Over the past week, since Cleveland’s acquisition of Donovan Mitchell shocked the NBA landscape, momentum towards a similarly consequential deal in LakerLand has stalled. Despite the Lakers spending nearly the entire offseason searching for a Russell Westbrook trade, the general consensus is that such a deal will not happen.
Here’s why more and more people around the league expect Westbrook to stay a Laker.
Utah is only interested in a trade that nets the Jazz two first-round picks
While the Lakers harden in their stance of how many picks they want to surrender, the Jazz are in no hurry to make a deal that doesn’t pay them handsomely. After acquiring a king’s ransom for both Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, they can afford to wait until contending teams become desperate enough to overpay for their veterans.
Among those 30-plus players Utah is willing to part with are Bojan Bogdanović, Jordan Clarkson, Mike Conley, and Rudy Gay. L.A. is most taken with Bogdanović and would also presumably have interest in Malik Beasley (25 years old) and Jarred Vanderbilt (23), wings who don’t exactly have star upside, but would fit in nicely around LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
The problem is, according to Jake Fischer on the “Please Don’t Aggregate This” podcast, unless L.A. sends two firsts to the Jazz, there’s no deal:
From my understanding, Utah would be open to a various amount of structures of salaries that meet Russell Westbrook’s salary coming back so long as they get those two picks. Again, haven’t heard the Lakers have been willing to put those two picks on the board. I have heard — I don’t know if this has been offered, but there’s at least been some type of flirtation or internal meeting on the Laker side of putting a pick swap into the deal as well. So that’s a little bit more than a first. Doesn’t sound like it’s enough though from Utah’s side of things.
At the moment, the Jazz believe their three best wings — Clarkson, Bogdanović, and Beasley — will each command one first-round pick, per reporting from Zach Lowe on the latest episode of ESPN’s “The Lowe Post” podcast. The Lakers are only willing to put both their picks in for a deal that elevates them to contention, and even if that trio of wings would make L.A. a top-tier West threat, Lowe’s reporing suggests the Lakers don’t have the goods to get such a trade done.
The Lakers also appear to becoming stingier with their picks the closer they get to training camp. In a piece for Bleacher Report, Eric Pincus made it seem like the Lakers view absorbing the contract of one or more of the Jazz veterans as a favor to help Utah clear salary, so they shouldn’t have to surrender their prime draft capital to do so, even though they get the obvious benefit of adding more competent role players. Per Pincus, “The Lakers may be open to taking Bogdanovic and other pieces from the Jazz for the veteran guard (Westbrook) but aren’t eager to give up a first-round pick.”
Clearly, there’s a large gap in negotiations between the two teams, and both sides presently seem too stubborn to budge.
The Lakers don’t have any other trade options beyond the Jazz
Fischer and Lowe mentioned a few other teams that have enough salary to send out and can take on Westbrook because they’re rebuilding. However, all of those potential trades have even more challenges than making a move with Utah.
Fischer brought up a potential deal with San Antonio that would have the Spurs send Josh Richardson, Doug McDermott, and Jakob Poeltl to Los Angeles. Some of the problems in this configuration are that San Antonio values Poeltl quite highly; Poeltl doesn’t fit next to Davis; and Fischer says, there “doesn’t seem like it’s much of an appetite for that on the Lakers’ side of things”. Lowe also called such a deal a “half-measure” because it doesn’t make the Lakers good enough.
Lowe discussed Charlotte, who could send over a package such as Terry Rozier and Gordon Hayward, but the Lakers don’t seem interested in taking on salary beyond 2022-23, so Hayward’s contract is a non-starter.
The last reasonable option would be the Pacers and what has become the holy grail of Myles Turner and Buddy Hield. Hield’s contract presents a similar problem to Hayward’s, but the Indiana guard makes half as much money as Hayward in 2023-24 and is twice as durable, so that could be worked out. The real issue is that neither side seems all that interested, or they’d be closer to getting a deal done. Per Lowe:
I can tell you almost 100 percent for sure, it’s taking both first-round picks to even get the Pacers to have a meeting about it.... That’s the one where as the Lakers, I have a really long meeting about it, and I think the Pacers do, too. But as of right now, I don’t really hear much noise about anything like that even really going on in terms of talks.
The Lakers could point to these theoretical trade packages and say the problem is the lack of talent coming back to L.A. But the real reason for the dwindling options is the team’s self-imposed constraints. The Lakers can’t hold onto the future firsts for dear life and refuse to take back bad salary. They have to concede something in a negotiation. Without giving up draft assets or cap room, they aren’t going to find a taker for Westbrook.
Westbrook doesn’t want a buyout
The person happiest about the prospect of stasis may in fact be Westbrook himself, despite what a miserable experience he seemed to be having last year, and a statement from his former agent Thad Foucher earlier this offseason that strongly suggested Westbrook wanted out of Los Angeles.
On that same episode of “The Lowe Post”, Ramona Shelburne said that Westbrook would be open to a trade but he hasn’t officially asked for one. What’s more important to Westbrook is that he gets to be in a place where Russ can be Russ. There’s a chance that if he gets traded, the team he lands on will send him home, or try to buy him out. And Shelburne makes it clear:
Russell Westbrook is not a buyout guy. You have to agree to a buyout, and that’s not how he is wired.
Getting bought out means that Westbrook’s stature diminishes around the league. All of a sudden, he’s a player who is on the last legs of his career. He also loses his cap hold and can only sign with a team with cap space if he wants anything more than a minimum contract or a small exception.
The Lakers won’t buy him out. They also won’t send him home. Maybe he can’t have the ball in his hands as much as he’d like, but the best chance he’ll have to play the way he wants to will happen in Los Angeles, where the Lakers will need him to try to win basketball games. It’s not an ideal situation for Westbrook (again, just look at what happened last year), but it might be his best-case scenario compared to landing in Utah or Indiana and losing a season. Unfortunately, losing a season could be what the Lakers are facing if they don’t move on from Westbrook.