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NBA executives think the Lakers have decided to run it back

The expectation around the league is that the Lakers don’t like any potential Russell Westbrook trades and will be keeping their point guard to start the season.

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Los Angeles Lakers v Golden State Warriors Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The Lakers front office had one primary job entering the offseason: move on from Russell Westbrook. After a disastrous 2021-22 season that saw the team finish in 11th place — behind a team that was a seller at the trade deadline — and culminated with Westbrook blaming everyone but himself in his exit interview, it seemed unfeasible that he would ever suit up for the Los Angeles Lakers again.

And yet, less than three weeks before the start of the training camp, the national consensus is that is exactly what will happen. Perhaps the Lakers have softened on Westbrook’s comments after months to reflect, or they believe injuries were the true culprit of last season’s failure. Maybe the trade demands of other teams were too onerous, or the Lakers were unreasonable in what they were willing to offer to unload one of the league’s most polarizing players.

Whatever the case, people around the NBA now expect Westbrook to remain with the Lakers for the start of the regular season.

Lakers reportedly unwilling to move even one first

For much of the offseason, the sticking point in any Westbrook deal has been L.A.’s refusal to include two first-round picks in a trade, despite reportedly telling LeBron James when he signed an extension that they would do so — but only if such a move dramatically raised the team’s championship odds.

It’s a convenient out for the Lakers. They were so far removed from title contention a year ago that one trade likely wouldn’t change that calculus, so they’re theoretically protecting their future. But the front office is also wasting LeBron’s remaining years and expecting the fan base to be okay with another team that will be competing for a play-in spot, at best.

The team’s entrenchment with regard to future picks has apparently grown recently. Eric Pincus reported for Bleacher Report that the Lakers may not even be willing to part with one future first to move off of Russ.

As of now, competing executives aren’t sure the Lakers will send away one future first-round pick, let alone two, to get out of Westbrook’s contract unless the return package substantially improves the team. So what’s the plan?

The idea that the Lakers could think one first-round pick would do the trick is audacious in and of itself. It has long been understood that the price to move off of Westbrook’s contract would be one first, and the price to acquire additional talent would be another first. It’s no wonder that the Lakers haven’t been able to come to a deal if they won’t even part with one future pick.

Pincus is right on the money when he asks “so what’s the plan?” Given those constraints for a potential trade, the only possible path forward is that the Lakers have resigned themselves to retaining Westbrook. Why they have chosen to do so — again, considering how objectively terrible the basketball product was last season — remains anyone’s guess.

Were the Lakers involved in trade talks with the Knicks and Jazz?

Before the Cleveland Cavaliers traded for Donovan Mitchell, and the New York Knicks were still the assumed destination for the former Jazz All-Star, there was speculation that the Lakers could help grease the wheels of a trade between New York and Utah. NBA insider Marc Stein noted that the Lakers' 2027 and 2029 firsts plus Westbrook’s large expiring contract would help facilitate a trade. Pincus further broke down the mechanics of the Lakers’ involvement, explaining how they could end up with valuable role players by helping to make the salaries match.

Participating in such a trade would have required the Lakers to trade at least one future first-round pick, and potentially two, without elevating to contender status. That doesn’t sound like a deal that fits the team’s stated ethos. On ESPN’s Hoop Collective podcast, Brian Windhorst reported that the Lakers weren’t actually involved in the Knicks/Jazz trade discussions:

From what I am told, while it would make sense for the Knicks to have done a three-way deal with the Jazz and Lakers, I am told that that never was part of the talks, that there were three-team constructions between the Jazz and Knicks for Donovan Mitchell where players would go to a third team — I mean obviously they didn’t do a deal — but that the Lakers were never directly involved with that.

Not taking part in a trade that could have netted them multiple wing-ish role players in Bojan Bogdanović, Cam Reddish, and Evan Fournier once again leads to the logical conclusion that the Lakers have settled on keeping Westbrook. That’s the verdict Windhorst arrived at as well (from the same podcast):

I don’t think the Lakers believe right now there’s a Westbrook trade that they have, even with their picks, that elevates them. So I think they’re gonna try — the feel within the league is, right now, and it could change in a week, but the feel within the league is, from the executives that I’ve talked to, right now, is they’re going to try to make the best with what they have and hope for situations to change in their favor.

Jovan Buha of The Athletic also noted in his latest piece that there’s a greater than 50 percent chance that Westbrook is a Laker to begin training camp. That doesn’t preclude the possibility of the Lakers trading Westbrook during the season. However, if the team has arrived at that point, it’s probably because the Lakers are struggling, which would diminish their leverage even further in a potential trade. It’s hard to imagine the Lakers finding a deal that makes them contenders during the regular season — with the challenges of salary matching, from a compromised position — if they can’t execute such a trade now.

So as the offseason comes to a close, the Lakers’ checklist will be incomplete. Regardless of how challenging it has been to find a Westbrook trade, sooner or later, the Lakers will realize that it has to be done to field a competitive team. The hardest things are the ones most worth doing.

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