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How the Bradley Beal situation could help the Lakers land Russell Westbrook

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While Bradley Beal won’t be a Laker next season, his impending decision could start a domino effect that could land Russell Westbrook in L.A.

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Los Angeles Lakers v Washington Wizards Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

When Wizards guard Bradley Beal finally requests a trade from the Washington Wizards, it will serve as one of the least surprising trade demands from a superstar since Anthony Davis hired Klutch Sports. And for much of the league, it could serve as the final drop that busts the dam open when it comes to trades.

Multiple teams across the league are positioned to make a run at Beal should he become available. Beal, though, hasn’t handled his situation like most superstars in the modern era of the NBA, showing a rare sense of loyalty to the organization that drafted him. First by signing an extension in the fall of 2019, and then by not yet demanding a trade as Washington continues to struggle on the fringes of the playoffs while Beal’s prime years tick away.

Each offseason, Beal’s future comes into question, with a growing sense that a seemingly inevitable trade demand coming. In his defense, Beal has yet to make that call, but seems closer than ever to making the decision to leave Washington.

On Sunday, Shams Charania of The Athletic provided the latest trade demand countdown update:

Beal has been seriously mulling his future in recent weeks, and at times has been very much on the fence about whether or not he wants to remain with the Wizards, sources tell The Athletic. The All-NBA guard is expected to use the weekend to continue giving his career some thought and could arrive at a decision during the upcoming week.

There is also an informal deadline on Beal’s decision: The 2021 NBA Draft on Thursday. With most of the trade offers the Wizards would receive likely consisting of at least one draft pick this year, Washington would probably want to control the picks to select the players they desire. Draft picks are like cars, they lose half their value when they get taken off the lot.

Let’s get this out of the way: The Lakers will not find themselves in a position to trade for Beal. The franchise exhausted its assets for Anthony Davis — and an NBA title — which will (probably) rule them out of trading for a superstar for years to come. But Beal’s trade request would not just send ripples just through the whole league, but around the rest of the Wizards’ roster as well.

Beal’s future in Washington, for now, is in some ways tied to Russell Westbrook’s. The pairing represents Washington’s only chance at winning in this moment, and if one of them is set to depart, the other will soon follow. While Beal is unattainable for the Lakers, Westbrook would not be, for a number of reasons, and is a move Marc Spears of The Undefeated has already reported the Lakers have had discussions about.

For one, Westbrook’s best seasons are behind him. While Beal is 28 without much of a history of getting hurt, Westbrook is 32, with far more injuries in his past. Westbrook is also on a far larger contract, set to make $44.2 million next season with a player option for $47.1 million the following season, making him one of the highest-paid players in the entire NBA.

That Westbrook is largely a negative or neutral trade asset does not mean he is a negative or neutral player, however. Last season, he averaged a triple-double for the fourth time in the last five years. While the triple-double has lost some of its significance in recent years, it’s still a remarkable feat of productivity by Westbrook. He also helped carry a depleted Wizards team into the playoffs last season with a remarkable second half of the year.

Beal’s future in Washington is almost certainly tied to their commitment to continue to win. If Beal stays, Westbrook likely stays. If Beal asks for a trade, Westbrook and the rest of the Wizards roster becomes available for trade. Given the salary commitment to Westbrook, the Lakers could put together a package of smaller salaries that would be more easily tradable, like a Kentavious Caldwell-Pope or Montrezl Harrell, paired with younger players like Talen Horton-Tucker or Kyle Kuzma.

If Washington wanted to save money in the wake of a Beal departure, finding a trade partner for Westbrook would be difficult due to his salary. Even after a good season in Washington, matching $44.2 million in salary while also finding a team interested in Westbrook’s services is remarkably difficult. The Lakers are a rare combination of a team that could value Westbrook and have the contracts available to make a trade.

The Lakers would view this as a win-now move. Championship windows are unpredictable in how long they’ll be open. Last season drove that point home for the franchise. In acquiring Westbrook, you find a third star that can offer skillsets the Lakers desire, and potentially with minimal cost to the future.

While it’s impossible to know the exact trade package, Westbrook’s large salary gives a good idea of which players will need to be included. Caldwell-Pope and Kuzma are names that have reportedly been offered to teams across the league and seem likely to be included. If Harrell opts into his contract, that trio would be enough financially in a trade package to net Westbrook and — whether one likes Westbrook or not — would ultimately not be a package that would hurt the Lakers’ long-term cap outlook.

Most importantly, unlike acquiring a starrier point guard in a sign-and-trade, a deal for Westbrook would not hard-cap the Lakers and would allow them to potentially re-sign Horton-Tucker and Alex Caruso, two important guards for the present and future of the team. Dennis Schröder, one of the names Spears reported in the trade, could be included in the deal if the Wizards see him as a long-term fit as part of a sign-and-trade. In Schröder’s case, the Lakers would be parting with a player that does not appear to have a future in Los Angeles anyway, and a Westbrook trade would be a way of getting a better player in return for a departing one.

Horton-Tucker and Alex Caruso also could be sign-and-trade options that would be tougher departures for fans to swallow as likely the two best young players the team currently has. With Caruso, it’d be another situation of gaining an asset for a player that could leave for nothing, while parting with Horton-Tucker would hurt, but Westbrook is a better player in the present which is what matters to a Lakers team vying for a title.

And for as much as fans love assets, trading for a proven NBA player, which Westbrook still is, sends a clear message to James, Davis and other stars across the league that the Lakers will do whatever it takes to win a title when that window is open. Westbrook is also still a game-changing player. For all his flaws, he’s a player that can enforce his will onto the game, a rare trait among players in the NBA and one the Lakers would love to have. For all the focus on what he can’t do — namely, make threes — there is a lack of focus on all the productive things he can help with, like igniting the team’s fast break and serving as another playmaker to take pressure off of James and Davis.

Westbrook’s contract is also set to expire after the 2022-23 season, the same as James’, meaning the Lakers aren’t sacrificing financial flexibility in the future either. Los Angeles would still be able to head into the 2023 offseason with Davis and a whole host of cap space to land one or two stars as well.

Westbrook wouldn’t be the perfect fit alongside James and Davis, but it doesn’t mean the Lakers can’t find success with him. Each of the last two Lakers teams, non-shooting point guards in Schröder and Rajon Rondo played prominent roles and had success at times, including winning a title with the latter. Neither of those point guards were as talented as Westbrook in other facets of the game, either.

Trading for Westbrook would be a risk for the Lakers, but a calculated one that wouldn’t sacrifice too much of their future, would improve the present and could be a move that pushes the team one big step closer to banner No. 18. It likely won’t be available for them until the Beal domino falls however, and whether one likes this deal or not, Beal asking out would undoubtedly create more options for the Lakers, which is always a good thing. Now it’s just a matter of waiting for them to materialize.

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