After a fourth-quarter rally lifted the Lakers past the Pacers on Thursday night for a much-needed victory, Darvin Ham was once again questioned about his decision to close the game with Russell Westbrook on the floor despite a 2-16 shooting night that included four turnovers (and 10 assists).
Ham, as he’s shown he will do in these situations, supported his player (who, simply by the nature of the question was coming under a bit of fire), and explained how Russ offered value defensively and that, along with the rest of his teammates, was locked in with the type of focus and determination the team needed down the stretch to pull out a critical win.
These micro-decisions of who to play, how much and when (especially down the stretch) can — of course — have a major impact. Even more so when it comes to player of Russ’ ilk; a player who has such a chasm between the best and worst version of his game and the ease in which he can fluctuate between those two extremes on any given night.
Russ was mostly a net-neutral player down the stretch (particularly on offense; on defense he was good), serving much more setup man to LeBron and Anthony Davis while sharing ballhandling duties with Dennis Schröder. He did have a turnover (and also a key assist in the final minute), but there were no missed jumpers he was goaded into, nor any critical decisions made that cost the Lakers a possession (or more) to put them behind the 8-ball in a significant way.
This, in and of itself is a victory for the Lakers. In clutch situations this season, Russ has been generally uneven, but has struggled severely with his shotmaking as defenses turn him mostly into a jump shooter when the game mostly slows to a halfcourt affair.
Much like the nightly decisions Ham will need to make about playing down the stretch, there is still a pretty important decision facing the Lakers front office when it comes to Russ and the idea of time with the Lakers.
With the trade deadline less than a week away, Rob Pelinka and his inner-circle of decision-makers will need to decide how hard they push to trade Russ and, ultimately, if a potential deal turns viable, whether or not to pull the trigger. Part of Pelinka’s calculus — and dare I say almost all of it — should come down to whether or not there’s a future beyond this season with Russ on the Lakers. And the answer to that question should be the determining factor of whether Russ is still on the team past February 9th or not.
Said another way, if the Lakers believe that this is Russ’ last season on the Lakers, they must trade him. Period. End of story.
There are a few different strands of logic to support this idea, but the most simple one comes down to math and the salary cap, how the trade for Rui impacts those numbers, and the difference between spending power in free agency vs. spending power in a Russ trade right now.
A handful of points:
- Russ is in the last year of a contract that pays him $47 million dollars this season. Because of how trades work under the collective bargaining agreement, the Lakers can take back roughly $58 million back in salary in any Russ trade. Because this is such a large number, the Lakers could, in essence, use Russ’ contract in a trade as a mechanism for building out some of next season’s roster now, rather than in free agency this July.
- Because Russ is an expiring contract, if he remains on the team past the trade deadline and is on the Lakers’ books through the end of the season, the Lakers will retain his Bird Rights and can use those rights to re-sign him to a contract up to his max salary while also going over the salary cap.
- Keeping Russ’ cap hold on their books and using his Bird Rights as a tool to (potentially) bring him back, also enables the Lakers to be an over-the-cap team, a status that brings with it additional salary cap exceptions that would further increase the team’s spending power (while also potentially hard-capping the team, which is a discussion for another day, but one that would need to happen).
- On the flip side, if the Lakers keep Russ through the end of the season and let his contract expire and then renounce his Bird Rights, his cap hold comes off their books and, in tandem with the other expiring contracts the Lakers have on their books, the team will create a somewhat significant amount of cap space (roughly $34 million).
- One of those pending free agents is Rui Hachimura, who the Lakers just traded for. Rui is a restricted free agent whose cap hold will be (roughly) $18.8 million. The Lakers have said they want to keep Rui. His cap hold will eat into the Lakers’ projected cap space at that number unless he signs a contract with the team at a different number, or plays on his qualifying offer (which is closer to $8.5 million). Either way, simply understand that cap space is getting used on Rui — assuming the team has any to begin with.
I know, I know. You were told there would be no math.
But to summarize all of the above...
The Lakers are in a position where Russ’ value as an expiring contract to create cap space is impacted by the Rui trade, by either a somewhat significant to very significant amount of money ($8.5 or $18.8 million).
Further, strictly from the standpoint of spending power, Russ’ contract in a trade is worth much more money than the amount of actual cap space him falling off the books would create. This was true even before the Rui trade, but with the new Lakers forward in the mix, and with Pelinka saying he sees him as a long-term fit, accounting for him being on the team seems prudent when thinking about cap space.
Meanwhile, Russ’ Bird Rights are the tool the team can use to bring him back on a (potentially? better be if it actually happens?) reasonable contract in order to maintain whatever spending power they do have by operating as an above-the-cap team that brings with it other exceptions that can be used to add talent to a base that would have, along with a re-signed Russ, LeBron, AD, (presumably) Rui, Max Christie, and (presumably) Austin Reaves (who has a very small cap hold).
Russ’ tenure with the Lakers has been the definition of a roller-coaster ride. His first season was disastrous and reached the types of lows that had some wondering if he was still an NBA quality player. This season has been much more productive and fruitful for him as a player and for the team, but the ups and downs from night to night have been a recurring theme too often for a team that has title aspirations.
In an ideal world, the Lakers would carve out the exact right-sized role where Russ could play to his strengths of pushing the pace and playing with physicality and force on both sides of the ball — which have been really helpful to the team and are too often downplayed — while limiting the impact of the erratic nature that comes with that style of play. I have my doubts we’ll ever truly see that ideal world even though I understand aspiring to it.
All of this is to say, when the Lakers play the Warriors two days after the trade deadline on February 11th, if Darvin Ham is in a position where he has to answer a question about Russell Westbrook’s playing time, the Lakers should be preparing to have to answer those questions for at least another season.
Because, in the big picture, the Lakers only have two real choices with Russ — trade him now or sign up for more beyond this year. And as much as one of those choices feels unfathomable, the prospect of letting him simply fall off their cap sheet this summer absolutely shouldn’t be an option, because that is a math problem that doesn’t add up.
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