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Lakers Operating As If Russell Westbrook Will Be On Team To Start Season

Lakers Operating As If Russell Westbrook Will Be On Team To Start Season

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Will health and a coaching change be enough for the Los Angeles Lakers to rebound from a disastrous season? We may find out soon enough as sources close to the team, along with several competing executives, believe the Lakers are operating as if Russell Westbrook will be on the roster to start next season.

If the Lakers intend to trade Westbrook, assuming he opts into his final year at $47.1 million, it’s the front office that will need to sacrifice. Several executives believe the Lakers would need to take on expensive players ($15-25 million range) with two to four years left on their contract—not specifically, but players with contracts like Davis Bertans, Duncan Robinson, Julius Randle, Malcolm Brogdon, etc.—or send out one or two first-round picks, especially for quality rotation players in return.

New head coach Darvin Ham recently praised Westbrook while also demanding the veteran point guard, along with the rest of the roster, be ready to sacrifice for the greater good next season. But what about LeBron James?

The Lakers were paralyzed at the trade deadline without clarity from James, and they remain so. The star forward is eligible for an extension on August 4, but most of the team’s moves will need to happen in June and July.

The Lakers are stuck without a commitment from James, whose contract expires after the 2022-23 season. Competing executives and agents do not expect the team to get clarity from James ahead of the draft and free agency.

James could help make decisions easier if he verbally commits to an additional two seasons, timing his contract with Anthony Davis through 2024-25 (although Davis has an early termination option to leave one year sooner). Unpleasant salary is easier to digest in trade if the Lakers are reinvested in James with Davis. The last thing the team would want to do is eat up its 2023-24 cap space on players it doesn’t value with James leaving as an unrestricted free agent.

The fear is similar in trading draft picks. If James were guaranteed to stick around another couple of seasons, L.A. might consider bigger moves like trading picks to get out of Westbrook for viable talent.

The Lakers will only have a $6.4 million taxpayer mid-level exception and minimum contracts to spend to add talent if they retain Westbrook. That may not be enough to bring back Malik Monk with several other teams armed with at least the $10.3 million non-taxpayer mid-level exception (NTMLE). Some alternate targets could be Otto Porter Jr., Joe Ingles, Gary Payton II, Bruce Brown Jr., Damian Jones, Isaiah Hartenstein, Thomas Bryant, Taurean Prince, Gorgui Dieng, Lonnie Walker IV, Gary Harris, Austin Rivers or Aaron Holiday (among many others).

Do any of those names catapult the Lakers back to contention? James can empower the franchise to make bolder moves with a commitment. Without it, the franchise may be overwhelmed by the inertia of uncertainty.

Lottery Picks Available

The 2022 NBA draft should bring solid talent into the league, but not nearly as much as the 2021 class. At least that’s the buzz around the league, which described a gap after the first two or three prospects. Most expect the Orlando Magic to take Jabari Smith Jr. from Auburn and the Oklahoma City Thunder to select Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren second.

Some executives argue that Duke’s Paolo Banchero is the clear third, destined for the Houston Rockets. Others suggest Jaden Ivey or Keegan Murray belong in the top three, with Banchero dropping. But the general vibe is that several lottery picks could be available in trade, starting with the Sacramento Kings at No. 4.

Teams looking to make the playoffs may want to upgrade their rosters with veteran players instead of prospects. Or they might try to trade up for more of a sure thing (if there is such a thing in the draft) like Ivey or Murray. That may include teams like the Portland Trail Blazers (No. 7), New Orleans Pelicans (No. 8), Washington Wizards (No. 10), New York Knicks (No. 11), Charlotte Hornets (No. 13) and Cleveland Cavaliers (No. 14). Even the Thunder, who have three first-round picks, may be open to moving No. 12.

More than half of the 14 lottery picks may be attainable, and interested teams are trying to determine where they can strike. Who will move up, down or out may not be apparent until draft day.

Some veteran trade targets might include Jerami Grant, Deandre Ayton (sign-and-trade), Rudy Gobert, Jalen Brunson (sign-and-trade) and Myles Turner. Since teams cannot agree to a sign-and-trade in June, a few may draft on faith that their trade target will be available in July, especially if faith equates to an illegal prearranged deal.

Bigs on the Move?

One of the hottest topics heading into the offseason is Ayton’s fate with the Phoenix Suns. The franchise didn’t issue him an extension before the season, and after their recent playoff flameout, there’s considerable skepticism that the team will re-sign him. Instead, the restricted free agent may need to solicit an offer sheet or navigate a sign-and-trade. If so, Ayton is expected to seek a maximum contract that could reach $131.2 million over four seasons.

The Utah Jazz were also ousted earlier than they had hoped, leading to the resignation of coach Quin Snyder. Many competing executives and agents believe the franchise will look to move Gobert, who has four years and $169.7 million left on his contract.

The Orlando Magic have a young 7-footer hitting restricted free agency in Mo Bamba, whose market value may be closer to the $10.3 million NTMLE. The Magic may look to retain him, especially if the franchise drafts Smith at No. 1. If Orlando chooses Holmgren, Bamba could become available via sign-and-trade or even as an unrestricted free agent.

Teams seeking a starting center may include the Toronto Raptors, Pistons, Trail Blazers and Hornets. Some sources believe the San Antonio Spurs (Jakob Poeltl), Chicago Bulls (Nikola Vucevic), Hawks (Clint Capela, John Collins), Pacers (Turner) or even Kings (Richaun Holmes, Harrison Barnes) could look to swap out existing players for one of the top available centers via trade.

Would the Bulls offer Coby White, Marko Simonovic and Vucevic for Gobert? Would Sacramento try to pair Domantas Sabonis with Gobert with an offer of Holmes, Barnes and No. 4? Do the Phoenix Suns target Capela or Collins in an Ayton sign-and-trade? It’s too early to guess how teams ultimately reshuffle, but now is the time to run scenarios and feel other teams out as the draft nears with free agency beginning a week later.

Another big who could be on the move is Steven Adams of the Memphis Grizzlies, although he’s extremely well-liked in the locker room.

Elsewhere…

Additional buzz heading into the draft and free agency:

  • The Thunder may be the first domino with up to $31.8 million in cap space. The team is open to taking on unwanted salary for draft compensation before its room disappears on July 1 when Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s extension kicks in.
  • The Knicks looking to hire Rick Brunson, per Ian Begley of SNY, isn’t a coincidence. His son, Dallas Mavericks free-agent Jalen Brunson, may be next. While New York won’t have the cap room, multiple sources believe Dallas may blink at Brunson’s asking price, compelled to sign and trade him to the Knicks.
  • Competing teams are very curious how the Brooklyn Nets deal with Kyrie Irving, the Philadelphia 76ers with James Harden and the Washington Wizards with Bradley Beal. All three have player options but could opt out and re-sign or walk outright as free agents.
  • The Suns are apparently hoping Dario Saric returns to form after a knee injury and may not be looking to dump his $9.2 million remaining in trade.
  • The Hawks may waive Danilo Gallinari, whose $21.5 million contract is only $5 million guaranteed. Similarly, the Trail Blazers may cut Eric Bledsoe’s $19.4 million with a $3.9 million guarantee. Either could end up in a trade, though the returns for Atlanta and Portland would be based on the guaranteed portion, not the full salaries.
  • After hiring Kenny Atkinson, the Hornets may hold onto Gordon Hayward. Several sources believe the Pacers will keep Turner. Pencil in Chris Boucher to return to the Raptors.
  • The Cavaliers may look to restock their backcourt with a healthy Collin Sexton and Ricky Rubio, who they traded to the Pacers at the deadline.
  • The Pistons are expected to retain Marvin Bagley III. The team may make a run at a restricted free agent like Miles Bridges or Ayton, either by offer sheet or sign-and-trade.
  • Many believe D’Angelo Russell is available out of Minnesota.

Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.

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