Could Lakers Realistically Unload Russell Westbrook for a Star Like Ben Simmons?

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterDecember 15, 2021

Los Angeles Lakers guard Russell Westbrook (0) smiles in the bench during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Orlando Magic in Los Angeles, Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021. The Lakers won 106-94. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

Russell Westbrook remains a complex puzzle piece for the Los Angeles Lakers. He hasn't quite carried the team with LeBron James in and out of the lineup, but his gradually improved play has helped the franchise (15-13) climb back above .500.

However, the Lakers may be having buyer’s remorse.

On Tuesday, B/R’s Jake Fischer reported the Lakers have "held internal discussions on trade scenarios" involving Westbrook. The Athletic's Shams Charania also mentioned the Lakers as one of several teams interested in Philadelphia 76ers point guard Ben Simmons.

A straight Westbrook-for-Simmons deal doesn't appear likely. According to Fischer, "Westbrook is not a player on the Sixers' list of hopeful returns," and "conversations with the Lakers never developed very far."

With a top-heavy roster, the Lakers have only three paths to acquiring Simmons and his $33 million salary for the 2021-22 season: trading LeBron James, Anthony Davis or Westbrook. Since the Lakers have no intention of trading James or Davis, Westbrook would be the piece dangled to Philadelphia.

Based on the above reports, Westbrook is available, at least for Simmons. Can the Lakers find a workable three-team deal between now and the Feb. 10 NBA trade deadline?

The following is a speculative list of teams that might be willing to take on Westbrook despite his $44.4 million salary this season and his $47.1 million player option in 2022-23.


Freeing Kemba

This offseason, the New York Knicks added two key free agents in Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier. 

Noah K. Murray/Associated Press

While Fournier has started all 28 games, he hasn't quite lived up to expectations. He's averaging only 12.0 points per game while shooting 36.8 percent from behind the arc. He's in the first season of a four-year, $73 million contract (team option on the final year).

Meanwhile, Walker is out of the rotation entirely. While he isn't as expensive as Fournier, he's in the first season of a fully guaranteed two-year, $17.9 million contract.

If Walker just doesn't fit head coach Tom Thibodeau's style, does Westbrook? The Knicks would have to mull that over cautiously.

Westbrook has his flaws (iffy shot selection, too many turnovers), but he plays hard and hasn't missed a game this season. He may not be a perfect fit, but his passion and willingness to play heavy minutes—plus his nine All-Star nods and 2016-17 Most Valuable Player award—could be a draw for New York (12-16) in what has been a disappointing start to the season.

The Knicks would need to send out at least $35.3 million of salary to acquire Westbrook. Walker and Fournier would get them most of the way there, along with Nerlens Noel (in the first year of a three-year $27.7 million deal, team option on the final season) and one of Kevin Knox, Wayne Selden or Miles McBride.

The Lakers currently have 15 players on their roster, so they would either need to waive or send three to the Knicks (like Kent Bazemore, DeAndre Jordan, etc.) or get a third team involved for Knox (perhaps to the Oklahoma City Thunder). 

Noel had a falling out with former agent Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, filing a lawsuit against him in August, per Brian Windhorst of ESPN. Seeing as Paul represents four Lakers (Talen Horton-Tucker, Kendrick Nunn, James and Davis), that could make Noel better suited with another team as well.


A Pelicans Play-In Push?

The 8-21 New Orleans Pelicans have gotten off to a rocky start in the absence of Zion Williamson, but they're "still expected to be buyers ahead of the trade deadline, with an eye toward competing for the play-in tournament,” according to Fischer. They're reportedly willing to trade third-year center Jaxson Hayes, Fischer added.

Michael Conroy/Associated Press

Although the Pelicans are in last place in the Western Conference, they're only 3.5 games out of the final play-in spot (10th place). They may improve once Williamson makes his still-to-be-determined return from his foot injury. Perhaps that enhances the play of guards like Devonte' Graham, Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Tomas Satorasnky, all of whom have struggled with their consistency this season.

Or maybe the Pelicans need to make a bold move. A combination of Josh Hart, Graham, Satoransky and Hayes is enough salary to acquire Westbrook from the Lakers. That would give the Pelicans a projected starting lineup of Brandon Ingram, Jonas Valanciunas, Williamson, Alexander-Walker and Westbrook. 

In a four-for-one trade, Los Angeles would have the same roster issue, either necessitating players going back to New Orleans or a third team.

Graham is in the first season of a four-year, $47.3 million contract, with only $2.9 million guaranteed in the final season. Hart re-signed with the Pelicans on a three-year, $37.9 million deal this past offseason, but the final two years of his contract are fully nonguaranteed. Satoransky is in the last year of his deal at $10 million, and Hayes is in the third year of his rookie-scale contract as the No. 8 pick in 2019.

Westbrook is the best player in this suggested deal, but the Pelicans would have to believe that he moves the needle and gives Williamson a better chance of competing in New Orleans.


Not Enough for Shai

Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

The Oklahoma City Thunder are about $20 million below the NBA's minimum team payroll. If they don't add salary before the end of the season, they will need to cut a check to the National Basketball Players Association for the shortfall. 

If they added Westbrook at $44.2 million at roughly the halfway point of the season, the Thunder would just about cover that amount.

Functionally, the Thunder would get Westbrook for free for the rest of the season, but his $47.1 million player option next year is a burden. OKC would likely demand compensation such as Horton-Tucker and/or the single first-round pick the Lakers can currently trade in 2027 or 2028. Either selection falls after James and Davis' contracts expire, which would be an interesting gamble for the Thunder.

Oklahoma City would need to include players such as Derrick Favors and Kenrich Williams to open enough cap room to absorb Westbook. And while the Lakers may have interest in moving Westbrook for a three-time All-Star like Simmons, L.A. isn't likely to dump him outright (let alone give up compensation to do so).

The Thunder have a widely coveted player in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who's reportedly high on the Sixers' list for Simmons, per Marc Stein of Substack. If Oklahoma City was willing to send Gilgeous-Alexander to Philadelphia but didn't want Simmons, the Lakers might be eager to jump in with whatever assets would be required for a three-team deal. 

But with so much already invested in James, Davis and Westbrook, L.A. isn’t likely to have enough assets to pull it off.


Too Expensive for Indiana?

The Indiana Pacers have reportedly put several players on the trade block, including Myles Turner, Domantas Sabonis and Caris LeVert, per Bob Kravitz and Charania of The Athletic. Others like T.J. Warren and Jeremy Lamb may also be available.

Westbrook for Turner, LeVert and Lamb would work for both teams financially, although the Lakers would need to clear a few roster spots. The Pacers are close to luxury-tax territory, so additional players like Bazemore or Jordan might need to go to a third team or get cut by the Lakers outright.

Historically, the Pacers have shied away from significant investments in a single player. Westbrook's $47.1 million salary next year may give Indiana too much sticker shock, even though Turner and LeVert will earn a combined $36.8 million next season.

The Pacers will gauge the market for Sabonis, Turner, LaVert and others, and the Lakers may not come close to the best offer. But Indiana typically hasn't been open to a full-scale rebuild, and Westbrook would be a short-term investment.


Alternative Plans?

In all likelihood, the Lakers will end up keeping Westbrook. Still, perhaps the 76ers revisit an offer if they don't find what they're looking for elsewhere before the Feb. 10 deadline. 

At $33 million, Simmons doesn't make quite enough for Westbrook in terms of salary-matching purposes. The Lakers have some interest in bringing back Danny Green, which would help relieve the Sixers' additional tax burden in bringing on Westbrook.

Of course, Philadelphia doesn't have to trade Simmons this season. The franchise would embrace closure, but not at the price of a bad deal. 

Westbrook might fit on other teams as well, but finding an actual match may be prohibitive. The Orlando Magic can get to Westbrook with pieces like Gary Harris, Terrence Ross and filler, but to what end with young guards like Jalen Suggs, Cole Anthony and Markelle Fultz?

The Houston Rockets could theoretically swap John Wall for Westbrook outright. The Lakers might have interest in Eric Gordon, which would probably cost something like Horton-Tucker and Nunn, but a Wall/Westbrook swap may not interest either team.

If the Pelicans were interested in a Westbrook swap, would the Lakers be able to combine that with their interest in Detroit Pistons forward Jerami Grant? Rolling that into a three-team deal with Horton-Tucker, Hayes and Satoransky going to Detroit and Grant, Hart and Graham to Los Angeles would be a very different look for the top-heavy Lakers.

With the trade deadline less than two months away, the Lakers will continue trying to improve with the core of Westbrook, Davis and James. Given their mixed results to date, L.A. will keep a close eye on the trade market as it develops.


Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.