While the season is not officially over, all eyes from Lakers fans are focused on the upcoming offseason. The trio of LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook sitting out Thursday’s game is likely a precursor to them not playing again this season for the purple and gold, all but signaling a shift in focus towards the summer internally as well.
There are a number of very big questions the Lakers need to answer this season, but no two are bigger than those surrounding the future of both Russell Westbrook and general manager Rob Pelinka. Both had disappointing 2021-22 seasons, but will the franchise move on from both or either of them this summer?
Here’s a look at the latest headlines and reports surrounding the pair.
The Lakers may be willing to stretch Russell Westbrook’s contract
It will be exceedingly difficult for the Lakers to move Westbrook in a trade given just how enormous his contract is. Even as an expiring deal, $47 million is a LOT of money. And if the team can’t find a trade partner, an entirely plausible scenario, there are other options the team may consider to get Westbrook off the roster. And yes, he will likely be on the roster at the start of the offseason, as he’s made it clear that his plan is to opt into the final year of his deal.
One of the options for the Lakers to move on from that financially onerous player option — outside of a trade — is to waive and stretch Westbrook’s final year, a scenario that is still on the table for the team, according to veteran NBA insider Marc Stein’s latest Substack dispatch:
The Lakers, league sources say, have not ruled out simply parting ways with Westbrook via the waive-and-stretch provision.
A straight release of Westbrook that essentially transforms his mammoth player option for next season into what lives on their books as a three-year deal in the $15 million range annually would move the Lakers out of luxury-tax territory and make it far easier for them to retain free agent-to-be Malik Monk, who at times has unexpectedly appeared to be the Lakers’ most dependable player not named LeBron James throughout a nightmarish 31-48 campaign.
Facilitating Monk’s return might be reason enough for the Lakers to go this route and is expected, league sources say, to be under consideration.
Notably, this runs contrary to a report from fellow NBA insider Jake Fischer of Bleacher Report, who has said he was told after he wrote about the possibility of stretching Westbrook that such a scenario is “very unlikely.”
But while Westbrook’s cap hold would be an albatross on the books for multiple years, spreading it out over three years instead of only the 2022-23 season would allow the Lakers to build a roster in the short-term more competitive than the 2021-22 version, which may be the goal in potentially the final year with the pairing of LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
More specifically, as Stein notes, it would help the Lakers retain Malik Monk. After his breakout year in Los Angeles, the Lakers will find it tough to re-sign Monk with their current payroll including Westbrook. While waiving and stretching Westbrook could be seen as a short-sighted decision, it would potentially have some long-term benefits as well if it allows the team to retain Monk for multiple seasons.
Rob Pelinka is safe from getting fired (for a year at least), and so is everyone else at the top
As mentioned, the acquisition of Westbrook will be tied to Pelinka as his big swing and miss this offseason. In reality, a general manager that put together a team that flamed out and outright failed this badly would likely be fired by just about every other organization.
But the nepotism and cronyism runs deep within the Lakers, and so, despite back-to-back woeful title defenses after winning in 2020, Pelinka’s will get one more year to try to right his wrongs, according to Eric Pincus of Bleacher Report:
There’s no evidence that team governor Jeanie Buss, who holds roughly two-thirds of the franchise alongside her siblings, is looking to sell the Lakers. Barring something completely unexpected, significant changes seem unlikely.
Buss relies heavily on the council of Linda and Kurt Rambis—professional and personal relationships that go back several decades. That, too, isn’t likely to change.
The buzz around the league suggests general manager Rob Pelinka has another year to get the Lakers back on track. The blame internally appears to be focused on injuries, Russell Westbrook and LeBron James for pressuring the team to trade for Westbrook.
James may have as much power as any player in the NBA, but he’s not in charge, and the front office celebrated Westbrook’s arrival. Leadership must take responsibility for recent failures, but it doesn’t sound like any key roles are set to change in the immediate future.
A lot of people need to be held accountable for how the Lakers failed so badly this season and put together a roster so deeply flawed, LeBron James and Klutch Sports among them. But you can’t — and shouldn’t — fire LeBron or Klutch, and you can do that to Pelinka.
It would be a little bit of scapegoating, though certainly not undeserving. And it wouldn’t be nearly as bad as the scapegoating Pelinka and the front office are about to do to head coach Frank Vogel.
Predictably, fans are not nearly as forgiving as Jeanie Buss and the non-Pelinka Lakers brass. Our latest SB Nation Reacts survey showed that a very, very large majority of purple and gold fans think Pelinka should be fired this offseason.
So, basically, Pelinka is very fortunate to have another year at the helm of the Lakers. Perhaps the good news is that everyone will know it’s a make or break year for him, himself included, and will hopefully lead to some wiser decisions to try to get the Lakers back to title-winning ways.
Or it will lead to his final year in charge, seemingly a form of a win-win for Lakers fans.