The Los Angeles Lakers are set to open the 2022-23 NBA regular season on Tuesday against the Golden State Warriors. For now, it seems that much-maligned point guard Russell Westbrook will be on the roster when the season begins.
This may change in the coming days, though, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski.
"The Lakers, at some point here, will start engaging teams again on possible Russell Westbrook trades," Wojnarowski said on NBA Today. "They paused it, essentially, at the start of training camp."
This is obviously far from the first we've heard of a potential Westbrook trade coming out of Los Angeles. Early in the offseason, the Lakers were linked to the Brooklyn Nets and point guard Kyrie Irving. More recently, it's been the Indiana Pacers, Myles Turner and Buddy Hield.
Shams Charania of Stadium and The Athletic reported last month that the Lakers discussed a deal for Hield and Turner but did not want to part with multiple future first-round picks as part of the trade.
The idea of L.A. revisiting a Westbrook trade isn't surprising. However, the Lakers should be careful about how aggressively they pursue a deal. Parting with valuable future draft capital just to get out from under Westbrook's $47 million salary could be a massive detriment to the team's long-term roster building.
There's still a chance that L.A. can field a functional roster this season, and the presence of head coach Darvin Ham is a big reason why. Core centerpieces LeBron James and Anthony Davis are still on the roster, and Ham appears to be building a strong bond with Westbrook.
That bond allowed Ham to try using Westbrook off the bench in Friday's preseason game against the Sacramento Kings:
The Lakers, of course, didn't get a long look at Westbrook in that role, as he exited the game with a hamstring injury. However, the mere fact that Westbrook is willing to accept a rotational role is huge.
It wouldn't have happened under former coach Frank Vogel, with whom Westbrook openly clashed. Vogel was too afraid that Westbrook wouldn't respond well, according to Sam Amick and Jovan Buha of The Athletic:
"After evaluating their lineups and rotation in training camp and the preseason, the Lakers determined in recent days, sources say, that it would be best to stagger James and Westbrook. It was something the Lakers considered doing last season, but then-head coach Frank Vogel was reluctant because he feared Westbrook wouldn’t respond well to coming off the bench."
Westbrook, though, has been far more open to taking coaching from Ham. That includes playing stronger defense and perhaps running the second-team offense.
"Whether they want me here or not, it doesn’t really matter,” Westbrook said, per NBA.com's Mark Medina. “My job is to be a professional and show up to work as I’ve always done."
According to Amick and Buha, Ham's "connection" with Westbrook made him more open to having a bench role.
"He totally understood, totally looked me in my eye and told me, said, 'Yeah, coach, whatever you need me to do,'" Ham said, per Amick and Buha.
And the idea of staggering James and Westbrook is intriguing. With James and Davis running the offense, Los Angeles can play a more physical and fundamentally driven brand of basketball. With Westbrook leading the second team, the Lakers could employ a more explosive fast-break style. The massive shift in tempo could become a difficult tactic for opposing teams to defend.
While this strategy might not be the one that L.A. envisioned when it acquired Westbrook last offseason, it's long been the one that made the most sense. Theoretically, it would afford James and Davis more time to rest while keeping a player on the court who commands defensive attention.
Having Ham as the head coach is finally allowing Los Angeles to try this strategy out. Obviously, Westbrook's hamstring injury is potentially problematic, but the Lakers owe it to themselves to see how Westbrook's new role works in the regular season before aggressively trying to trade him.
Another factor to consider is that point guard Dennis Schröder may miss an extended period with a finger injury.
"The Lakers do have some worry that this could be a long-term injury for him." Charania said on Bally Sports' The Rally.
If Schroder is out long-term, the Lakers may need Westbrook to run the second team.
This is less important, though, if the Lakers truly believe that Westbrook cannot be a high-level contributor in that role. This is why patience—through the injury and any early-season growing pains—is absolutely necessary.
If Westbrook flops in a bench role or sours on the idea of being a sixth man, Los Angeles will have until the February 9 trade deadline to find him a new home. Until then, Ham and the Lakers need to do what Vogel was unwilling to try last season—explore every avenue of maximizing Westbrook's positive impact on the roster.