Don't Count LA Lakers Out of the Russell Westbrook Hunt Just Yet

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterJuly 21, 2016

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 11: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers and Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder are seen after the game on April 11, 2016  at the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Lakers showed significant vital signs during this year's NBA Summer League in Las Vegas.

D'Angelo Russell knocked down clutch shots, commanded L.A.'s offense and poured in 21.8 points per game—all while sporting a peculiar new 'do. Brandon Ingram, the Lakers' latest rookie sensation, showed off a smooth offensive game and strong defensive instincts, especially for an 18-year-old.

Together, Russell and Ingram, along with Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr., could form the foundation of the next great Lakers team down the line. Or, they could be bait to lure in a big fish that renders the Purple and Gold relevant again in a hurry.

The biggest catch of all would be Russell Westbrook. With Kevin Durant moving west to join the Golden State Warriors, Westbrook's days with the Oklahoma City Thunder could be numbered.

Not that the Thunder are at all eager to part ways with their lone remaining star. According to The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski, the Thunder haven't made Westbrook available yet. Nor has there been any clear indication that he wants out. The team hopes to convince him to renegotiate and extend his deal now, just as James Harden did with the Houston Rockets earlier this month, and use him later to lure in another superstar next summer—like, say, Los Angeles Clippers big man (and Oklahoma native) Blake Griffin.

Both of those look like long shots for the Thunder, though. According to NBA.com's David Aldridge, Westbrook hasn't yet warmed up to the idea of forgoing free agency:

If Westbrook won't commit to being OKC's tentpole, the team will be hard-pressed to bring in another big name, especially someone like Griffin, who's become accustomed to the spoils of L.A. life during his six years with the Clippers. 

Should Thunder general manager Sam Presti eventually settle on getting something in return for Westbrook now—rather than risk losing him for nothing later, as was the case with Durant—he could find a suitable trade partner in L.A.

Any conversations between the Thunder and Lakers figure to start with Russell and Ingram, the last two No. 2 picks. In Russell, OKC would add another brash, young ball-handler to assume Westbrook's spot at point guard. With Ingram, the Thunder would land an heir apparent on the wing whom Durant showered with praise during Team USA's training camp in Las Vegas, as Serena Winters of Lakers Nation noted:

Depending on how the market shakes out, OKC could try to squeeze even more out of a potential trade partner like the Lakers.

The Boston Celtics, in their quest to land another star, have a bundle of chips with which to start (and win) a bidding war for Westbrook: from veterans like Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder, to youngsters like Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier, to any number of the first-round picks they're owed from the Brooklyn Nets (pick swap in 2017, outright in 2018), Los Angeles Clippers (top-14 protected in 2019) and Memphis Grizzlies (top-eight protected in 2019).

An offer like that might drive up the price for all suitors. Without a first-rounder to trade until 2021 (at the earliest), L.A. could be coaxed into including Randle, Nance Jr. or 2016 second-rounder Ivica Zubac, among others, to land Westbrook ahead of his free agency.

Then again, if Westbrook won't put pen to paper on an extension, would any team want to sacrifice so much to get him? The Lakers just might, if the pressure to win now is as high as the team's confidence in retaining him via free agency.

Would Westbrook want to stay with a roster that's gutted itself to get him? Boston's surplus of prospects and picks gives it the leeway to make a play while keeping its core largely intact. L.A. doesn't have that luxury, not with the costs of trading for Steve Nash and Dwight Howard still lingering.

Most importantly, would the Lakers be inclined to bet the farm on Westbrook?

They may have seen enough from Russell and Ingram in recent weeks to stick with the youth movement. High hopes also remain for Randle, who led the team in double-doubles last season and could become a legitimate on-ball threat once he sharpens his jump shot.

And if management has any reason to believe Westbrook's sights are set on a homecoming either way, they might find it wiser to wait for him to arrive at no additional cost.

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 23:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder drives past D'Angelo Russell #1 of the Los Angeles Lakers during the first half at Staples Center on December 23, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expres
Harry How/Getty Images

Of course, there may be more at play here beyond basketball. Jim Buss, the Lakers' executive vice president of basketball operations, could be staring down a pink slip if his sister, team president Jeanie Buss, holds him to his own word—he told the Los Angeles Times' Mike Bresnahan in April 2014 that he would step aside "if this doesn't work in three to four years."

Westbrook wouldn't put the Lakers "back on the top" right away, but the UCLA product could jump-start the team's resurgence. The Lakers would have a competitive team with a real star to sell to any number of big names during what's shaping up to be a blockbuster free-agent frenzy in 2017.

Stephen Curry, Griffin, Durant and Chris Paul could be at the top of the class alongside Westbrook, with Gordon Hayward and Paul Millsap among other talented veterans who won't be restricted. That's the parlay for the Lakers: one star luring another, the two of them carrying the team back to prominence.

The alternative? Wait another two, three, maybe even four years for the kids to develop. By then, Jeanie might've already dropped the ax on her brother's head.

Not that Jim's primary motive here is necessarily to preserve his job. Whether or not he remains in the Lakers front office, he'll still be part owner of the team. He has to weigh what's in his and the organization's best interest beyond titles and championships.

Jun 21, 2016; El Segunda, CA, USA;  Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak, head coach Luke Walton and part-owner and executive vice president of basketball operations Jim Buss at today's press conference at Toyota Sports Center. Mandatory Credi
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

That said, the Lakers might be willing to go all-in here. Before the draft lottery, general manager Mitch Kupchak insisted that as nice as it would be (and was) to keep its 2016 lottery pick, the team had planned as though it already belonged to the Philadelphia 76ers.

"That's how you have to plan, yes," Kupchak said, per ESPN's Baxter Holmes. "And I'm fine either way. I would love to have the pick. I want to keep the 32nd pick. But you have to look at it both ways, and if it doesn't work out where we get the pick, we get the pick next year and we still have the ability to improve the team this summer."

Through that lens, Ingram could look more like found money for L.A.—a piece the franchise didn't expect to have and, thus, would be fine with giving up. The Lakers, for their part, have yet to sign the Duke product to a rookie deal.

That leaves L.A. with some additional flexibility to fit a star like Westbrook into their cap sheet. A stretched salary here (Nick Young?), a couple tradable contracts there (Lou Williams? Jose Calderon?) and voila!—the Lakers could be in business for whichever big name, Westbrook or otherwise, crosses their radar next.

If L.A. can satisfy OKC's need to rebuild with cheap, young, controllable talent via a package built around Ingram and Russell, it might emerge as one of the biggest winners from a wild and wacky NBA summer. Westbrook alone won't make the Lakers elite again, but he could play an enormous part in paving a path back to prominence.

For now, all eyes, the Lakers' included, will be watching closely for blinks in the standoff between Westbrook and the Thunder.

   

Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

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