In their search for a potential trade partner to offload the final year of Russell Westbrook’s $47 million contract — presuming he does in fact pick up his player option before the June 30 deadline — the Lakers will be in a desperately tough spot.
Not only is Westbrook’s contract prohibitively expensive — so much so that at almost 40% of the projected 2022-23 salary cap, team-building around him becomes hyper-limited — he was also one of the worst volume usage players in the NBA this season. Further, LeBron’s age and the possibility of his impending free agency means that the Lakers’ window of contention is closing quickly, if it hasn’t already, forcing them to gun for major upgrades this offseason.
The Lakers’ first order of business in rebuilding a contender has to be excising the on-and-off-the-court toxic presence that Russell Westbrook became. However, the convergence between the Lakers’ urgency and Westbrook’s current standing around the league begs the question: Why would another team trade their good players for the Lakers’ particularly disruptive one?
For one, Westbrook’s expiring money provides an opportunity for another organization to expunge longer-term matching salary from their books. And two, a franchise could be willing to part with flawed-but-viable rotation players if the Lakers are willing to attach at least one of the two future first round draft picks they will be allowed to trade come draft night.
Since the lead-up to this season’s trade deadline, the Rockets, Pacers, Knicks, and Pistons have all been either hypothesized or reported as potential partners to take on Westbrook’s contract for either one or both of the aforementioned reasons.
Recently, however, the buzz around the Charlotte Hornets has grown particularly noisy in recent days. As suggested by Marc Stein in his newsletter, the Lakers could build a trade around one of two sizable contracts on Buzz City’s books — either Gordon Hayward’s remaining two-years and $61 million, or Terry Rozier’s outstanding four-year, $96 million extension that will kick-in at the start of next season. Stein has suggested that the Lakers would favor a deal built around Rozier rather than Hayward due to Rozier’s superior track record when it comes to staying on the court and injury-free.
Both of these expensive, expansive contracts certainly seem to align with the short-term for long-term money component of a best-fitting suitor, though it remains unclear what kind of draft capital the Lakers might need to fork over in order to make a deal around either player, or both.
But despite the Lakers’ reported preference, I am less sold on Scary Terry being a better fit on the team than the literal gamer who once said he’d “crush” LeBron in a game of one-on-one (in the video game, League of Legends).
In what could be the final year of LeBron James’ tenure with the Lakers, the team must do everything within its power to maximize its chances of winning a title, even if that means opting into some uncertainty about availability. If the Lakers spend their team-building bullets on a stabler roster incapable of winning the title at full health, they’ll have failed themselves and their fans before the season’s started.
Although Hayward’s injury concerns are legitimate, having played in just 52, 44, and 49 games over the last three seasons, compared to Rozier’s superior marks of 63, 69, and 73 games played, he’s a much better fit with the roster that the Lakers are currently projected to start camp with.
LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Talen Horton-Tucker, Austin Reaves, and Kendrick Nunn (who said he plans to pick up his player option in his exit meeting) are the only players who will definitely be on the Lakers next season — assuming Russ is traded and none of previously mentioned names are included in the deal. Also, Wenyen Gabriel and Stanley Johnson have team options, which the Lakers can and probably should choose to exercise. They could also potentially retain Malik Monk, though a reunion seems unlikely given the Lakers’ financial limitations and how much Monk is expected to command in free agency.
Within that eight-player group, they have just three players 6’8 or taller, and only one outside of their superstar duo (Gabriel). If they’re able to score viable veterans in a Westbrook trade, they absolutely must be the kinds of players capable of providing the three-and-D role the team critically lacked this year.
Among the Hornets’ theoretically available trade candidates, the 6’7 Hayward could be the perfect player to eat up off-ball playmaking duties and guard opposing wings as the Lakers’ starting 3. Rozier, on the other hand, might be the better fit next to LeBron and AD in a three-on-three tournament, as the healthier, superior scorer, but the Lakers’ current roster-building limitations demand the prioritization of adding wing depth. Bringing in another score-first guard would once again leave the team short-handed in the most crucial area with redundancies in lesser ones, so hopefully the Lakers have learned their lesson from their last two ill-fated swaps of proven defensive versatility and size for theoretical playmaking and shooting: You can’t win close games without getting stops down the stretch, and taking the ball out of LeBron’s hands is probably a bad thing.
Although he could be the best of the bunch offensively, Rozier does almost exactly what all of Nunn, Monk, and (ideally) THT are supposed to do. A LeBron James team needs some secondary playmaking, but the Lakers already have more than enough on their roster. What they don’t have, however, is complementary size and skill on the perimeter, and the Lakers must surround their star duo with some competent help at the league’s scarcest position if they hope to return to contention next season.
The combination of size, skill, and athleticism the Lakers need to flesh out their wing depth is rare, even amongst NBA players. This truth is a big part of why they failed to find viable wing talent at the minimum last offseason (Bazemore and Ariza), but scored on some frontcourt (Howard) and backcourt help (Monk) from the bargain bin. It’s also a role both Kyle Kuzma and Markieff Morris filled more than adequately during the Lakers’ 2020 title run, allowing LeBron and AD to play either forward position with enough defense and shooting around them to have success on both ends of the floor.
As a shooter, Hayward passes the mark with flying colors, having been one of the league’s most consistent marksmen in recent years. Since joining the Hornets in 2021-22, taking on a role further down the offensive food chain than that of his pre-compound fracture days in Utah, Hayward’s shot 41.5% from beyond the arc, good for 22nd in the NBA amongst those qualified for the 3-point percentage leaderboard. Per The Basketball Index ($$$), his 90th percentile shot quality suggest’s LaMelo’s feeding him great looks, but LeBron is at least as capable of creating high-quality shots for his teammates, and Hayward’s knocked them down at an elite rate.
He’s not too shabby of a defender either. The Basketball Index gave Hayward a C- perimeter defense grade, so he’s not quite a stopper, but at least he’s not a sieve. In comparison to the Lakers’ wings of this season, he grades out as significantly better than both Carmelo Anthony and Trevor Ariza, and only slightly worse than Stanley Johnson.
He’s also an outstanding passer, and from watching some Hornets games this season for Eric Collins’ infectiously electric enthusiasm for highlight plays, I would argue that Hayward is most comfortable playmaking off of others, a skill Westbrook was lacking, impeding the Lakers’ ability to gel with the Lakers in the halfcourt. The analytics from BBall-Index agree, giving him an A- Playmaking Talent grade and an A in Passing Creation Quality. Kind of like Austin Reaves or Alex Caruso, Hayward is more than capable of quickly and correctly reading the floor, transferring the advantage created by his star teammate to the open man.
Rozier grades out similarly to Hayward, as a superlative shooter, average defender, and solid playmaker, but at just 6’1, lacks the size to feasibly guard the same kinds of players that Hayward can. Also, Rozier’s probably at his best with the ball in his hands, creating shots for himself and others, a skillset that could cannibalize more than accentuate LeBron’s own superior playmaking talent, as we’ve watched happen the last two seasons. Further, his contract is two years longer than Hayward’s, which would limit the Lakers’ potential to acquire new talent via free agency when LeBron does eventually leave to play with Bronny or retire. I wouldn’t necessarily be against a Westbrook trade for both players in tandem — neither make enough on their own to match Westbrook’s salary — but if the Lakers and Hornets are going to build a deal around one of the two and a combination of expiring contracts, to me, Hayward is clearly a better fit for what L.A. desperately needs right now.
Hayward has his basketball warts, namely, his propensity for injury, and he probably no longer is the kind of sure-fire semi-star that the Lakers should be willing to attach both of their first round picks for even when healthy. He hasn’t played in a full season since gruesomely fracturing his tibia in his first game as a Celtic, but I’d take 49 games from Hayward over one more, let alone 78, from Westbrook in a heartbeat. Still, he is tall (reasonably), he can shoot from the outside (expertly), and he can guard big wings on the perimeter (decently) — three skills in one package the Lakers cannot whiff on this offseason if they hope to rebuild a contender out of the embers of this year’s pretender.
Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley — no, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can hear him on the Lakers Multiverse Podcast and find him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.