Before the Lakers’ 2021-22 season was even over, there were reports that the team and Russell Westbrook had mutual interest in parting ways this offseason, indicating that the team would be looking for a trade partner in the 2021 offseason to take on Westbrook’s expiring contract (provided he opts into his $47 million player option).
Westbrook’s exit interview made a breakup feel even more inevitable, as he expressed annoyance at past comments made by LeBron James and Anthony Davis in reference to what his role would be for the team.
When @DanWoikeSports mentions that LeBron and AD said many times throughout the year, "Let Russ be Russ," Russell Westbrook immediately responds: "Yeah, but that wasn't true. Let's be honest."— Kyle Goon (@kylegoon) April 11, 2022
With just a little over a month passing since that exit interview... somehow, someway... there are now reports making it seem like it’s not a certainty that Westbrook has played his last game in the purple-and-gold.
These reports include the fact that Jeanie Buss is being heavily advised by Phil Jackson, with the Zen Master seemingly a big fan of Westbrook, coaching interviews including questions of how the candidates would incorporate him into their team, and most recently, the fact that the Lakers haven’t ruled out anything when it comes to Westbrook’s future.
Many have theorized that most of this is just the Lakers trying to gain leverage in trade discussions. But... what if it’s not leverage? What if it’s an earnest attempt to prepare the Lakers’ faithful for the actual possibility that Westbrook could return?
That thought is likely to send chills down any Lakers fan’s spine... but maybe it shouldn’t.
Maybe Westbrook could still help this team.
If you haven’t already closed this article due to me even entertaining the idea of the Lakers actually being good with Westbrook on the team, humor me as I think about the ways that the team could improve even with Westbrook on the squad.
Because at this stage of the offseason, to quote a certain former All-Star... Why Not?
Speaking of Westbrook’s exit interview, the recently fired Frank Vogel was prominently discussed in it, as Westbrook wondered why they couldn’t get along. Westbrook even brought up how he bought Vogel a bottle of champagne for his wedding anniversary, something I guess he thought could have made the two have a good relationship even with Westbrook (allegedly) fighting with coaches in the film room when they critiqued his (obviously poor) shot selection.
But it was pretty obvious even before those comments that Westbrook never respected Vogel. That exact sentiment was eventually reported by the L.A. Times, indicating the championship head coach didn’t get respect from Westbrook “from day one”.
So what if the front office hires a head coach this offseason that has the approval of Westbrook, LeBron, and Davis? That type of unified belief could at least get the vibes right for the start of the year, something that definitely didn’t happen in the 2021-22 campaign.
In addition, Vogel was obviously inept at getting enough offensive output from this team, even when factoring in the spacing issues caused by Westbrook and the injuries to the team’s best players. Even during the 2019-20 championship season, the Lakers were only 11th in offensive rating, sandwiched between the 10th and 12th-seeded Suns and Spurs that year.
Former Trail Blazers coach and current Lakers candidate Terry Stotts could almost definitely find ways to maximize this clunky superstar trio’s offense better than what Vogel managed. There’s also the possibility that the team plucks Scott Brooks from Chauncey Billups’ current Trail Blazers staff, as it wouldn’t hurt to have the guy who has brought the best out of Westbrook-led teams around if Russ were to stay.
A better roster (please)
Although Rob Pelinka literally and foolishly said on camera that the 2021-22 Lakers roster arguably has “the greatest basketball talent assembled on a team in recent history”... he was wrong. It was arguably the opposite of that, as the Lakers swung and missed on far too many free agency signings (DeAndre Jordan, Trevor Ariza, Kendrick Nunn, Kent Bazemore, etc.).
But at least half, if not more of the Lakers’ roster of this year will be gone by next season, and with plenty of lessons learned and a new head coach, maybe the team can get far more efficiency on both sides of the ball, even with Westbrook still around.
It probably won’t be a fun season if Austin Reaves and Stanley Johnson are starting again, but I’m using this example below as they are two players who are nearly guaranteed to be on the squad next season with the team options that the Lakers have on their contracts. When you take a look at their offensive metrics below (from B-Ball Index) alongside the Lakers’ Big Three compared to that of the lineup with the most minutes involving that trio from last season, you can see that the team would have almost certainly had a much better offense if this was the most used lineup.
The lineup involving Reaves and Johnson does not grade better in D-LEBRON (B-Ball Index’s all-encompassing advanced defensive analytic), but it does have a higher baseline across all of the categories when compared to the one involving Jordan and Bazemore. Most notably, the Reaves and Johnson lineup has a much higher “Defensive Positional Versatility” which basically means the parts of the lineup have a far better ability at guarding different types of positions, something that would come in handy during the playoffs where switching is heavily needed.
As I said, let’s hope Reaves and Johnson aren’t that important to the roster next season. They could be given the limited resources that Rob Pelinka will have to spend, but at least we can have peace of mind that the front office has (hopefully) learned what types of lineups and players don’t work given how disastrous of an outcome the team suffered this year, and can find better ones next season, even if Westbrook is still around.
More continuity for the three stars
There were a staggering amount of rotation and lineup changes for the Lakers due to the injuries LeBron and Davis suffered this season. The team’s Big Three only played 21 games together, going 11-10. Only six of those 21 came in the 2022 calendar year, with their work in the 2021 games basically being useless given the putrid DeAndre Jordan was consistently starting until he was benched early in a 25-point, November win against the Kings.
In a reality where those injuries didn’t happen to LeBron and Davis, who knows what this trio could have done without an impediment as big as Jordan sharing the floor with them so often. While the three shared the court with him, they had a -7.2 net rating compared to a -1.4 net rating when they were without him. But when the Big Three played without Jordan, Trevor Ariza, and Dwight Howard — the latter two of those players looking nearly as washed (if not more in Ariza’s case) as DJ — that statistic looks even better, with a +5.3 net rating.
The fit between LeBron, AD, and Russ will probably still be a little clunky to start in a new season given the above caveats as well as their overall individual strengths and weaknesses, but with a better roster and health permitting... maybe we feel much different about the heights they can reach if they can actually play a string of games together.
But even with those three things improving, Westbrook simply just has to be better for this team to have any hope in a scenario where they keep him. So while it seems foolish at this point to expect him to defy all 14 seasons of his career and turn into a defensive stalwart next year, he could at least make some layups.
Take a look at his rim shot-making which was at its worse since 2014 despite a small increase in the quality of looks he had.
This summer will tell us a lot about the Lakers, despite whatever comes out of the mouths of Rob Pelinka, LeBron James, or Russell Westbrook. If Westbrook is not dealt, it probably wouldn’t be because the new coach is enamored with leading him, or that the front office desperately wanted him back. It’ll most likely mean that a potential trade partner wanted more draft capital (or assets in Talen Horton-Tucker and/or Kendrick Nunn) than what the team was willing to give up.
Still, even with all of the potential reasons to believe things can’t be this bad again, if Westbrook does stay, common sense dictates that the Lakers won’t be winning a championship with him next season, even if they were to reach the playoffs.
But honestly, the chances of them winning a championship in 2023 seem only slightly increased if they were to deal Westbrook away. They’ll still have nearly zero cap space to throw at free agents, they’ll have a coach in his first season with the franchise, and LeBron and Davis may continue to be injury-riddled.
Will the Lakers mortgage even more of their future by dealing additional picks just to see what that pipe dream looks like? Or will they try to lessen how bad this potential rebuilding period could be?
Either way... at least it’s only up from here in terms of how good the team is with Westbrook around, right?
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