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Lakers Must Focus on Russell Westbrook, Upcoming Season Despite Kyrie Irving Rumors

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxCorrespondent IAugust 4, 2022

Despite plenty of trade buzz, Russell Westbrook remains on the Lakers' roster. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

It's been an intriguing offseason for the Los Angeles Lakers, to say the least. The franchise hired a new head coach in Darvin Ham, is awaiting a decision from LeBron James about his future—he can sign an extension as early as today—and has been at the center of Kyrie Irving trade rumors.

Los Angeles also still has Russell Westbrook on its roster after last year's high-profile acquisition flopped in 2021-22.

With the offseason beginning to wind down—the preseason kicks off in early October—the Lakers still don't know if acquiring Irving from the Brooklyn Nets is realistic. Making the move would require moving Westbrook and his $47 million salary and would most likely require a third team to get involved.

Los Angeles may have to wait for Brooklyn to decide Kevin Durant's future before it pivots to Irving. Durant requested a trade at the onset of the offseason, but no deal has materialized yet.

There's also the matter of trade compensation. According to The Athletic's Jovan Buha, Brooklyn wants two first-round picks, which L.A. isn't willing to surrender just yet. This only adds to the reality that an Irving trade isn't happening soon.

"The Lakers haven't been willing to give up more than one in any trade negotiations," Buha wrote. "I think that will change for the right deal, such as an Irving trade. But the Lakers aren't going to budge, if they even do, until they feel like they must. They're not at that point yet."

The Lakers have also been linked to Buddy Hield and Myles Turner of the Indiana Pacers, but again, the likely cost of two first-round picks seems to be a holdup.

"I think the Lakers would acquire Hield and Turner if the asking price was only one future first-round pick," Buha wrote.

If a favorable trade materializes, great. For now, though, it's time for the Lakers to put Irving on the back burner and focus on the current roster and the coming season. Yes, that includes Westbrook.

There's no way to sugarcoat the fact that Westbrook was a disappointment last season. He averaged 18.5 points—his lowest since the 2009-10 season—while shooting just 29.8 percent from three-point range and serving as a defensive liability.

To be fair, though, that was under former head coach Frank Vogel and with one of the most underwhelming supporting casts in the league. The Lakers also dealt with significant injuries to James and Anthony Davis, which did not help matters.

With James and/or Davis out of most games, Westbrook was forced to serve as a centerpiece. With a poor group of support players, the results were less than desirable. Things could be much different under Ham, especially if James and Davis can stay healthy for the bulk of the campaign.

At least some in the Lakers organization are eager to see what Ham can get out of Westbrook this season.

"From what I’ve heard, elements within the Lakers that really want to give Darvin Ham a shot at (using Westbrook)," Heavy Sports NBA insider Steve Bulpett said, per Heavy's Sean Deveney. "He's a different kind of dude. He is not going to put up with the weirdness we have seen in L.A., with that organization. He is the kind of guy who will get through to players."

Westbrook and Vogel clashed, that much is now obvious. Westbrook has indicated as much.

"I think it's unfortunate, to be honest, because I've never had an issue with any of my coaches before," Westbrook said in April, per ESPN's Dave McMenamin. "I'm not sure what his issue was with me or I'm not sure why, but I can't really give you an answer to why we really never connected."

Ham may be able to convince Westbrook to play his role where Vogel could not—and that role may not be as a starter.

"Lakers head coach Darvin Ham will have more power to bench Westbrook down the stretch of games, according to league sources," Buha wrote. "That could eventually extend to removing Westbrook from the starting lineup as well."

Theoretically, Ham may get more out of Westbrook by using him less. Instead of regularly being on the floor with James and Davis, he could sub one of the two and/or become the centerpiece of the second-team lineup.

Instead of having Westbrook as the third option, Ham could turn to a player like Austin Reaves. As a support player, Westbrook's poor defense and questionable shot selection would be much less of an issue.

This change of usage for Westbrook—along with having James and Davis available, of course—could be enough to make Los Angeles competitive this season.

The supporting cast still isn't great. The Lakers added the likes of Juan Toscano-Anderson, Damian Jones and Lonnie Walker IV in free agency and have yet to bring in another star. However, the group appears better equipped to play solid complementary basketball than last year's lineup. Last year's group felt much more like a mashup of whoever L.A. could afford to sign.

As a sixth man, Westbrook could provide enough of a tempo change to create problems for the opposition.

This doesn't mean that the Lakers can be a title contender with the current lineup. Teams like the Golden State Warriors and the Phoenix Suns will still be favored in the postseason. However, Los Angeles could be a tough out in a seven-game series.

This group could get to the playoffs and out of the coming season with a sense of respectability. From there, the Lakers could move on from Westbrook and perhaps have another shot at Irving.

"Considering the lack of current league-wide interest in acquiring him via trade, it seems like the Lakers are his most likely free-agent option next summer, other than the Nets," Buha wrote of Irving.

Los Angeles' 2023 offseason approach will hinge on James' looming decision. With Westbrook's salary off the books, the Lakers could potentially build an even more competitive roster. If James bolts for a different team, though, L.A. could be eying a complete overhaul.

"If James were to agree to an extension, the Lakers could be more aggressive in trade discussions for players with multiple years remaining on their contracts," Yahoo Sports' Dan Woike wrote. "If James passes on a long-term deal, the team, at a minimum, has a relatively clean cap sheet."

That's an issue for Ham, general manager Rob Pelinka and the Lakers to worry about later. So, too, is the prospect of a blockbuster trade because one isn't coming down the pike in the immediate future.

For now, it's time for the Lakers to move ahead with what they have.

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