We are now nearing a full year (if we haven’t reached that mark already) of constant trade rumors involving the Los Angeles Lakers. They’re not stopping any time soon, and Russell Westbrook, Patrick Beverley, and Kendrick Nunn will continue to rank in the top five of “Trending players being traded” within Fanspo’s trade machine.
Those three players are constantly linked in trades for obvious reasons: They’re the only players on deals larger than the veteran’s minimum other than LeBron James and Anthony Davis. However, they also share another commonality: The fact that they are all guards.
Although the Lakers’ hand is forced given these are the only three salaries they can realistically trade, getting rid of these three players (or maybe only one or two of them) serves the secondary purpose of reducing the glut of ballhandlers on a team that also includes guys like Dennis Schröder, Lonnie Walker and Austin Reaves. And with reported targets being players like Buddy Hield, Bojan Bogdanovic and some dude named Kyle Kuzma, among others, it’s plain to see that Rob Pelinka hopes to improve this team at the wing position at the same time as when he cleans up that clutter at guard.
However, even while keeping this positional imbalance on the roster in mind, I’ve started to become worried about the Lakers’ guard position with or without trades involving Westbrook, Beverley and Nunn.
I’m not a fool. The Lakers would undoubtedly be better if they replaced Beverley and/or Nunn with one of those aforementioned wings. I don’t even have to do a deep dive into statistical analysis to prove this. Just consider this fact about those two guards when compared to Bogdanovic and Hield, while also thinking about the fact that the Lakers rank dead-last in the NBA in 3-point percentage.
Here's a fun fact:— Donny McHenry (@donny_mchenry) December 15, 2022
Beverley and Nunn have combined to make 35 3-pointers this season
If you doubled that to 70, it still wouldn't get to Bogdanovic's (76 3PMs) and Hield's (104 3PMs) totals
But still, I can’t help but worry about how a trade (or trades) involving both Westbrook and Beverley could negatively affect this team. Like I said, the result would almost certainly be a net positive, but it should not be overlooked that the Lakers would be losing 54.8 combined minutes per game at the guard position with no incoming players at that spot to fill the void.
The easy answer to that would be small increases to the minutes of guys like Schröder, Reaves and Lonnie, with those increases only needing to be minor given the fact that these trades would hopefully eliminate the three-guard lineups we see so often (and that currently exists in the starting lineup, with that issue being a topic for another article).
But even with that fix taken into consideration — and as our own Darius Soriano illustrated in a recent piece — I think we shouldn’t take what Westbrook has brought to this team since being moved to the bench for granted.
I wrote about how the concept of trading Russ has been impacted by…Russ playing better & how he’s helped the Lakers: https://t.co/ckelSF1Ihp— Darius Soriano (@forumbluegold) December 13, 2022
Since being moved to the bench, Westbrook has had a 2.06 assist-to-turnover ratio, which is a solid bump up from the 1.86 ratio he had during the 2021-22 campaign. He’s producing 7.9 assists per game overall since going to the bench, leading the team in that statistic. His 27.3% usage rate is only a shade off of two leaders on the team in LeBron (30.7%) and Anthony Davis (28.6%).
Who will fill the role that Westbrook has so successfully filled if he were to be traded away? Schröder or Reaves could theoretically pick up ball-handling duties with the bench lineups that have included Thomas Bryant and Wenyen Gabriel — amongst others — feasting off beautiful Westbrook dishes and dimes. But would those lineups be able to have as much success without Westbrook’s blistering speed? Schröder and Reaves would improve on Westbrook in some ways, but they will certainly not be able to replace that aspect of his contributions.
And what about other times throughout the Lakers’ games? In overtime of Tuesday’s loss vs. the Celtics, LeBron was seemingly too tired to handle primary ball-handling duties, with the team opting to go to Westbrook and Davis pick-and-rolls early and often. It was arguably one of the factors that ended up costing the Lakers the game, and if Westbrook wasn’t on the team during that game, LeBron would have had to initiate those plays. But when thinking about a hypothetical post-trade(s) Lakers team, that’s a lot of new primary playmaker pressure on LeBron, who will turn 38 in two weeks.
Hopefully Tuesday’s Celtics game was an isolated incident in terms of LeBron being exhausted down the stretch. He and Davis may have made a mistake in wanting to play the entire fourth quarter to finish the game off. Hindsight is 20/20, as I’m sure they would have loved a little extra time on the bench in the middle of that final frame if they knew an overtime was coming.
In future situations where LeBron and Davis hopefully have enough in the tank to win a close game, it would definitely help them to have Darvin Ham’s decision to play-or-not-play Westbrook taken entirely out of his hands by putting Russ on another team. In those future hypothetical situations, the Lakers’ abysmal clutch time statistics (worst net rating in the NBA in those late-game situations) should improve with the ball in LeBron’s hands more often.
But in addition to the common-sense strategy of LeBron handling the ball more in crunch time, he will also be depended on to handle the ball way more often in the preceding three quarters than what he has become accustomed to so far this season if the Lakers were to lose Westbrook (and Beverley). And I don’t know if that’s a responsibility LeBron wants, given the moves he’s vouched for in the past (*cough* Westbrook *cough*), or if he’s even physically capable of doing it more than he already is in year 20.
LeBron has slowly shown signs of aging throughout his time on the Lakers, but the decline this year seems more visibly apparent than in past seasons. And that’s not to say that his 3-point shot, general otherworldly IQ, and recently-developed big-man skills can’t continue to result in him being an All-NBA player. But asking him to highlight those skills presents a much less-severe physical challenge than it does to have him be the starting and closing point guard like he was during the 2019-20 championship season.
There’s no easy answer here. The Lakers may be able to acquire a difference-making wing or two, but finding a ball-handling guard that fits well next to LeBron James and Anthony Davis is a whole other ask. Of course, Westbrook and Beverley didn’t really fill this role to begin with, but when/if they are traded, the Lakers will have to look internally instead of externally to replace them with people that actually positively impact the team with their ballhandling.
Do Schröder, Reaves, or even the great LeBron have what it takes to make that work for 48 total minutes? Once Pelinka and the front office stop torturing us with constantly shifting deadlines... we may just find out.