What happens after that, however, will be the Lakers’ choice. And while it feels unlikely that either party would actually want to run things back after a truly disastrous first year together in Los Angeles, if the team can’t find a trade for Westbrook this summer and are dead-set against bringing him back, one other option they could utilize is the waive and stretch provision of the collective bargaining agreement.
By “stretching” Westbrook, they could cut him at any point from July 1 to Aug. 31 and spread the final year of his deal over the next three seasons, essentially splitting up his massive final year into three slightly more manageable $15.6 million cap hits, a choice that would potentially allow them to afford to keep Malik Monk. Rob Pelinka utilized this maneuver before to get rid of Luol Deng and free up cap space.
The reporting on whether or not the Lakers would actually stretch Russ has been mixed so far. Veteran NBA insider Marc Stein wrote on Substack that the team hasn’t ruled out doing so, but Jake Fischer of Bleacher Report says that he’s been told such a scenario is “unlikely.” Ramona Shelburne of ESPN was the latest to report on the issue in her deep dive on where things went so wrong for the Lakers this year, and according to her sources, it doesn’t sound like the Lakers are willing to exchange future flexibility for a bit more wiggle room in the short term (via ESPN, emphasis mine):
But there is no easy way to change the core group of James, Davis and Westbrook. The Lakers were reluctant to incentivize a trade for Westbrook by adding in their 2027 first-round pick at the trade deadline, especially when they have so few future draft assets to trade following the acquisition of Davis in 2019. Sources said they are similarly disinclined to tie up their salary cap in the future via a waive-and-stretch provision after finally completing the waive-and-stretch deal for Luol Deng this season ($5 million of the Lakers’ cap in 2021-22 was dead money from Deng’s deal).
And while it might be possible to trade Westbrook in the offseason, those deals are very limited because of his monstrous $47 million salary.
And if a trade can’t be found and stretching is indeed off the table, Shelburne’s reporting suggests that Westbrook isn’t planning to take a buyout, either:
One option: Westbrook considering a buyout of the final year of his contract, but at least for now, sources close to the 2017 MVP expressed pessimism he would do that.
There is no reason for Westbrook or anyone in his camp to admit they would take less money to bail out the Lakers at this point, just like the Lakers have no motivation to preemptively announce that they will consider paying Westbrook his entire salary to play for another team. So obviously take all of this posturing with a big grain of salt, but it’s also worth noting that just buying Westbrook out wouldn’t get the team any extra cap room or anything. Westbrook’s cap hit would be the same unless they stretch it. They’d just save a bit of coin on ownership’s final bill by buying him out, so there is no real reason for them to do th... oh, wait, never mind, they’d definitely consider that, then.
But in all seriousness, a buyout or stretching Westbrook were never likely to be the Lakers’ first options for how to handle this. The safer bet is that they will try everything in their power to trade him when the NBA Draft draws closer and more teams are open for business. If they can’t find a deal for him then, and his presence on the roster lingers into August, then buyout or stretching talk might start to become a more real consideration after a months-long game of high-stakes chicken.
Until then, however, all of this feels like necessary information, but on options that weren’t likely going to be at the top of the team’s priority list anyway.