It’s been a wild ride for Russell Westbrook through his two seasons in Los Angeles. Alternating between homecoming hero to villain to homecoming hero (kind of) once again, Westbrook has hardly had smooth sailing with the Lakers.
His latest upswing could hardly have come at a better time. With the situation long, long past the breaking point and Westbrook’s departure feeling inevitable, his change to a sixth man has perhaps saved him from being traded.
It’s been a strong run for Russ off the bench and, as a result, the Lakers appear less likely to trade him now, according to Sam Amick of The Athletic in a piece on Thursday.
According to a source with knowledge of the Lakers’ plans, Westbrook’s play this past month has made it increasingly unlikely that he will be traded before the league’s Feb. 9 deadline. Since becoming a sixth man on Oct. 28, the 34-year-old, who is in the final year of his (massive) contract, has averaged 15.2 points, 7.9 assists, 5.8 rebounds, 3.8 turnovers and 28.2 minutes. For the sake of perspective, only six players (Luka Dončić, Nikola Jokić, Ja Morant, Pascal Siakam, Jrue Holiday and James Harden) have met those 15-7–and-5 marks so far this season. The Lakers have gone 11-12 in that span.
There are two sides to this. On the one hand, Russ has truly been a productive player off the bench, as Amick detailed with the statistical averages. Even that has been limited as he’s had a negative net rating off the bench this season at -3.4. Basically, he set the bar so low in his first season that being an average or maybe slightly below-average role player feels like a home run.
The other side of this report could be that the Lakers are posturing. Russ playing well has left open the possibility that he does in fact remain with the team, at least in the short term. If anything, it doesn’t feel quite as inevitable that he’s gone.
As a result, it’s given the Lakers a bit of leverage they didn’t have. Ultimately, Russ would offer immense financial relief to a team that’s trading for him. That aspect won’t lose value as the season goes along. If anything, it increases.
The problem is, if this is posturing, it’s some very in-depth posturing that involves Jeanie Buss, as Amick also noted in his article (emphasis mine).
Westbrook may not be thrilled with the role, but his improved play and intensity speak volumes about his willingness to accept the reality that it’s the right move for this team. This is why Lakers owner Jeanie Buss was known to be reluctant to give up on Westbrook in those days leading into training camp, when they came so close to doing the well-chronicled deal with Indiana that would have sent Westbrook to the Pacers in exchange for big man Myles Turner and sharpshooter Buddy Hield.
To the best of our knowledge based on what’s been previously reported, Jeanie’s never stepped in and stopped a deal so there’s no reason to think she would now. But it’s not great that her influence could be looming over the front office.
Is all of this the Lakers playing hardball, hoping to convince a team they really may not trade him or is this team still looking for deals to improve upon Westbrook’s improved production? The bad news is, we likely won’t have our answer for another two months.