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What happens if the Lakers actually keep Russell Westbrook?

As training camp approaches and Russell Westbrook remains on the roster, the Lakers have to make decisions about how to utilize their embattled point guard.

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New Los Angeles Lakers Head Coach Darvin Ham is introduced to the media Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Lakers training camp begins in less than three weeks, and the team is running out of time to update its roster before the real work begins.

Of course, the roster change that everyone is waiting for is a Russell Westbrook trade, the possibility of which seems more limited now that the Donovan Mitchell trade is complete, removing the Knicks as a potential trade partner, and Indiana is setting a hard line on two first-round picks for Buddy Hield and Myles Turner. So the Lakers have to reckon with the idea of how to fit Westbrook into this year’s roster, something they’ve already been publicly signaling, but now have to put into action.

The Lakers don’t want to exile Westbrook while he’s under contract

Russell Westbrook keeps showing up as a Laker, whether that’s sitting by the team bench during Summer League or attending the introductory press conferences for Darvin Ham and now Patrick Beverley. He’s behaving as if he expects to play for the Lakers for this upcoming season.

There was a theory floated earlier in the offseason that the Lakers could put Westbrook on the shelf even if he was under contract with the team, presumably because the vibes of having him around were worse than just paying him not to play — and after the performance Westbrook put on in his exit interview, that would be understandable.

But the Lakers have reportedly nixed that scenario: if Westbrook hasn’t been traded, the Lakers will play him, as veteran NBA insider Marc Stein noted in his Substack:

Two well-placed sources have expressed to me with even greater conviction that the Lakers lean very strongly against the concept of sending Westbrook home a la John Wall in Houston last season in the event that they can’t find a trade for him. Sources maintain that Ham is determined to establish a real role for Westbrook if he remains a Laker.

With how frugal the franchise has been in recent years — consider the decision to part ways with Alex Caruso or the unwillingness to offer a longer contract to Ty Lue — it makes sense that the Lakers wouldn’t want to have a $47 million sunk cost on their cap sheet. Even if the addition of Patrick Beverley gives the Lakers enough credible guards (along with Kendrick Nunn, Lonnie Walker IV, and Austin Reaves) to play in Westbrook’s stead, perhaps the team is still not convinced of the overall talent level on the roster should Westbrook simply sit out.

The empowering of Darvin Ham appears to be limited to what role Westbrook has on the court, not whether the point guard is is a full-time member of the Lakers.

Westbrook would attend LeBron’s minicamp

LeBron James has hosted an annual Lakers minicamp since arriving in Los Angeles, a tradition that reportedly will continue this year, per reporting from Stein in that same Substack piece.

The Lakers’ LeBron James typically hosts a players-only minicamp somewhere on the West Coast before training camp starts, so stay tuned. Word is that another Lakers minicamp is likely in coming days and that Russell Westbrook would indeed attend if it comes together. Any sort of pre-camp gathering involving LeBron and his fellow purple-and-gold vets would represent a key step in the Lakers’ efforts to move past all the tension that bubbled throughout last season’s rocky 33-49 campaign, bringing James and Anthony Davis together with Westbrook and the newly acquired Patrick Beverley before the Lakers report for their first practices under new coach Darvin Ham on Sept. 26.

In addition to the news that James is still interested in hanging out with his teammates before he is contractually obligated to — the fact that so many of them are new probably helps, considering how terrible the morale of the group was last year — the other takeaway is that Westbrook is expected to attend the meetup. That goes hand in hand with Westbrook being a part of the rotation as long as he’s under contract. If Westbrook is on the team, the Lakers plan on treating him like he belongs.

The Lakers remain interested in Bojan Bogdanović, but not his teammates

Before the Cavaliers swooped in for Donovan Mitchell last week, there were rumors that the Lakers could help facilitate a Jazz-Knicks Mitchell trade and land Bojan Bogdanović in the process. Even though the three-team trade is no longer a possibility, the Lakers’ interest in the Utah forward has not waned, per Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today. Bogdanović averaged 18.1 points per game last season for the Jazz while shooting 38.7 percent on threes; he’s currently averaging 16.3 points per game and making 34.8 percent of his triples for the Croatian national team at EuroBasket 2022.

The Lakers reportedly also have “some interest” in Bogdanovic’s Utah teammates Mike Conley and Jordan Clarkson, but are weary of taking back salary that extends beyond the upcoming 2022-23 season. Frankly, the declining play of Conley and Clarkson’s hot-and-cold shooting should be of more concern, but their contracts appear to be the sticking point, and that’s concerning.

The team’s fascination with 2023 cap space is a little odd, considering they won’t have enough money to chase a third max player, even if the Lakers clear the books of everyone but LeBron and AD. They’d have to once again fill out the roster with minimum contracts and deprive the team of any potential continuity for yet another season. We’ve seen how challenging it is to build a team with minimum players and how much the Lakers suffer by cycling through role players year after year.

If the Lakers don’t want Conley and Clarkson for basketball reasons, there are fair arguments to be made there. But excluding them from consideration to play the free agency game, when no max free agent has signed with the Lakers other than LeBron in recent memory, seems foolish.

The Lakers are trying very hard to set low expectations for the trade market this year, and this is one more constraint they’re artificially applying for any potential deals. The front office can’t say they’re working to optimize the remainder of James’ career and then not attempt to surround him with playoff-worthy role players. Bogdanović would be a start, but the Lakers still have a lot of work left to do this offseason.

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