The Los Angeles Lakers took a big gamble in the offseason when they traded for a third star in Russell Westbrook.
It’s not that Westbrook, a former MVP and future Hall of Famer, is a bad player. His style is just unique and hasn’t easily blended next to other stars. He was great alongside Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City, but his one season in Houston next to James Harden wasn’t a success. He played well last season in Washington next to Bradley Beal, though, and helped the Wizards make a surprise appearance in the playoffs.
The Lakers hoped that Westbrook’s ability to make plays on his own would take pressure off of LeBron James to constantly be the team’s primary playmaker and to also take scoring pressure off of James and Anthony Davis, who have been increasingly injury-prone as they’ve gotten older.
The gamble was a big one, though, as the Lakers sacrificed most of their depth and their defense to do it. They traded Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, arguably their best perimeter defender, and another solid defender in Kyle Kuzma to get him. They also threw in bench scorer Montrezl Harrell in that trade and lost another good defender, Alex Caruso, in free agency.
Westbrook has certainly provided some moments of offensive production, as he’s done with each team he’s been a part of. He’s averaging 20 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists while shooting 45 percent for the season. He’s also been durable, playing in all 34 games so far for the Lakers.
But there are also issues that have followed Westbrook around everywhere he’s gone. He’s not a floor-spacer, as he only hits 30 percent of his three-pointers. He’s turnover-prone, and averaging nearly 5 per game this season. He’s also a poor defender and with the Lakers losing several of the solid defenders they relied on last season, the team has a harder time masking his often-inadequate defense.
Those issues, combined with the fact that he hasn’t seemed to develop great chemistry with James or Davis, and the fact that the team is in a bit of a freefall with five straight losses, already has the Lakers facing pressure to trade him.
James himself had to publicly defend Westbrook from backlash he’s receiving from fans and media after a recent game. The Lakers lost to a Brooklyn team that was without nearly all of their regular rotation players, including star Kevin Durant. Despite James’ 39 points, the Lakers lost and Westbrook had a particularly bad performance that drew intense scrutiny. James seemed unfazed, though.
“I think his decision-making was spectacular tonight,” James said, according to USA Today. “He had 11 assists, he had 12 rebounds, five of them offensive, and we know we’re not one of the better offensive rebounding teams in this league. He gave us extra possessions. He just missed a lot of looks around the basket, which I know he can’t stand as well. But as far as the effort piece, the guy plays hard, and the guy leaves it on the floor. I got no problem with that. It’s a make or miss league.”
The Lakers issues certainly go beyond Westbrook. James and Davis have both missed time with injuries. Davis is having a productive season, but there have been whispers that injuries have sapped him of some of his athleticism and ability to play physical.
Several of the reserves they brought in to bolster the bench have also had injury or illness issues, including Malik Monk and Kendrick Nunn. The team recently brought in former All-Star Isaiah Thomas to help bolster their bench scoring. Thomas had a good debut, but then struggled and wasn’t offered a second 10-day contract.
Even if the Lakers did want to trade Westbrook, it is unclear what sort of return they could get. Westbrook likely wouldn’t be a player the Philadelphia 76ers would be interested in as a centerpiece in a Ben Simmons trade. The Lakers also don’t have the young prospects and draft picks that would be necessary to help facilitate a Westbrook-for-Jerami Grant swap with the rebuilding Detroit Pistons.
It’s possible they could try and work out a trade with Houston for John Wall, another expensive veteran point guard who was already traded for Westbrook once, but Houston would need some sort of draft capital or a young asset or two (perhaps someone like Talon Horton-Tucker) to consider such a swap.
The more likely scenario is that the Lakers will stick with their superstar trio and continue to explore the free agent or buy out market later in the season or look for more minor trade opportunities to help add some bench depth and defense to the roster.
Even with five straight losses, the Lakers are still in playoff contention in the West. But with James already late in his career, the franchise can’t afford to have a wasted season and another attempted retooling-on-the-fly this offseason.