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The Lakers’ Russell Westbrook quandary: The plan to handle this season and beyond

When the Lakers’ disastrous 2021-22 campaign came to an end in early April, it seemed inconceivable to many people close to the situation that Russell Westbrook would ever wear the purple and gold jersey again.

The trade market was bound to be challenging, with the combination of Westbrook’s struggles and his fiery personality sure to lessen the odds of any team being willing to take on a future first-ballot Hall of Famer on the decline — one who is owed $47 million in the forthcoming final year of his deal, no less. But the grand superstar plan that was concocted inside of LeBron James’ home the previous summer had fallen so flat, had inspired so much frustration and uncomfortableness along the way, that the Lakers couldn’t possibly consider running it back. Right?

Wrong, apparently. At least for now.

With training camp roughly a week away and the team recently conducting players-only workouts at its El Segundo practice facility, the prospect of Westbrook being part of the Lakers’ program — again — is becoming more real by the day. And yes, sources say, that’s still the case after the Friday news from our Shams Charania that veteran point guard Dennis Schröder is returning to the Lakers this season.

Yet, while the Lakers have been hopeful the Westbrook experiment might be a success this time, sources with knowledge of the situation told The Athletic that the prospect of Westbrook coming off the bench is being strongly considered.

At a minimum, it seems clear Westbrook will have to outplay new addition Patrick Beverley and Schröder if he’s going to retain his starting role. As with most lineup constructions ahead of training camp and the season, it remains a very fluid situation. But sources say first-year head coach Darvin Ham, with the full backing of the organization, is ready and willing to make whatever difficult rotation decisions might lie ahead in the interest of team success.

Assuming Westbrook isn’t traded anytime soon — and there are strong indications he won’t be — a final determination will be most dependent on how training camp and preseason take shape. The Lakers are expected to have several other battles for starting roles, including Lonnie Walker IV vs. Austin Reaves at shooting guard and Thomas Bryant vs. Damian Jones at center. Only James and Anthony Davis will enter camp with a starting role intact.

James will hold a players-only minicamp in San Diego ahead of the Lakers’ training camp, which begins with Media Day on Sept. 26. Barring a trade, that minicamp will be the start of figuring out roles across the roster — most notably who will start at point guard. The combination of Beverley’s arrival, the Schröder addition and the organization’s commitment to do whatever it takes to improve this season, it seems, has put the onus on Westbrook to find a way to fit in here.

No matter how big or small his role might be.

But to understand why the Lakers are taking this unexpected approach, holding onto a player whose displeasure was on full display during his exit interview in mid-April and who struggled so mightily all season long, you have to look ahead to next summer.

No matter how compelling this campaign might be.

The 2023-24 vision

Imagine it’s July 2023, and the Lakers are not only flush with enough free-agency cash to add another maximum-salary-level player but also in possession of their first-round picks from 2027 and 2029. Yes, those are the same picks that so many people expected them to give up as part of a Westbrook trade that had once seemed so inevitable but which ultimately never happened. According to a high-level Lakers source, their refusal to do Westbrook deals with Indiana and Utah that have been discussed in various capacities for months has everything to do with this hopeful vision for their future beyond this season.”

As uncomfortable as this Westbrook experience has been — and might yet still be — this best-case scenario outlook is the driving force behind their surprising choice to pass up chances to part ways with Westbrook. In the absence of a deal they truly believe returns them to title-contender status, sources say, Westbrook is highly likely to remain.

As it stands, the Lakers only have James ($46.9 million), Davis ($40.6 million) and rookie Max Christie ($1.7 million) under contract for the 2023-24 campaign. (Jones also has a player option worth $2.6 million.) With the salary cap projected to be $134 million, Los Angeles could create upwards of $30 million to $35 million or so in cap space. If their widely known interest in Brooklyn’s Kyrie Irving isn’t satisfied via trade by then, Irving could reunite with James the easy way when he’s an unrestricted free agent. Other notable free agents could include Khris Middleton (player option), Fred VanVleet (player option), Andrew Wiggins, Tyler Herro (restricted) and Jordan Poole (restricted).

Those are the kinds of high-level options that could be out there, so long as they don’t agree to take on any players whose deals run beyond this season in a Westbrook trade. Add in that retaining the first-round picks could open up all sorts of impactful opportunities on the trade market, and you start to see why there’s such a strong reluctance to make any moves that would hinder this plan.

Adding Westbrook to a team with LeBron James and Anthony Davis didn’t work out as the Lakers had hoped. (Kirby Lee / USA Today)

What’s more, it’s worth noting James and Davis have player options for the 2024-25 campaign. If these partnerships are going to continue, it would be wise for all involved to end the prior season on a high note. And as Lakers owner Jeanie Buss made clear in a late-August interview with The Athletic, the notion of the now 37-year-old James retiring in a Lakers jersey is considered a major priority.

If only it were that easy.

The obvious risk of this approach is that it leaves the 2022-23 season in serious limbo, a sacrificial lamb of sorts with the hopes of better times ahead (when James, by the way, would spend most of the season as a 39-year-old). So where does this optimism come from that a team involving Westbrook can still work? Sources say it all stems from hope surrounding Ham and Davis.

When the choice was made in April to fire former coach Frank Vogel, his handling of the Westbrook situation was known to be an important factor in the internal calculus.  Conversely, Ham convinced Lakers officials during the interview process that he had the personality and presence necessary to salvage this situation and is seen by his new bosses as a possible game-changer here.

He vowed to demand a reset of their culture, emphasizing defense with the team that was ranked 21st in the league last season. He expressed a willingness to make the tough decisions with players who weren’t meeting his standards and, thus, weren’t happy with their roles — no matter their salary or status. The Lakers, it seems clear, are confident Ham can handle whatever comes his way.

“Darvin is fearless,” Buss said in the interview with The Athletic. “He’s strong. It’s for coaches to figure out stuff like this. That’s what makes them coaches. You know, I lived with a coach for 17 years by the name of Phil Jackson. … This is what the challenges are. It isn’t just about putting out a game plan and just letting them take over. It’s about managing personalities. And Coach Ham is prepared and fearless when it comes to stuff like that.”

There’s a certain irony in that the modern-day Lakers are navigating these dynamics at the same time a team-sponsored show about their last four decades is offering weekly reminders that history does, in fact, repeat itself. The latest episode of “Legacy: The true story of the LA Lakers” on Hulu recounts the days of Nick Van Exel struggling to mesh with Magic Johnson after the Lakers legend returned from his retirement.

Then came Derek Fisher, who shined in his point guard role en route to three championships before having to yield (unwillingly) to Gary Payton (Fisher, who signed with Golden State in that 2004 summer, would later reunite with the Lakers to win two more). Imperfect point guard fits are nothing new in Laker Land, in other words, and coaches such as Del Harris, Jackson, Vogel and now Ham have been expected to figure it out at every turn along the way.

For Ham’s part, it would be a massive boon if Davis could manage to stay healthy for these next seven-plus months while returning to his All-NBA form of two years ago. Truth be told, there is a strong belief among some Lakers officials that Davis’ play — and his availability — are perhaps the most important factors of them all.

“I would have loved to have seen what this team would have looked like if they stayed healthy,” Buss said in the conversation with The Athletic. “It’s really tough to win when Anthony Davis isn’t on the court. LeBron was hurt a lot of the season. But Russ (who played in 78 games) showed up every game and played hard every night.”

But it’s the 29-year-old Davis who has played just 49 percent of the Lakers’ regular-season games (76 of 154) since they won the title because of injuries, this after the magical 2019-20 campaign in which he played 86 percent of the regular-season games (62 of 72) and was arguably their best player in the postseason. If he can replicate those halcyon days, the thinking goes, then maybe the Lakers will be back in the playoffs and on the road to title contention again.

But even if James, Davis and Ham manage to mesh, can Westbrook still play a pivotal part? And if he’s ultimately asked to come off the bench, will the future Hall of Famer fall in line or fight back in the kind of way that could prove disastrous for them all? These are the questions that will likely be answered in the early stretch of the season.

The Westbrook quandary

The organizational faith that the Westbrook situation can be rectified is certainly not inspired by his debut Lakers season, which was an abject failure by any measure.

Buha: Lakers’ elimination from the Play-In Tournament caps historically disappointing season

The Lakers’ counterpoint to last season is that they never saw what they could’ve been because they were never whole. The supporting cast rotated all season because of injuries, aging and inconsistent performance, and their superstar trio only managed to play three consecutive games three times. It was challenging to develop cohesion for a group that needed to rely more on chemistry than most other contenders to try to offset the natural limitations of their stars’ fit together.

This season’s supporting cast is much better on paper. As James’ late May tweet about Ham’s hiring made clear, players are excited to play for Ham and his coaching staff. If the Lakers are healthier — which is far from a certainty, obviously — next season’s team should enjoy better results.

Still, the Lakers were just 11-10 with their three superstars on the floor together last season — a 43-win pace over the course of an 82-game season. They were outscored by 3.0 points per 100 possessions with the trio playing together, per Cleaning The Glass. The group struggled with both a traditional center (-10.4 net differential with DeAndre Jordan or Dwight Howard) and Davis at center (-0.1 net differential), though the latter strategy was clearly more effective.

Even if a second season together generates better chemistry, the team’s 3-point shooting and perimeter defense remain concerning. Westbrook’s shooting struggles are well-documented (he shot 29.8 percent on 3s and posted a 51.2 true shooting percentage last season), but his defensive effort and performance were also a major issue. There’s a reasonable chance Westbrook exacerbates the roster’s weaknesses, barring a substantial turnaround.

Westbrook and Austin Reaves attended Darvin Ham’s introductory press conference. (Gary A. Vasquez / USA Today)

The Lakers are confident Ham can figure out the best way to get the most out of Westbrook. The nine-time All-Star point guard, who made it clear throughout last season that he wasn’t a fan of Vogel’s approach with him, has already connected with Ham in a way he never did with Vogel. Ham has publicly championed Westbrook during multiple interviews over the summer, including dubbing him a starter in an interview with Andscape back in early July. Ham has said Westbrook, who attended Ham’s introductory news conference, the Lakers’ first summer-league game and Beverley’s introductory news conference, is fully bought in to what the Lakers are asking of him.

But that theory could be put to the test if the Lakers decide to bring Westbrook off the bench.

When Ham was asked about the possibility of Westbrook coming off the bench during his introductory news conference in early June, Westbrook, standing off to the side with a few teammates, laughed at the notion. Moreover, Westbrook’s former agent, Thad Foucher, strongly implied soon after being fired by Westbrook that the Lakers star wasn’t on board with the Lakers’ projected role for him next season (and that was with Westbrook still expected to start, as Foucher noted).

Last season’s coaching staff feared they would lose Westbrook if they benched him, according to league sources. The Lakers were careful with how they handled Westbrook, but with the former MVP on an expiring contract, there appears to be less concern with how he might handle a smaller role.

Regarding the Westbrook trades that never transpired, two themes emerged in the failed talks with multiple teams: The Lakers’ lack of interest in taking on future money (a la Utah’s Mike Conley), and their refusal to offer the precious first-round picks that might yield a greater return down the line.

The Lakers discussed a four-team trade with Utah, New York and Charlotte ahead of the Donovan-Mitchell-to-Cleveland trade, according to league sources. One preliminary iteration of a four-team deal would have had Bojan Bogdanović and Terry Rozier going back to Los Angeles.

In recent conversations with the Jazz, the Lakers have targeted Bogdanović, Jordan Clarkson and Malik Beasley, according to league sources. The Lakers’ desire to land the Pacers’ Buddy Hield has also been well-chronicled, with the former Kings guard nearly coming their way via trade last summer. The 29-year-old 3-point specialist has been a focal point in the Lakers’ offseason talks with Indiana as well — alongside Myles Turner — but a deal is not expected on that front.

So it is, then, the Westbrook experience continues.

As the Lakers prepare for the 2022-23 season, the organization is attempting to strike the tricky balance between contending in the short term and maintaining its options in the long term. The Lakers will only make a trade if they calculate that it’ll improve this season’s roster enough to warrant the possible downside of taking on longer-term salary and/or giving up their valuable picks at the end of the decade. As things stand, it seems unlikely they find a deal that reaches that lofty threshold. Their motivations could change as the season unfolds and they get a better sense of the roster’s potential.

In the meantime, they are betting on Ham to figure out the Westbrook fit — including whether he’s most effective as a starter or off the bench — and improved health for James and Davis alongside a better, younger cast of role players.

It’s a gamble no matter which direction the Lakers choose, with long-lasting ripple effects that will likely shape the rest of their decade.

(Top photo of Russell Westbrook: Mark Blinch / NBAE via Getty Images)

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