It feels like just yesterday I was grading the trade between the Washington Wizards and Houston Rockets that essentially swapped John Wall for Russell Westbrook. At that time, I gave […]
It feels like just yesterday I was grading the trade between the Washington Wizards and Houston Rockets that essentially swapped John Wall for Russell Westbrook.
At that time, I gave the Wizards a “B+” for acquiring the superstar point guard from the Rockets. I gave Houston a harsh “D” grade, as I thought they could have gotten a haul for Westbrook that would’ve helped them better prepare for the future. Instead they got John Wall, who still holds talent at 30 years old but isn’t going to push Houston in to contention any time soon.
Westbrook had a successful tenure in Washington from an individual standpoint: averaging a triple-double for the fourth time in his career, breaking the NBA’s record for triple-doubles all-time, leading the league in assists at 11.7 per game, and posting a career-high 11.5 rebounds per game. The Wizards finished 34-38, earning the eighth seed in the East and winning a play-in game against the Indiana Pacers before losing to the Philadelphia 76ers 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs.
Fast forward eight months, and Westbrook is headed to his fourth team in four seasons. After playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets, and Washington Wizards, Westbrook is headed to the Los Angeles Lakers to play alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
After falling short to the Phoenix Suns in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, the Lakers entered the offseason searching for additional firepower. Once again, LeBron James will be a part of a big three, playing with two current All-Stars and future Hall of Famers.
Will the trade put the Lakers back on top of the league? Will the Westbrook experiment pan out in Los Angeles? Did the Wizards get a decent return for the walking triple double himself? And who ultimately won this league-shocking trade?
Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers won the 2020 NBA Finals over the Miami Heat behind the tandem of James and Davis. When both players were healthy during the 2020-21 season, Los Angeles was a force to be reckoned with on the court.
But remove either Davis or James from the starting lineup, and the Lakers became a vulnerable team. Make no doubt, as the eventual Finals representative for the Western Conference, the Phoenix Suns were a great team this year. However, it’s still reasonable to wonder if the Lakers may have won that first round series and made a deeper playoff run if Davis was available for the entirety of the series.
Los Angeles basically could have gone one of two routes: adding another superstar in an era where it’s become common to see multiple All-Stars in contender’s starting fives, or build a deeper roster around James and Davis.
This trade clearly shows the Lakers wanted to go the route of three stars. After previously being linked to Damian Lillard (who never could have been pried away with what the Lakers had to offer,) Los Angeles gets their third star in Westbrook.
This raises two questions: 1) do the Lakers really need a third star, or should they have built a deeper roster? 2) Is Russell Westbrook the right player to fill the third star role?
The Lakers can’t bank on Davis and James being healthy, but at the same time, would Davis-Westbrook or James-Westbrook be able to carry a championship team without much of a supporting cast? Los Angeles is going to be absolutely strapped for cash salary cap-wise, taking on Westbrook’s massive contract that pays him $44.2 million and $47.1 million over the next two seasons.
As far as Westbrook’s style of play, there are legitimate concerns as to if he will fit next to James. Both players demand the ball, especially as James continues to take on more of a facilitator role late in his career. Westbrook just led the league in assists last season. James likes to take the ball up court himself, even if not playing in a natural point guard role. Both players prefer to get their points by attacking the rim. Can these styles of play co-exist? If not, who will give up some of their time with the ball? And can Davis still get the amount of touches in the paint he deserves?
Personally, I do believe James can find a way to make Westbrook’s presence work, whether that means getting less touches himself or coaching Westbrook to adapt his style of play. Westbrook also isn’t the strongest outside shooter, which is something the Lakers would have benefited from. A Lillard or Kyrie Irving-type player could have helped space the floor for Davis and James, but Westbrook isn’t exactly known for his outside shot, even if he can hit them from time to time.
The Lakers gave up Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in the deal with the Wizards, along with the rights to the 22nd overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft. None of these players are necessary to win a championship, but together, the unit represented scoring (Kuzma,) interior defense (Harrell,) and perimeter defense and shooting (Caldwell-Pope.) I expect Westbrook to put on a show scoring and rebounding for the Lakers, but his defensive presence and shooting may provide a net downgrade in the absence of that trio of players.
So far I’ve been mostly critical, but it’s not all doom and gloom. Westbrook, entering his age-33 season, still has a ton of talent to bring to the court. He can score with the best of them, has led the league in assists three times in the last four seasons, and is a monster in the paint for a point guard. While Westbrook will definitely start alongside James and Davis, a possible role that could be valuable for him would be leader of the second unit. Perhaps Westbrook takes his first rest early, and then assumes point guard duties alongside bench players when James and Davis need a rest. Without James on the court, Westbrook could have his way with the ball, and facilitate the scoring when the Lakers current two stars are on the bench.
Worst case, if Davis or James did go down with an injury, the Lakers would still have two All-Stars to work with.
Westbrook isn’t the perfect player to put the Lakers back over the top, but with the options Los Angeles had available, it’s certainly not a bad trade. Again, building a deep roster may have been a safer route to go, but for now, the Lakers are all-in on this Big Three.
The Washington Wizards were smart to unload Russell Westbrook, and probably ecstatic that they got the chance to. Westbrook’s contract is massive, with $91.3 million owed to the point guard over the next two seasons. Anything can happen in the NBA, but all things considered, the Wizards didn’t look poised to make a deep playoff run over the course of the next two seasons. Washington finished eighth in the Eastern Conference at 34-38 last season, and while Westbrook is an extremely valuable player on the court, I don’t see their record regressing too much without him.
First of all, the Wizards get three players that can each make an immediate impact in their roles. Kyle Kuzma is a sharp-shooter and can likely provide a spark of energy off the bench. Montrezl Harrell can provide size and defense. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is a veteran who can give the Wizards perimeter defense and timely shooting.
Are the Wizards going to win a championship with this core? Probably not, but I don’t think they’re any further than they were before the trade. Ultimately, this trade gives Washington flexibility moving forward. If even one of these three players turns out to be a nightly contributor, that’s icing on the cake. There’s a chance these players could hold value in next season’s trade deadline as well, and the Wizards could flip them for even more assets.
The Wizards gained the rights to the Lakers first-round pick as well, but they sent that pick to the Indiana Pacers in exchange for Aaron Holiday and the 31st overall pick (used to select 6-foot-10 forward Isiah Todd.)
Washington turned John Wall and a first-round pick into Russell Westbrook, then turned Westbrook into Kuzma, Harrell, Caldwell-Pope, Holiday, and Todd. Again, while Westbrook is an immensely talented player, his services may have not been necessary in Washington, and five players may be more valuable overall.
The Wizards won this trade, not because it’s going to have an immediate positive impact, but rather because they turned one expensive, aging asset in to a slew of younger ones that can either contribute or be traded themselves in the future. I shy away from an “A” grade, only because I wonder what other packages Washington may have been able to receive for Westbrook.
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