Will Russell Westbrook Still be With Lakers Next Season Amid Trade Rumors?

Maurice Bobb@@ReeseReportFeatured Columnist IJune 30, 2022

PHOENIX, ARIZONA - APRIL 05: Russell Westbrook #0 of the Los Angeles Lakers handles the ball during the first half of the NBA game at Footprint Center on April 05, 2022 in Phoenix, Arizona.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, 
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Earlier this week, Russell Westbrook decided to opt in to his $47.1 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers, making him one of the five highest-paid players in the NBA this coming season.

Normally, that would be the end of a player's mentions in the rumor mill leading up to NBA free agency, which begins on Thursday, June 30 at 6 p.m. ET.

But for Westbrook, his decision didn't exactly put the kibosh on the trade whispers, it only shifted them.

For now, according to The Athletic's Jovan Buha, the Lakers, despite mentioning that a trade is still possible, are looking ahead to the season with the idea that their embattled star will be on the roster.

"If he comes back, he will be embraced here with open arms," Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka told NBA.com's Mark Medina last week before Westbrook's decision. "And I want to put a path in front of him to have a successful season."

Pelinka's comment seems to put a positive spin on Westbrook's place in the team's future, but that might be a bit of misdirection.

"The Lakers are currently planning on beginning next season with him on the roster," Buha wrote. "That could change if the Lakers find a team willing to take on Westbrook’s expiring contract without also demanding a future first-round pick (2027 or 2029), which hasn’t been the case thus far,.

"The Lakers would still prefer to trade Westbrook, given the concerns surrounding his declining play, his fit with James and Davis and his willingness to adapt to the team’s desired role for him."

That role, according to new head coach Darvin Ham, will require a laser-like focus on the defensive end.

"We’ve been honest about how we think he fits with this team and what we expect of him next year if he decides to opt in and be here," Pelinka added. "He’s ready to embrace the philosophy of defense first as well. He made that clear to Darvin and me."

Defense isn't Westbrook's calling card, though, so it remains to be seen if he'll embrace that new role and/or excel in it.

The Westbrook saga is a major departure from his 2016-17 season, when he won the MVP award, but considering that he's currently on his fourth team in four years, he's run out of the good will afforded to him from winning the Maurice Podoloff trophy.

Last year, by all accounts, was the 33-year old guard's worst of his career, averaging 18.5 points, 7.4 rebounds and 7.1 assists and per game.

Westbrook isn't known for his efficiency, but on a team with LeBron James, his shooting deficiencies were under an unforgiving microscope.

On the season, he shot 44.4 percent from the field and an unfortunate 29.8 percent from behind the arc.

Beyond the numbers, one of the things that really seemed to rub the organization and the Lakers faithful the wrong way was his unwillingness to take ownership for his struggles.

Ultimately, that led to Los Angeles missing the playoffs completely and head coach Frank Vogel getting the pink slip.

Since then, the Lakers have hired Ham to replace Vogel and he has his own vision for Westbrook.

"One thing I mentioned to Russ is the way I’m built, the success I’ve seen, one thing we always preached and will continue to preach to be our foundation of our teams is a defensive mindset, being able to defend at a high level," Ham told Dan Patrick.

"And I challenged him, and he accepted the challenge. That’s a part of the word 'sacrifice' we use. And being able to move him around in different spaces on the floor as we go back on the offensive end."

Ham seems to be confident that Westbrook can turn it around, but behind the scenes, Pelinka and the front office are still trying to move him.

Problem is, the rest of the league witnessed Westbrook's performance last year and are reluctant to take on his $47.1 million salary because of it.

That said, there have been seemingly impossible to trade contracts that have been moved in the past, so it's still very possible that the Lakers find a way to move on from the 14-year veteran.

Otherwise, they'll have to hold out hope that Westbrook will invoke his own "Why Not?" mantra when it comes to whether or not he can become a defensive stopper and improve upon last season's shooting woes to help open up the floor for Anthony Davis and James.

The challenge has been accepted, the jury's going to be out on if it's eventually met.