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How the Inevitable Lakers-Russell Westbrook Divorce Could Play Out

Eric PincusFeatured Columnist IMarch 9, 2022

Photos by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

Russell Westbrook has become the go-to scapegoat for the Los Angeles Lakers' disappointing 28-36 season.

On Monday, he told reporters how out-of-control the vitriol has become:

"Like, I don't even want to bring my kids to the game because I don't want them to hear people calling their dad nicknames and other names for no reason because he's playing the game that he loves. And it's gotten so bad where my family don't even want to go to home games, to any game ... and it's just super unfortunate, man. And it's super upsetting to me."

Westbrook isn't the only one to blame for the Lakers' struggles. Injuries have limited LeBron James and Anthony Davis to 46 and 37 games, respectively. Kendrick Nunn, whom the Lakers signed with $5.0 million of their taxpayer mid-level exception, has been out for the entire season. A number of their veteran-minimum signings haven't panned out as expected, either.

But the most significant share of the blame pie goes to Lakers decision-makers who traded their championship-level depth for Westbrook, a questionable fit with a $47.1 million player option for next season. With so much invested in him, James and Davis, they rounded out their roster with minimum players and didn't value Alex Caruso enough to justify the expense of keeping him.

The Lakers went from a poor-shooting two-star team with a defensive identity to an ill-fitting, worse-shooting, three-star team with no defensive identity. Although Davis' eventual return could help propel them to a surprisingly deep playoff run, their season appears likely to end in disappointment.

At that point, the Lakers would need to decide how to solve their Westbrook conundrum this offseason.

What's the Solution?

When surveying many NBA sources, none predicted Westbrook would decline his $47.1 million option for next season. Instead, a buyout could be a possibility.

Typically, players will let go of whatever money they can recoup from other suitors. Very few teams will have cap room this July, and that money isn't likely to go to Westbrook. Instead, he projects to earn between the minimum ($2.8 million) and the non-taxpayer mid-level exception at $10.3 million. 

In theory, the Lakers could look to waive and stretch Westbrook's remaining salary post-buyout over three seasons ($12.3-$14.7 million a year). However, the franchise is finally getting out of the $5.0 million a year it has paid to Luol Deng since waiving him in 2018. Why on Earth would the team want to eat up more than twice that figure for the next three seasons?

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

The answer may hinge on James' willingness to sign a two-year extension this summer to stay in Los Angeles through the 2024-25 season. The Lakers would have to go off a verbal commitment since James won't be eligible until August 4. That may be enough, even though Davis can opt out after 2023-24. Over that span, the Lakers do not project to have significant cap space with James and Davis, although a new collective bargaining agreement could alter the landscape in the near future.

If the Lakers' marriage with James continues, stretching Westbrook would potentially get the Lakers out of the luxury tax for the 2022-23 season. This would enable the team to offer Monk about $10.3 million in the first year of a new deal (up to four seasons), which would be comparable to all but a handful of teams that could have cap room this summer.

The Lakers signed Monk to what might be called a "lose-lose contract." If he doesn’t hit, then he's a waste of a roster spot. If he does—and he has—the team doesn't have the means to keep him. With Westbrook, the Lakers are over the tax, and the most they project to pay Monk is the taxpayer mid-level exception, which starts at $6.34 million (up to three seasons). That’s less than what most competing teams have at their disposal.

By getting under the tax, Los Angeles would also have its bi-annual exception, which is projected to start at $4.0 million (up to two seasons). By stretching Westbrook, the Lakers could have Talen Horton-Tucker, Stanley Johnson, Austin Reaves, James, Davis and Monk. Nunn is likely to opt into his final year after missing most of this season. The Lakers would then only have the bi-annual and minimum contracts to flesh out the rest of the roster.

Stretching Westbrook's salary would probably incur tax-related restrictions in 2023-24 and 2024-25, but getting the roster back to contention is the immediate issue. Does subtracting Westbrook and bringing back nearly the same team make the Lakers a contender?

Can the Lakers instead find a team to take on Westbrook’s salary in trade, and at what cost? 

At the February 10 deadline, Los Angeles refused to deal a first-rounder to the Houston Rockets for John Wall. One NBA source said the Rockets hope to revisit a deal over the summer, but several others questioned the logic, noting that Houston will probably just buy out Wall if the Lakers cut Westbrook. If so, L.A. might be able to sign Wall, who is represented by Klutch Sports Group, to a minimum contract (or bi-annual) without giving up any draft compensation.

If James agrees to an extension, the Lakers may be more willing to offer one or two firsts (2027 and 2029) as compensation to get out of Westbrook's salary.

The Thunder have significant cap room until July 1 and may be willing to take on unwanted payroll to add to their bounty of draft capital. One first probably won't be enough for Westbrook, but could two picks—years after James and Davis may be long gone—entice OKC?

The Lakers would need to take back Derrick Favors and Mike Muscala. Favors would need to pick up his $10.2 million option, and it’s widely assumed he will. Oklahoma City would also opt Muscala into 2022-23 at $3.5 million to make an unbalanced trade legal before July, giving the team enough cap space to absorb Westbrook's deal.

That's an undeniably high price for two future firsts, but Oklahoma City should be able to avoid luxury taxes with a prearranged buyout while also getting out of Favors' salary. But what does it accomplish for the Lakers?

The roster would be nearly the same as if they stretched Westbrook, but with Favors and Muscala. Even if the Lakers can avoid the luxury tax for the next three seasons, the two big men aren't worth a pair of first-rounders.

Any return has to significantly improve the roster for the Lakers to give up draft compensation. Looking at the scenarios side-by-side, waiving and stretching Westbrook makes a lot more sense.

Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images

If the Thunder are willing to take on Westbrook, Los Angeles would need to scour the rest of the league for a multi-team trade to make it worthwhile.

Will the restructuring Indiana Pacers look to part with Malcolm Brogdon, Myles Turner and/or Buddy Hield? Are the Charlotte Hornets committed to Gordon Hayward, who is owed $61.6 million over the next two seasons? The New York Knicks may look to get out of players like Evan Fournier, Kemba Walker, Alec Burks and Nerlens Noel.

And do any of those teams stand to benefit from making a three-way deal with the Lakers and Thunder? What do they get out of it, outside of dumping salary? A two-team trade is difficult enough.

A wild (but cap-worthy) four-team fake trade idea like Westbrook to the Thunder, with Mason Plumlee and Hayward from Charlotte (plus Muscala) to the Pacers, plus Myles Turner to the Hornets and Brogdon, Hield and Favors to the Lakers is a lot to digest. Players like Plumlee, Muscala and Favors can go elsewhere, and P.J. Washington could make some sense for the Thunder but would require additional salary out of OKC.

Keep in mind, this is just playing with the numbers, some intel and a bit of creative logic. There would be numerous other questions and variables surrounding that trade structure or any other multi-team framework. 

Reaching out to various NBA sources to solve the Westbrook problem for the Lakers, the overall theme is skepticism.

Who around the league isn't aware of L.A.'s pressure to take care of James, Davis and a fanbase that expects titles? None of the sources liked the Westbrook acquisition in August. That opinion hasn't changed in March.

If the Lakers show a willingness to waive and stretch Westbrook, a move that is better than just trading him and two firsts for non-impact players, they may regain some leverage. But Los Angeles will face a real uphill battle trying to find a team willing to give up value while also taking on Westbrook's salary. The return is more likely to be underperforming players on expensive contracts.

The alternative is keeping Westbrook, perhaps with the hope that a coaching change will unlock the roster's potential. The franchise almost let Frank Vogel go earlier in the season. Many around the league expect the Lakers to have a new face on the bench next season.

Given how poorly Westbrook fits and how difficult the season has been for all parties, divorce in some fashion seems inevitable.

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

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