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Report: Hornets still have ‘real’ interest in Russell Westbrook as trade target

With the Charlotte Hornets set for a financial crunch beginning this offseason, Russell Westbrook could still be a real trade target for them.

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NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Los Angeles Lakers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

For all the posturing the Lakers have done when it comes to keeping Russell Westbrook this offseason, one of the first teams rumored to have interest in trading for him in the Charlotte Hornets still might still be the most likely to roster him come opening night.

While the noise dwindled during the postseason, it has picked back up again in the days and weeks before the start of free agency. Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer has the latest report on the interest between the Lakers and Charlotte in his latest 2022 mock draft:

The Russell Westbrook interest that Marc Stein reported months back is real. Though Westbrook makes little sense as a player next to Ball, he does have an expiring contract and the Hornets could be dropping the bag for restricted free agent Miles Bridges, plus LaMelo Ball’s extension is around the corner. It’s a good time to move some other long-term salary (e.g., Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier) for an expiring deal in Russ. They could also explore moving up from 13 and 15 into the top 10. No matter what, the Hornets should prioritize finding a big scoring wing who can complement LaMelo. Bridges is good. With him or not, the Hornets need someone.

A swap of Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier for Russ would save the Hornets money in the short and longterm future. Next season, the Hornets would save $4.4 million, and then shed all of Westbrook’s money when he becomes a free agent after next season. Alternatively, Hayward and Rozier are set to make around $54.7 million combined next season. Rozier’s contract runs through the 2025-26 season at $24.9 and $26.6 million in the final two years, while Hayward stands to make $31.5 million in 2023-24, the final year of his deal.

While each has hefty contracts and certain narratives of underperformance due to their high pay, both have been mighty productive in Charlotte. In the 2020-21 season, both were borderline All-Stars in the first half. Hayward’s injury issues are well-documented, but Rozier has been a consistently solid backcourt mate for LaMelo Ball.

Over the last two seasons, Rozier has averaged 20.9 points, 4.6 assists and 4.6 rebounds while shooting 44.7% from the field and 38.1% from behind the 3-point line. He’s developed into a great off-ball guard with a dependable jumper, scoring 1.13 points per possession (PPP) in spot-up opportunities last season according to the NBA’s tracking data. For reference, DJ Augustin (1.52 PPP) and Wayne Ellington (1.37 PPP) were the only Lakers north of that mark last season.

Ultimately though, if it happens, this will be a deal driven by the financial side of things. Shams Charania of The Athletic offered a peek into the Hornets’ fiduciary context (emphasis mine).

Rival executives expect Hornets restricted free agent Miles Bridges to command a maximum — or near-max — deal in July, and sources said there’s hesitancy from Charlotte to match a max sheet. Bridges had a breakout season in 2021-22, averaging 20.2 points, seven rebounds and 3.8 assists per game. In a league that saw wings such as Golden State’s Andrew Wiggins and Boston’s Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have game-changing impacts on a run to the NBA Finals, Bridges’ two-way ability on the wing has become incredibly valued toward winning.

In trading away Hayward and Rozier, the Hornets would clear over $106 million in future money that could be committed to Miles Bridges, LaMelo Ball and P.J. Washington, all of whom are set to enter free agency or become extension eligible in the next two years.

Now, that $106 million coming onto the Lakers’ cap sheet wouldn’t be ideal for their longterm roster flexibility, but between the additions of both Rozier and Hayward, the trade would significantly improve the Lakers’ chances of contending in what could be LeBron James’ final season as a Laker.

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