In the quest to expunge Russell Westbrook’s $47 million expiring salary from their 2022-23 salary cap sheet, the Lakers — despite their anonymous and on-the-record insistence to the contrary — will be beggars, not choosers.
For now, the Lakers are reportedly continuing to shoot for the moon with their sights set on actualizing both their “Plan A” of Kyrie Irving, and “Plan B” in either Eric Gordon or their long-rumored target Buddy Hield.
However, with few desirable assets to sweeten any deal for Westbrook or other fungible contracts to move in a second trade, the Lakers might be stuck turning towards a “Plan C,” if you will. Instead of landing a third high-caliber star to pair with LeBron James and Anthony Davis, or elite role players on shorter contracts that won’t impact their long-term financial flexibility, the Lakers might be stuck in between the two with their only options — at least if they’re still hesitant to part with both their available first-round picks — being to take on another overpaid semi-star on a longer contract or simply keeping Westbrook.
One of the most logical “Plan Cs” that has been bandied about this offseason would see a player that the Lakers drafted all the way back in 2014 finally come home.
In his most recent Substack newsletter, one of longtime NBA insider Marc Stein’s sources suggested Randle’s return to Los Angeles as a potential solution to both the Lakers’ talent deficit and the Knicks’ overstuffed cap sheet through 2025-26, the final year of Randle’s current contract:
Yet one league source advised me in Las Vegas to keep an eye on the Knicks and Lakers discussing a potential Westbrook deal if — IF — Leon Rose can successfully bring Donovan Mitchell to Madison Square Garden. The source’s thinking: After adding Mitchell, New York would be expected to explore scenarios to trade away Julius Randle. And Randle, just one season removed from his breakthrough to All-Star and All-NBA status, is presumably the sort of player that the Lakers would have to consider taking on if — IF — they are unable to use Westbrook’s $47.1 million expiring contract in a trade for Kyrie Irving. Randle, 27, is entering Year 1 of a four-year deal with the Knicks worth $117 million ($106 million guaranteed) and, of course, played his first four NBA seasons with the Lakers.
Still owed the entirety of his four-year, $117 million extension that kicks in this upcoming season (with a player option in the final year), it’s not hard to see why the Knicks would rather spend that money elsewhere, especially with Randle taking a step after his All-NBA campaign in 2020-21 and Donovan Mitchell’s rumored potential availability via trade.
With the entire NBA in a holding pattern until the Nets figure out how to handle Kevin Durant’s trade request, it may be a while before any of the aforementioned dominoes begin to fall. Nonetheless, it’s worth evaluating whether the reacquisition of Julius Randle would even make sense for the Lakers from a basketball perspective.
More than anything else, the Lakers need 3-and-D wings — guys who can guard multiple positions and knock down shots from the perimeter in order to lighten the defensive load for LeBron and AD and space the floor for them on offense. And if they can’t figure out a way to acquire players who can do both, they absolutely must provide a boon in one of those two categories. In assessing whether Randle can plug at least one of the Lakers’ two gaping holes, they need to figure out which version of him they should expect to sign up for.
In 2020-21, Randle was the season’s 19th leading scorer (24.1 points per game) on just below league average efficiency (51.6 eFG% compared to 53.8 eFG). In 2021-22, Randle’s scoring output and efficiency fell off a cliff, averaging 20.1 points per game on 45.9 eFG% compared to a league average of 53.2 eFG%.
For a point of comparison, Westbrook finished his horrendously inefficient campaign with the Lakers with a 47.6 eFG%, almost two percentage points better than Randle last season.
Of course, any one stat fails to tell the whole story about a player’s season, but adding a player who is coming off of a season where he scored less efficiently from the field than Westbrook did last season feels like a non-starter.
Despite heading into his ninth NBA season, Julius Randle is still only 27 years old, and at least a few years away from where you’d expect a normal, non-LeBron aging curve to begin to take its toll.
So what happened to Randle between his second and third seasons on the Knicks?
One of his biggest points of regression was from beyond the arc. Randle shot a downright Westbrookian 30.8% on threes, losing more than 10 percentage points off of the 41.1% he shot from downtown in his prior, breakout campaign. Incredibly, Randle concluded 2021-22 with a 41.1% overall field goal percentage in an unfortunate case of bizarre statistical synchronicity.
While Randle’s shot-making ability from deep certainly took a dive last season, it’s worth noting that it fell below even his own sub-par 33.2% career mark, and occurred on some seriously tough shot quality as the central hub of the Knicks’ stagnant, 21st-ranked offense. According to the Basketball Index, Randle’s 2021-22 3-point shot quality ranked in the fourth percentile of all NBA players, meaning he took tougher threes than 96% of the NBA.
While it’s unlikely he ever shoots over 40% from three again in his career — especially on mostly contested looks like he did in 2020-21 — playing beside one of the game’s premier playmakers in LeBron James would almost certainly buoy his raw percentage on threes towards at least league average or better. In fact, the Basketball Index gave Randle’s Perimeter Shooting talent during the 2021-22 season a solid B grade due to the brutal quality of his looks, a respectable mark, albeit still a steep drop-off from the A+ he received for his marksmanship during the previous season.
While he probably isn’t exactly a knockdown guy, Randle would likely shoot well enough to passably space the floor for L.A.’s top duo.
And even in his down year, Randle remained an elite playmaker and rebounder, dishing out 5 assists per game and pulling down 9.9 boards, a couple of skills that are always nice to have, but not quite as valuable when your team already has one of the sport’s best in either category — as we saw with Westbrook last season.
On defense, Randle isn’t staunch enough to slot into a true 3-and-D role, but he’s not quite a targetable disaster either. Typically, Randle spent his time on defense guarding lower-usage 4s, and did a below-average job doing so. If you can hide him in that role, his deficiencies can prove to be relatively harmless, but the Lakers would likely hope to hold that space open for a year-20 LeBron looking to save his legs for a primary shot-creation role on offense, especially over the course of the regular season. Especially with Darvin Ham’s insistence on a defense-first brand of basketball, Randle seems to lack the latter half of the 3-and-D equation the Lakers need so desperately.
And still, defense isn’t even the biggest red flag when it comes to Randle’s potential reunion with the Lakers this coming season.
Despite being a relatively valuable offensive contributor, almost all of what Randle does comes out of isolation. Again, according to the Basketball Index, he isolated more than 96% of NBA players last season, a style of play that simply wouldn’t fly beside LeBron or Anthony Davis. While one would hope Randle could adjust his role within a hypothetically more dynamic offense than the one the Knicks ran last season, he’s scarcely shown a particular aptitude for thriving in the kinds of off-ball roles asked of LeBron’s teammates.
During his three seasons with the Knicks, Randle has never posted a Movement Attack Rating better than D, according to the Basketball Index, representative of the percentage of his half-court output stemming from off-ball actions like screens, cuts, and put-backs. He also rarely rolls when he does set screens, typically preferring to pick and pop, a skill that would complement the Lakers’ top duo’s interior dominance — if only he was a veritable sniper.
In general, there’s some ball-stopping to Randle’s style of play that works best when he’s the centerpiece of an offense, given time and space to reset things and go to work, but he isn’t efficient enough at volume to be that guy on a contending team, or malleable enough to slot lower in the pecking order on one.
Also, all of that ignores the acrimonious terms on which Randle left the Lakers. After asking for the Lakers to renounce his rights when they made it clear he’d be back in a reduced role, Randle took a two-year deal with the Pelicans, which preceded his ultimate arrival in New York. Although returning to L.A. would also reunite him with fellow former Kentucky Wildcat and New Orleans Pelican Anthony Davis, his relationship with the franchise could be an impediment to any smooth re-acclimation.
Still, almost anything is better than what the Lakers got from Westbrook last season.
However, for the reasons above, namely, his defense and ancillary offensive value, Julius Randle would be an imperfect fit with what the 2021-22 Lakers currently have. And since they’d have to pay him for the next four seasons, he probably doesn’t make a ton of sense as a player to target given the team’s desire for financial flexibility when they could be turning the page from the LeBron-AD era.
So maybe the Lakers look at bringing back Randle if Plans A and B do end up falling through, but he might ultimately be a better fit as a Plan G, H, or I than all the way up at C.
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.