It’s no secret that the Los Angeles Lakers are in the market for a superstar to fill a Black Mamba-sized void. They are heading into the 2016-2017 season with no real star power to draw in viewers, holding out hope that their young-but-talented core will eventually pay off. It’s an uncomfortable position to be in, especially for a team with a winning history like the Lakers.
While optimism for the future is high and the Lakers’ fan base remains massive, faith in the front office is steadily shrinking. However, winning cures all, and the Lakers will be sorely tempted by any deal that would deliver the salvation of a superstar to the STAPLES Center.
They have been linked to the likes of DeMarcus Cousins, Paul George, and Jimmy Butler in the past, but the current hot name on the market is former UCLA-star Russell Westbrook. Westbrook’s mixture of jaw-dropping athleticism, competitive intensity, and raw aggression make him a natural successor to Kobe Bryant, and he would instantly transform the Lakers back into a serious threat.
Make no mistake, 28 other NBA teams would love to add Westbrook to their squad. Unfortunately, bringing Westbrook back to Los Angeles means navigating some difficult waters.
Westbrook’s Oklahoma City Thunder recently lost one superstar without compensation when Kevin Durant moved to the Golden State Warriors a few weeks ago, and that’s a pain they aren’t keen on experiencing again. With Westbrook set for free agency next summer, the thinking is that the Thunder will not be willing to risk losing him as well, and will instead seek a trade.
For the Thunder, the ideal situation doesn’t involve a trade at all. They would prefer for Westbrook to agree to an extension on his current deal, which would allow them to keep him in Oklahoma City long term. Players with his abilities don’t come along often, and teams don’t let them go if they can avoid it.
It is possible (some would say likely), that Westbrook would prefer to have his freedom next summer, even though an extension could award him with a hefty raise this season. If he is determined to explore free agency, that could force the Thunder to trade him.
A recent report indicates that Westbrook doesn’t want to be traded, preferring instead to play out the season in Oklahoma City before becoming a free agent in the summer. This is exactly what the Lakers want to hear. The best-case scenario for Los Angeles would involve Westbrook playing out the year in OKC and then signing with the Lakers in free agency, which would allow them to land a superstar to replace Bryant without parting with any assets.
For the Thunder, however, this scenario would be a disaster of epic proportions and is probably haunting GM Sam Presti’s dreams every night. Trading away a superstar is never fun, but if assets can be acquired that is preferable to losing him for nothing. The Thunder have long been proactive in his way, trading both James Harden and Serge Ibaka well before either had an opportunity to walk away.
The Lakers would be interested in trading for Westbrook if he is on the market, but going that route would almost certainly cost at least one of D’Angelo Russell or Brandon Ingram, and could very well require both. There will be many suitors for Westbrook’s services, though, and if it’s apparent that he could be traded to a team he will extend with, the Lakers will have a tough choice to make: cough up assets and bring in Westbrook, or watch him get locked away on a rival team.
For example, the Boston Celtics are also on an eternal hunt for a superstar, and just signed Al Horford to their team this summer. In theory, they are now one piece away from contending, and have a few tasty assets like Brooklyn Nets draft picks to offer as well as quality young players like Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart, and Avery Bradley. They figure to be serious suitors for Westbrook, and could force the Lakers’ hand.
Of course, if Boston, Los Angeles, or some other mystery team is offering big-time assets for Westbrook, they will want him to extend his contract, and that’s where Westbrook himself could completely change the dynamic
Should Russell refuse to forego free agency next summer by extending his contract, then the offers presented by any interested parties would surely become less lucrative. The Lakers wouldn’t want to give up Russell and/or Ingram just for the opportunity to sweat out Westbrook’s free agency. If he left, the rebuild would be set back indefinitely.
That’s a risk that is simply too great to take.
That’s why it would be best for the Lakers if Westbrook opts to play the no-extension card, which would somewhat torpedo his trade value. Such a move would make sense for him, as going to a team that just had to give up their best assets to Oklahoma City to acquire him would make winning difficult, as Carmelo Anthony found out after being traded to the Knicks.
Money aside, it’s in Westbrook’s best interest as far as winning is concerned to sign somewhere as a free agent rather than be traded. It’s possible that a team without cap space could offer up value in a trade and still have enough quality to contend with Westbrook, but given the current cap environment, many teams will have the ability to offer a max deal next summer, or at least get there with a few small moves.
The bottom line is that there are a lot of moving parts here. The Lakers would love to add a star like Westbrook, but with their team built around young players, they have to proceed very carefully.
For now, the best bet for the Lakers is to monitor the situation, pray that Westbrook doesn’t extend his contract, and then pursue him in free agency with all of their assets still intact. It’s a long shot, but it’s also the best chance the Lakers have of landing–and keeping–a superstar.