When looking at career accomplishments, there aren’t many players with better resumes than Russell Westbrook. In 14 seasons in the NBA, the future Hall of Famer has nine All-Star appearances, nine All-NBA appearances, two scoring titles, three assists titles, the all-time triple-double record, and the 2017 NBA MVP award. He was also named to the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team.
Will Russell Westbrook end up back with the Los Lakers?
Can the Lakers be a contender with Westbrook? Can they afford to keep him?
As strong as Westbrook’s resume is, there is one notable omission, and that is an NBA title. Westbrook spent the first eleven seasons of his career with the Oklahoma City Thunder, where he played with talents such as Kevin Durant, James Harden, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony, yet was unable to win the championship. Following Durant’s departure to the Golden State Warriors following the 2015-2016 season, Westbrook and the Thunder never advanced past the first round.
Although it seemed like Westbrook would retire with the Thunder, once George requested a trade to join Kawhi Leonard on the Los Angeles Clippers, Westbrook was soon traded to the Houston Rockets, where he was reunited with Harden. Following the season, Westbrook, once again, found himself on the move, as he was sent to the Washington Wizards to join Bradley Beal.
Falling short of expectations in Los Angeles.
Westbrook would join his fourth team in four seasons in 2021-2022, as he was once again traded in the offseason. This time he would join LeBron James and Anthony Davis on his hometown Los Angeles Lakers. Although the fit between Westbrook and James, who possess two of the top-five highest usage rates in NBA history, was questionable, at best, many were optimistic that the three Hall of Famers would figure it out and compete for a title.
While not everyone expected the Lakers to be title contenders, even the most pessimistic critics of the fit between the three stars couldn’t have predicted how poorly things would turn out. James and Davis missed a combined 68 games after missing a combined 63 games the year prior.
Westbrook, acquired to keep the team afloat if such a scenario occurred, looked like a shell of his former self. The Lakers ended up finishing the season 33-49. This left them in 11th place in the Western Conference, and outside of the postseason and play-in.
Can the Lakers contend with Westbrook?
Westbrook, the all-time turnovers per game leader, turned into the worst version of himself in Los Angeles. Despite always being a poor shooter, his once reliable mid-range game drastically declined. Playing with James, his usage rate dipped below 30% for the first time since his second season in the NBA.
It was no surprise that the Lakers put Westbrook on the trading block. It was also no surprise to see that there weren’t many suitors interested in Westbrook and his $47 million salary, which makes him the second-highest paid player behind Stephen Curry.
While there have been several teams that have been linked to Westbrook trades, including the Indiana Pacers, Charlotte Hornets, New York Knicks, and a three-team trade that would bring Kyrie Irving in from the Brooklyn Nets while moving Westbrook to a team with cap space, none of those options have had much movement as the offseason has progressed.
The most likely option is that Westbrook ends up back in Los Angeles. This is likely why we’ve seen incoming head coach Darvin Ham mention his plans and excitement for Westbrook several times this offseason. It is also likely the reason that James, Davis, and Westbrook reportedly held a phone meeting where they vowed to make things work.
While there is still the possibility of a Westbrook trade, it doesn’t seem likely to happen. If the Lakers keep Westbrook around, they will likely fall short of the ultimate goal of winning their 18th title.
The Lakers should improve after a dismal season, particularly Davis, who is primed for a strong bounce-back year. Making a deep postseason run with the trio of stars currently rostered seems almost impossible.
Can the Lakers “Big 3” coexist?
Westbrook and James both need the ball to maximize their talent. One of the two will be forced to play off-ball unless Ham has convinced Westbrook to accept a sixth-man role, which allows him to stagger the two stars’ minutes. This always seemed like the best option after acquiring Westbrook, but injuries made it almost impossible for former head coach Frank Vogel to do this.
Another aspect of the poor fit is that Westbrook and James aren’t great defenders at this stage of their careers. We’ve seen James turn it up when it counts, particularly in the 2019-2020 postseason en route to a title. At this age, however, he is unable to commit as much energy to defense as he did in his youth. Having two non-defenders in the starting lineup is hard to overcome. This is particularly true for a lineup that, outside of Davis, is lacking elite-level defenders.
With so much money committed to three stars that have a poor fit, it is hard for Lakers GM Rob Pelinka to build a roster that has enough shooting, defense, or depth to compete. As we saw in the recent postseason, those are three essential components of a championship contender.
Can the Lakers afford to keep Westbrook around?
With James set to become an unrestricted free agent next summer, the Lakers need to show they’re able to compete. If they’re unable to do so, he could end up leaving as his career winds down. Having Westbrook around for another year could theoretically mean another lost year for James. This is an unideal situation for one of the all-time greats at this stage of his career.
Ideally, James and Davis will be enough to contend for a title, as they did just a few seasons ago. Unfortunately, a lot of the shooting, defense, and depth on that title team were given up to acquire Westbrook. Giving up depth for a non-shooter who doesn’t defend has hurt the team tremendously.
The Lakers ideal scenario would involve trading Westbrook for Irving. It appears, however, that it is unlikely Irving will be moved. Without finding a trade for Durant first, the Nets would be better off keeping Irving. The odds of the Nets finding a package valuable enough to move Durant seem slim-to-none. This is particularly true after the package the Utah Jazz received from the Minnesota Timberwolves for Rudy Gobert.
Will keeping Westbrook force LeBron James out of Los Angeles?
James could look for greener pastures after the season. It is likely, however, that he will wait until his son reaches the NBA to leave the Lakers. Fortunately for James and the Lakers, they will have enough money coming off the books to pursue Irving in free agency.
Keeping Westbrook around may derail the Lakers’ season for a second straight year. It shouldn’t necessarily be the franchise-threatening move that many are making it out to be. The opportunity to play in Los Angeles helps attract talent, as does having two superstars in James and Davis.
The last time the Lakers had James, Davis, and money to spend, they were able to build a championship roster. If Pelinka is able to do the same following the season, the sting of another wasted season would be forgotten.