Lakers Fix Russell Westbrook Trade, Have Real Shot at Playoffs with D'Angelo Russell

Eric Pincus @ @EricPincus Featured Columnist I February 9, 2023

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - FEBRUARY 03: D'Angelo Russell #0 of the Minnesota Timberwolves looks on against the Orlando Magic in the first quarter of the game at Target Center on February 03, 2023 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)
David Berding/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Lakers (25-30) realized pretty quickly in 2021 that they had made an error in judgment in acquiring Russell Westbrook to play with LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

Now, one day before the Feb. 9 NBA trade deadline, the team has reached an agreement with the Utah Jazz and Minnesota Timberwolves, per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski , to rectify that mistake.

Westbrook and his $47.1 million salary are on their way to Utah, probably briefly as a buyout candidate , confirmed by Bleacher Report's Chris Haynes . The Lakers bring back their 2015 No. 2 overall pick D'Angelo Russell while replenishing some of the depth lost with shooter/scorer Malik Beasley and high-energy, utility big man Jarred Vanderbilt.

Just like that, the Lakers have a real opportunity to make a playoff run.

A day earlier, James' history-making performance (passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to become the NBA's all-time leading scorer) was soured by another Lakers loss. The team had flatlined. The ill-fitting chemistry with Westbrook was pushed to the breaking point as L.A. actively looked to relocate the former NBA Most Valuable Player.

Credit to Westbrook for accepting a bench role, but that was just a temporary fix until the Lakers could get something...anything, done.

Fans were frustrated. Westbrook was as well. So, too, was James.

LeBron James @ KingJames

Maybe It's Me

After several years of questionable decisions that turned a championship team into a constant underachiever, the Lakers have taken a more diligent approach to solve the Westbrook problem. That patience, at least on paper, paid off.

Before the season, the Lakers decided not to send two first-round picks to the Indiana Pacers for Myles Turner and Buddy Hield. Eventually, the opportunity arose to acquire forward Rui Hachimura from the Washington Wizards without giving up first-round considerations.

For months, the asking price to take on Westbrook was two firsts (one for Westbrook, the other to return talent to Los Angeles). Still, the Lakers waited for a better opportunity ahead of the deadline. When Irving became available, L.A. passed on giving up Austin Reaves and two firsts.

Russell Round 2

Per Earvin "Magic" Johnson, the top basketball executive with the Lakers in 2017, the Lakers traded Russell because they " needed a leader. "

That was considered by many in the league to be bad form, criticizing a player out the door. And the Lakers didn't dump Russell because he wasn't a good player but because the team had its sights on landing James and, eventually, Davis.

Russell went on to be an All-Star in Brooklyn (2018-19) but was a casualty of the Nets' star-chasing (sent to the Golden State Warriors via sign-and-trade for Kevin Durant).

After a brief stay in Golden State, he's spent most of the last few seasons with the Timberwolves and averaged 17.9 points and 6.2 assists a game while shooting 39.1 percent from three-point range in 54 games this year.

In NBA circles, Russell is a polarizing player. He has a fair share of detractors, but in his return to Los Angeles, he should complement James far better than Westbrook ever could. Russell can play off the ball, catch and shoot and initiate the offense as the primary ball-handler. Westbrook could only do the latter.

The other issue the Lakers had with Westbrook was end-game clutch minutes. Russell's "ice in my veins" credo is based on his ability to close out games. Given the standings, the Lakers need to finish out nearly every chance they get.

Perhaps more importantly for Russell, the Lakers have his rights. The team can either give him a two-year extension before the end of June or sign him for up to five years in July. L.A. gave up its 2027 first-rounder to get Russell (top-4 protected, otherwise, it conveys as a 2027 second-rounder). The next few weeks and/or months may be an audition where both sides flat-out need it to work.

The Other Pieces

The Lakers are giving up two players at the bottom of the rotation in Juan Toscano-Anderson and Damian Jones. They get back 26-year-old Beasley, a career 38 percent three-point shooter (35.9 percent in Utah). That's quite the upgrade from Westbrook, at 29.6 percent this year, to Beasley and Russell.

L.A. also gets Vanderbilt, who, at 6'8", is an undersized small ball center/wing. The scouting report on Vanderbilt is, "He plays hard, and he can guard."

Beasley has a team option for next season at $16.5 million. Vanderbilt is due $4.7 million, but only $300,000 is guaranteed. Pencil in both, along with Russell and Hachimura, returning for 2023-24, instead of the Lakers looking to go shopping with room under the salary cap.

Los Angeles is sending a 2024 second-rounder to the Timberwolves in the deal, leaving the team with an available 2029 first-rounder and second-rounders in 2023 and 2025.

L.A. has some time ahead of the deadline (noon PT on Thursday) to add a little more defensive prowess or scoring on the wing (perhaps Jae Crowder, Gary Trent Jr., Bogdan Bogdanović, etc.).

But even if the Lakers are done, the franchise still has a long list of rotation players like Lonnie Walker IV, Patrick Beverley, Troy Brown Jr., Wenyen Gabriel, Max Christie, Thomas Bryant, Hachmiura and Reaves.

Is that enough to win a title? The Lakers first need to make the play-in, let alone the playoffs. But the exit of Westbrook, along with the additions of Russell, Beasley and Vanderbilt, give the Lakers a credible chance they simply didn't have a day earlier when the NBA's leading scorer and his teammates couldn't close out the Thunder.