How the Lakers Should Handle the Westbrook Situation

This is a great analysis by Eric Pincus, who is clearly very knowledgeable on the NBA salary cap and the rules front offices operate under:

He says the Lakers would probably be better off doing a “waive and stretch” with Westbrook instead of trying to trade him.

The waive and stretch entails simply cutting him and then spreading out the money owed to him for next season out over the next three years. So the Lakers would owe him ~$15 mil a year through 2025.

That sounds like nightmare, but you also have to consider they’re going to have to take on some other bad contracts in order for a team to take Russ off their hands. They could be saddled with a contract like Gordon Hayward’s or Malcolm Brogdon.

For instance, Charlotte has Hayward on a deal that runs through 2024, and he’ll be making $30 million a year for the next two years.

What would be worse: paying Russell Westbrook $15 mil a year for the next three years not to play, or paying Gordon Hayward $30 million a year for the next two years to play, with the knowledge that he’s extremely injury prone?

I think it’s possible the Hayward contract would saddle the Lakers worse than a waive and stretch for the Westbrook contract. What if Hayward gets hurt and only plays like half of the possible games over the next two years, or even fewer than that? He played 49 games this year, 44 games last year (72 game season), and 52 games in 2020 (72 game season). The track record is not great–especially when you consider the injury track record of AD and LeBron.

Don’t get me wrong: the Lakers have no good options here. They all suck. There is no one option that is actually good. It’s not like they’ll be able to flip Westbrook for a player like Donovan Mitchell or Bradley Beal or Dame Lillard. It’s not gonna happen.

Russell Westbrook is a toxic asset. Nobody out there thinks he’s this potential superstar like he was in 2017. Other teams saw him play this year. They know what he is at this point. There is no demand for him outside of his expiring contract. Nobody out there covets him as a player.

But the key for the Lakers is to just get Westbrook off the team. He was a net negative. The Lakers would be better off without him. Just getting rid of him makes the team better. For the season, the Lakers were -4.3 when Russell Westbrook was on the court.

-4.3! That is a massive amount of points. For reference, in terms of net point differential, 4.3 points is the difference between a playoff team and a non-playoff team. There was no team that had a -4.3 point differential on the season this year, but the Pacers were -3.5, and the Kings were -5.4. They ranked 24th and 25th in the league respectively. -4.3 would be right in between those teams–that’s how bad being -4.3 points per 100 possessions is. You’re a bottom-6 team in the league.

So this is why I say it’s imperative to just move off of Russ. That alone will make the Lakers better. I think people underestimate how much it will help the Lakers just to get rid of Russ.

The reason I think the waive and stretch might be the best of a bunch of bad options is that it’s critically important in the NBA to not be saddled with bad contracts. Look at all the best teams in the league: how many of them have bad contracts on the books? The Suns, the Warriors, the Heat, the Bucks–these teams don’t have bad contracts on their books. They don’t have albatrosses hanging around their necks that are weighing their franchises down.

The good news for the Lakers is that it’s not imperative that they do the impossible and turn Russell Westbrook into a third superstar player. The Lakers have LeBron and AD, and if they’re healthy, that is a good enough core to

The NBA today is all about having Pieces. It’s about having Dudes. It’s not about having the most superstars. The Lakers got Westbrook in large part because they thought they needed a third superstar to keep up with the Nets, who at the start of this season had KD, Kyrie and Harden. But now that Harden is in Philly, it’s no longer imperative to participate in the NBA Arms Race.

The Superteam era is over in the NBA. It really is.

It’s now about having guys that fit well together. It’s about having defined roles for players, and having each guy maximize his ability in his role. The Suns are a terrific example of this. Every player they have has a clear and defined role. They don’t play “positionless basketball.” They play “old school” basketball: Chris Paul is the ball-handler and playmaker, Devin Booker is the primary scorer, Ayton is the pick-and-roll center, Mikal Bridges is the 3&D perimeter defender with length, and Jae Crowder is the bigger wing who can knock down shots.

Every guy on that team knows and excels in his role.

The Bucks are another team where everyone has clear and defined roles, and everyone excels in those roles. It’s about having pieces that fit together. It’s not about stockpiling as many star players as you can and then assuming their sheer talent will prevail. Talent alone doesn’t win in today’s NBA. Obviously talent is a requirement to be a good team, but talent alone isn’t enough. You have to have a system.

The Lakers won a Championship in 2020 by having LeBron and AD, and then a bunch of guys who fit well around them and knew their roles. They need to get back to that kind of basketball again.

I understand there are a lot of Laker fans who want to trade for Buddy Hield. I think doing that would be a mistake. The smarter move would be to just try and re-sign Malik Monk; Monk was just as good as Buddy Hield was this year, maybe better.

Look at their stats from this season compared to one another:

Monk had a far better eFG%, and only averaged two fewer points per game, but on about 2.5 fewer shot attempts per game and about 3 fewer minutes per game. Monk is also way younger than Hield, and even though Monk is due for a bigger contract this offseason, it won’t be as much as what Buddy Hield is making. Hield is making about $20 million a year and is under contract through 2024. Monk probably will cost about half of that.

But if the Lakers trade Russ, they won’t be able to re-sign Malik Monk. The only way they can re-sign Malik Monk is if they do the waive and stretch with Russ, because that will free up cap space.

Assuming a waive and stretch for Russ and then a $10 million a year contract for Monk, that’s $25 million a year to get Russ off the roster and retain Malik Monk. Sure, it’s $5 million more than Buddy Hield would cost, but keep in mind that you’re not going to be able to just get Buddy Hield. If you trade Russ to the Pacers, you would also have to take on a contract like Malcolm Brogdon. Brogdon is a good player, but he’s got the same problem as Hayward: he can’t stay healthy. He’s played 36, 56 and 54 games the past three seasons. Brogdon is making about $22 million a year.

If the Lakers made the trade with Indiana, they’d also have to sweeten the deal with either Talen Horton-Tucker or their 2027 and 2029 first round picks. I think that’s just giving up too much.

The name of the game here is just moving past the Russell Westbrook era. Trading him–whether to Charlotte or Indiana–is simply swapping his bad one contract for two bad contracts, and not only that, but two bad contracts that go beyond the 2023 season. So either way you slice it, you’re still paying the price for the Russell Westbrook trade beyond just next season.

The other option here that gets Russ off the books the soonest is to simply retain him and sit him on the bench next year. Keep him, but don’t play him. He would hate it, and it’s obviously going to be an enormous blow to the Lakers to pay a guy $47 million to not play, and on top of that you wouldn’t be able to retain Malik Monk, either. But at least you’d get him completely off the books by this time next season without having to eat other bad contracts. If you keep him, then in 365 days time, you will have completely moved past the Russ era.

But then again, are you really going to do that in LeBron’s 20th season? Can you really afford to risk wasting another LeBron season? Having a guy who doesn’t play making $47 million in LeBron’s 20th season is borderline malpractice. At that point, you’re going to be paying the luxury tax, too.

Now, I guess if you have Russ on the team next year, you could just hope the new coach can utilize him better and/or convince him to take a reduced role and come off the bench. But there’s no guarantee he would be open to doing that. So you’d have to be prepared for the worst case scenario, which is paying Russ $47 million to not play at all. I don’t think anyone wants that.

Look, again, there are no good options here. It’s all bad options. The waive and stretch is a bad option, but it might just be the least bad of all the possible options. Yes, it leaves the Lakers paying Russ $15 million a year for the next three years not to play. But it also frees up about $30 million cap space immediately as well, and it gets the Lakers out of paying the luxury tax. So if you waive and stretch Russ, the net result is you get Malik Monk and then about $20 million in cap space. You have to pay Russ for the next three years, of course.

I think it might be the best of all the bad options. For one, simply getting rid of Russ will make the Lakers better. Second, it enables them to keep Malik Monk, who is, statistically, every bit as valuable as Buddy Hield. And third, it gives you more flexibility to spend money instead of locking you into longer term contracts of guys like Hayward or Brogdon.

Look, the Lakers messed up royally in trading for Russell Westbrook. We can debate who is to blame for that trade, but the fact is, the trade was made and now the Lakers will have to pay the price for it. Or, I should say, continue paying the price, since they already paid a mighty price for it in 2022 going 33-49.

Now the name of the game is simply limiting the damage. There is no option to just get rid of Russ and make his contract disappear with no spillover into next season and beyond. Either way you slice it, you are paying the price for him next season and beyond. Making the trade for Russ will saddle the Lakers financially for at least the next two seasons in some way, shape or form.

The Lakers front office and ownership is notoriously stingy. Waiving and stretching Russ is the only option they have here to get back below the luxury tax line, and that might be very attractive to them.

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