal.
Knicks Receive: Russell Westbrook. Lakers Receive: Evan Fournier, Derrick Rose, Kevin Knox
Because two of these outgoing Knicks players inked fresh deals with New York during the 2021 offseason, this trade couldn't transpire until at least December 15th.
Granted, James did try the Derrick Rose experiment once before in Cleveland, but that was before the oft-injured former Bulls MVP rehabilitated his value with the Timberwolves, Pistons and now Knicks, earning a lucrative multi-year deal this summer in New York. Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau would be loathe to part with Rose, a player he has coached in three cities, but Knicks owner James Dolan might find the prospect of adding a starry name like Russell Westbrook alongside All-Star forward Julius Randle intriguing. The most important element of this deal would be Fournier, a shooting guard with a lethal outside stroke whose defensive struggles limit his efficacy in the postseason.
Kevin Knox, the ninth pick in the 2017 draft out of the University of Kentucky, has been incredibly underwhelming during his tenure in the Garden. He would essentially be a throw-in addition to help New York get to sending out within 125% of the incoming Westbrook money without losing a third rotation player, but the Lakers could also take a flyer on the athletic forward, still just 22.
This may not be an incredible haul, but the market for Westbrook is fairly shallow, and the additions of Rose and Fournier, both capable jump shooters (Rose's long-range touch has improved dramatically over the past few seasons) who can play off the ball, would be a cleaner fit around James than Westbrook. The Lakers would certainly want a third useful player (Kemba Walker, perhaps) in the offing, but given their lack of leverage and need for any depth, they may not have the bargaining position necessary to avoid taking back a contract like Knox's.
Pacers Receive: Russell Westbrook. Lakers Receive: Myles Turner, Caris LeVert
Following the emergence of two-time All-Star big man Domantas Sabonis in Indiana, the Pacers have been trying to trade away defensive-oriented center Myles Turner for a while. Inked to a reasonable deal ($18 million/year through the 2022-23 season), the 25-year-old Turner could finally allow Anthony Davis to legitimately avoid playing center, and as a career 35.2% three-point shooter, could help spread the floor in LA.
Shooting guard Caris LeVert is an incredibly promising young wing who would fit well around James and Davis when healthy, but he's only sporadically healthy (he already has a lower-back injury this season).
This is not a perfect package, but the money would work and this feels like the sort of unsatisfying transaction for both sides that could feasibly get done, especially with a Pacers organization seemingly obsessed with returning to its mediocre destiny of first-round playoff exits.
Pelicans Receive: Russell Westbrook, Wayne Ellington. Lakers Receive: Devonte' Graham, Josh Hart, Tomas Satoransky, Garrett Temple
Yes, this is clearly a dumb deal for the New Orleans Pelicans. And yes, given that this is a four-for-two deal, the Lakers would need to offload or waive several of their minimum-salaried contracts.
But it's also just the kind of lopsided, desperate, head-scratching trade that Pelicans team president David Griffin has relished making during his tumultuous time at the top of the New Orleans front office food chain, trying and failing to piece together a roster to help young forwards Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram reach the playoffs.
Sure, it doesn't make a ton of sense for New Orleans to give up this much talent for a guy well past his prime, but this is a team that happily traded for Eric Bledsoe and Steven Adams last year, and then compounded its mistake by trading out of the lottery to get off Adams's bloated contract this summer. Griffin is spiraling, and he may feel compelled to make a floor-raising splash by adding a starry name like Westbrook, probably still good enough to elevate the team to play-in tournament contention if Ingram and Williamson are healthy.
Again, this deal (which would need to happen after December 15th due to the various players included who signed or extended deals with the Pelicans in the summer) would be so beneficial to the Lakers that a rational organization would not agree to their terms. But the Pelicans' front office, as we have established, is less than rational.
Devonte' Graham showed plenty of promise but was somewhat erratic during his time with the Hornets, and would be a solid replacement for Westbrook as the Lakers' starting point guard. As for Hart, the Lakers have already signed six (!) former Lakers for reunions this season. Why not trade for a seventh Los Angeles alum in Hart? Hart is a good two-way perimeter reserve on a normal team (he'd probably start for the depth-starved Lakers) who has developed, albeit slowly, in New Orleans. Bench guard Tomas Satoransky can convincingly log time at multiple positions, is a good passer and competent defender. Veteran wing Garrett Temple is an excellent defender and, as a career 34.6% long-range shooter (on 2.9 attempts per contest), would be a helpful floor-spacer for Los Angeles.
A minimum-salaried guard like Wayne Ellington would be expendable in such an arrangement.