Russell Westbrook is now the only MVP in NBA history to get traded in three consecutive years as the Washington Wizards agreed to send him to the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrel, and the 22nd pick in the 2021 NBA draft.
In Westbrook, the Lakers receive a player that has averaged a triple-double multiple times over the past few years and a player with a motor like no other, who plays hard every night and demands the same from his teammates. For the Wizards, this is a clear move towards rebuilding as they took on a mix of young players and expiring contracts in exchange for their star point guard. Westbrook has been linked to the Lakers since the very beginning of the offseason, but the likelihood of this deal going through seemed small given his lack of outside shooting ability. The Lakers gave up two of their designated shooters to bring in Westbrook, raising eyebrows across the league about the logic behind such a move from Rob Pelinka.
The deal seems to make little sense at face value, as adding another ball-dominant guard that does not shoot the ball well from deep should create more spacing issues for a Lakers team that identified shooting to space the floor as one of their critical areas for improvement. Now, the Lakers have another non-shooter with only five players on their roster with essentially the Taxpayer’s Mid-level Exception and the Veteran Minimum to fill out ten more spots on their team for next year. If Rob Pelinka’s job was already tough heading into last night’s draft, then it’s about to get much more challenging as he will try to scour the free-agent market for shooters to space the floor for their new big three. Still, the deal is just what the doctor ordered for the Lakers, given the circumstances they were facing heading into free agency.
The Lakers still need shooting, but just as crucial in their hierarchy of needs is another playmaker to run the offense while LeBron James is on the bench. LeBron’s impact on the team is astronomical; his presence alone kept a lowly Lakers roster afloat while Anthony Davis was injured. During that stretch, the Lakers were the number one defense in the league and winning games due to LeBron’s master orchestration of the offense. Without LeBron, they are lost and are unable to get organized on offense to create quality shots through their sets. Dennis Schroeder is a fine player but certainly not the point guard to shoulder the burden of filling in some of LeBron’s playmaking duties. Having Westbrook on the floor simply means that Anthony Davis will always play with a playmaker on the floor, able to play more pick and roll in stretches to compliment his post touches.
Westbrook can also create offense for himself in his relentless attack on the rim each time he steps on the floor. He isn’t popping threes from the logo like Steph or Dame, but Russ can put points on the board when asked. Westbrook can also create easy opportunities for LeBron in transition and get the Lakers to play with more pace with his sheer intensity each game. Faster pace equals more open looks since defenses do not have the opportunity to get set up to stop you. Given the Lakers’ superb defensive potential, being able to capitalize on stops by getting up and down the floor will be a nightmare for opposing teams, with Russ and LBJ coming at them with a full head of steam.
Lastly, there is the spacing issue. Westbrook and LeBron have both been decent from the perimeter and beyond the arc at some point in their careers; Russ shot 34% from three in the 2016-17 season while LeBron is close to 35% for his career with a high of 40% in his 2012-13 campaign with the Miami Heat. It’s within the realm of possibility that these numbers could return, but even so, spacing isn’t all about knocking down threes so that defenses have to stay honest.
Suppose the defense is cheating off of you in a big way. In that case, that gives you more time to scope out what the intended rotations are going to be, this may not be great for a guy like Kyle Kuzma of KCP, but a player of Russ’ caliber can surely make plays and be effective off a kick-out even if teams sag off on him. Russ doesn’t have to shoot the wide-open three when given to him. He can opt to step in for a perimeter pull-up or go hard to the rim and challenge the big. Good luck keeping the massive front line of the Lakers away from the offensive glass if that happens.
All in all, the Lakers could have probably gotten a better third star that has a skill set more complimentary to Anthony Davis and LeBron James. However, they will not find a superstar with the same type of aggression and motor as Westbrook. A player like Russ just doesn’t exist in the league today. Sometimes the fit of skill sets isn’t the most important thing, as the alignment of goals and values can certainly eclipse any issues that present themselves on the stat sheet.
The bottom line is that Russ is a player with a winning mentality going back home to join a team with a championship pedigree and arguably the game’s greatest player; that has to be an overwhelming positive. If Rob Pelinka can find a way to surround this team with the right shooters and defenders they need to succeed, then we may be looking at this trade very differently come June 2022. All I know is that this trade is a massive swing by the Lakers, and by the end of it all, the trade for Westbrook will be either idiotic or pure genius.