Lakers' Best Bet Is to Boost Russell Westbrook's Trade Value On the Court

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured Columnist IVJuly 19, 2022

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 03: Los Angeles Lakers guard Russell Westbrook (0) during the Denver Nuggets vs Los Angeles Lakers game on April 03, 2022, at Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles, CA. (Photo by Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Los Angeles Lakers' Russell Westbrook era is off to a bad start. There isn't much sugarcoating available, even if you wanted it.

L.A. went 31-47 in his 78 appearances. By Basketball Reference's points added, there were only two scorers in the NBA who were less efficient (Julius Randle and Reggie Jackson). When he played without LeBron James, the Lakers were a rebuild-worthy minus-6.3 points per 100 possessions.

On the heels of a season like that, it's no wonder that Westbrook's trade value seems to be in the red. There are certainly things he can do to become a positive asset again (more on that later), but the Lakers would have to wait till the season for those to surface.

It's also not surprising that his performance is the backdrop for some offseason drama.

By the time Westbrook and LeBron found themselves in the same building during summer league, the tension that brewed as a result of Russ' poor fit was palpable.

On Monday, though, for the first time in months, we read some good news on the partnership between L.A. and Westbrook.

"The Los Angeles Lakers' Big Three of LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook huddled up on a phone conversation the first weekend of NBA Summer League in Las Vegas with each expressing their commitment to one another and vowing to make it work," Chris Haynes wrote for Yahoo Sports. "While the uncertainty of Westbrook's future with the Lakers remains, the conversation was organized to make sure all three were on the same page as long as they're joined together in their pursuit of a championship."

Of course, if that conversation happened during the opening weekend of summer league, it may have preceded the icy scene in which James and Westbrook failed to acknowledge each other in attendance at the Lakers game. Still, it's more encouraging than any other nugget we've received in recent weeks and months, and that includes news that Russ and his longtime agent, Thad Foucher, were splitting up over irreconcilable differences.

A statement Foucher provided to ESPN gave more clues on where the 2017 MVP and his current team stand:

"Now, with a possibility of a fourth trade in four years, the marketplace is telling the Lakers they must add additional value with Russell in any trade scenario. And even then, such a trade may require Russell to immediately move on from the new team via buyout.

"My belief is that this type of transaction only serves to diminish Russell's value and his best option is to stay with the Lakers, embrace the starting role and support that Darvin Ham publicly offered. Russell is a first-ballot Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame player and will prove that again before he is retired."

If Westbrook is indeed "on the same page" as LeBron and AD, Foucher might be right. At least a part of why he just finished his fourth straight season on a different team is an apparent unwillingness to adapt to previous situations.

With the Oklahoma City Thunder, everything revolved around him, on and off the floor. When he was traded in 2019, it was for another contract that was seen as a burden at the time (Chris Paul's), but he still had enough value to fetch OKC multiple draft assets.

With the Houston Rockets, his inefficient scoring and desire to stay on the ball necessitated the trade of Clint Capela. And just over a year after the Thunder sent him to the Rockets, Houston traded him to Washington for John Wall (another distressed asset) and one draft pick.

With the Washington Wizards, team construction was such that Westbrook could still dominate the ball without detracting from Bradley Beal. And he was just good enough to convince the Lakers to send three rotation players (Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope) in exchange for him.

Now, L.A. may be betting on a repeat of that 2020-21 success for Russ. And in turn, hoping that some other team will talk itself into the raw production.

The complicating factor now, of course, is that it isn't just Westbrook and one other scorer with the Lakers (as it was with him and Beal in Washington). Neither of the co-stars in L.A. is a lights-out shooter, either. And LeBron doesn't have the off-ball experience that Beal accumulated during his years with Wall.

Convincing James to spend more time as the secondary playmaker is probably an even steeper hill to climb than doing so with Westbrook. If the latter wants a move out of L.A. that doesn't saddle his legacy with the kind of trade Foucher is worried about, he has to change.

And he has to change more than he ever has before.

The situations are far from perfectly analogous, but Bruce Brown spent the first two seasons of his career with the Detroit Pistons as a guard before embracing a rim-running role with the Brooklyn Nets.

Westbrook can be a supercharged version of that (assuming a willingness to work on his touch in the paint). He did it to a degree with Houston, but he still started plenty of possessions as the point man. It's time to lean even harder into being a cutter, dunker's spot option and corner three-point shooter.

Believe it or not, Russ hit 43.4 percent of his threes from the corners over the last two seasons (36.8 percent over the last six seasons). When LeBron, AD (or both) are operating in the middle of the floor, he has to be willing and able to create space from the corner. If that becomes a bigger part of his offensive diet, and he maintains his numbers from the last two seasons, defenses will be forced to pay closer attention.

More importantly than any of that, though, is what Westbrook has to do on defense.

Few players of his experience and pedigree are as prone to complete mental lapses on that end. If his man doesn't have the ball and isn't directly in front of him, there's no telling what Westbrook will do (or won't do).

Any team that might be thinking about taking him on has to see a willingness to expand his game offensively and a desire to engage on the other end. And since he showed so little of either in 2021-22, L.A. might have to showcase the revamped Russ ahead of the 2023 trade deadline.

Otherwise, the Lakers will be facing the same dilemma they have for the last several months: a terrible fit that can only be sorted out by attaching picks to a Westbrook trade.