Russell Westbrook was a questionable fit with the Los Angeles Lakers from the moment he was acquired ahead of the 2021 NBA Draft, and thus far this season, those concerns have been somewhat justified amid a disappointing 15-13 start. Rumors of a shakeup have been inevitable for weeks, and now, they’re finally starting to trickle in. According to Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer, the Lakers have had internal discussions about trading Westbrook given his poor fit with LeBron James and Anthony Davis. This comes a day after The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported the Lakers are interested in Ben Simmons. Westbrook would need to be in such a deal for financial purposes.
Of course, considering a trade and executing one are two very different things. Westbrook is owed $91 million over this season and next, and there are very few players in all of basketball who could be used to match salaries in such a deal. Most of the players who could are in such rarefied air as superstars that their teams would never want to swap them for Westbrook, who is 33 years old and seemingly declining. It should also be noted that James and Davis both wanted the Westbrook trade, and might not be thrilled to see him dealt even if it is in the team’s best interest. For those reasons and many others, a deal is exceedingly unlikely.
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Westbrook has had an up-and-down season in Los Angeles, and he is far from blameless for his team’s struggles. His defensive effort has been disappointing all season, especially in joining a team with as strong a defensive culture as the Lakers have had in recent years. He hasn’t grown as much as a cutter as the Lakers likely hoped, and despite some early success as a ball-screener for James, that is not a job Westbrook has embraced either. These were all predictable issues. Westbrook has both succeeded and struggled in the ways that he has generally succeeded and struggled throughout his career. He has, in other words, essentially lived up to expectations, unless the Lakers believed he would magically change as a player in his mid-30s.
That makes Westbrook a somewhat unfair scapegoat for the Lakers. His limitations as a player were apparent from the moment they traded for him, yet they still built a roster that made little sense around him. They refused to pay Alex Caruso despite knowing Westbrook’s defensive weaknesses. They loaded up on ball-handling guards with their back-of-roster spots despite Westbrook’s high-usage style. They tried to play him in two-big lineups without considering the drawbacks from a spacing perspective. Even if Westbrook has failed the Lakers, the Lakers have failed him just as badly.
It should also be noted that Westbrook has meaningfully improved throughout the season. After averaging 19 points on 41.8 percent shooting in his first 10 games, he jumped up to 22 on 46.8 percent shooting in his next 13, though a recent slump has since lowered his numbers a bit. He’s shooting a career-high 52.9 percent on corner 3s, and if anything close to that figure sustains, Westbrook could have a way of spacing the floor for James and Davis, after all. History suggests that he’s going to improve with time even if his roster doesn’t.
Those are reasons not to trade Westbrook, but the biggest is common sense. The Lakers functionally traded five key players to get Westbrook: Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Montrezl Harrell in the deal itself along with Caruso and Dennis Schroder as free agents they chose not to retain at least in part due to the Westbrook trade. There is absolutely no way they can turn Westbrook into five valuable players in the middle of the season. The notion that they could somehow trade him and revert to their previous, defense-first playing style is simply fictitious. In reality, they’d be trading Westbrook for an inferior version of last year’s team that likely wouldn’t be good enough to win this year’s championship. As flawed as Westbrook is, the Lakers have committed to this three-star style. Their only hope of salvaging the season, short of a very surprising return in a possible Westbrook trade, is by putting the best possible team around Westbrook himself. He offers something that the players the Lakers gave up did not, and embracing that is their only path forward since moving backward isn’t a realistic option.
The Lakers made their bed when they traded for Westbrook. Now, they’re almost certainly going to have to sleep in it. That might mean making a meaningful trade elsewhere on the roster, but in all likelihood, Westbrook is going to be staying put. For better or worse, there just isn’t a realistic way to trade him for anything that makes the Lakers a better basketball team.