With the Los Angeles Lakers finally appearing to have turned the corner in terms of fully embracing idea of developing their young core, there are a growing number of fans with understandable concerns over the proposed deadline owner and head of basketball operations Jim Buss famously placed on himself back in January of 2014. Per the Los Angeles Times, Buss made certain guarantees about helping to return the team to the level of contending in a tough Western Conference within a relatively short period to his family and business partners.
The concern from within the fan base isn’t over whether Buss will remain in his current capacity within the front office – he’d remain an owner and person of relative influence, regardless – rather it is whether a man with a proverbial ticking time clock over his shoulder will maintain the patience it may take to see the rebuild through to fruition or if he might be tempted to try to expedite the situation?
As a result, the question about whether the Lakers should seriously consider attempting to make a trade for Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook will remain a part of the general discussion until either the Thunder make the decision to move him rather than face the prospect of losing a second superstar to free agency in as many summers or at least until the 2017 trade deadline finally passes next February. We should have an exact date for that deadline when the 2016-17 NBA schedule is released sometime in August, but needless to say that certainly isn’t an ideal seven-month period for the Thunder or their shell-shocked fan base still reeling after the loss of Kevin Durant.
There’s a growing feeling that if Westbrook has, in fact, given them reason to believe another destination is in his cross hairs for next summer, then OKC general manager Sam Presti could favor the idea of essentially “ripping the band-aid off” all at once rather than prolonging the experience and the process of rebuilding if a desirable deal were to present itself. If Westbrook has already privately given that indication – which, to be clear, there have been no reports to suggest that he has – then the challenge will be in not only finding the best possible deal, but managing to do so with Westbrook having some control over the process since he can determine his long-term fate.
Reports of Westbrook being ‘ticked’ off and feeling motivated following Durant’s departure have begun to surface, but that’s about as predictable of a response as they come. Westbrook is one of those players who constantly exudes a passion and ferocity for the game that seems to be more and more rare these days – even for a professional athlete. It should come as no shock that he would see this as a challenge regardless of what uniform he ultimately dons over the next five (or so) years. While his friendship with Durant will likely remain, you can rest assured that Westbrook will see the Golden State scenario as the ultimate challenge over that stretch.
Unless a GM is willing to take a total flyer and empty out his resources with only a rental season guaranteed, the eight-year-veteran point guard would still hypothetically be able to choose his most desired landing spot.
If you’re Westbrook and you hypothetically want to join the Lakers, wouldn’t you just find a way to let them know that rather than watching them trade away many of the assets that would either make them an attractive destination or permit them to place the talent around him that he might prefer? We discussed the pros and cons of approaching a deal for Westbrook last week, and unless the Lakers were to catch wind of another desired destination willing to make the deal for Westbrook, holding off any such negotiations would absolutely be their best option at this stage.
Again, if you’re a fan of the Lakers, you would hope that both sides would be able to find the patience to wait another season before making a move. The sting of pulling off what seemed to be a very favorable deal at the time when acquiring center Dwight Howard during the summer of 2012 only to see him bolt town following a disappointing season that actually resulted in the franchise’s last trip to the playoffs (a first-round sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs) has to still loom large for this front office, especially given the fact that Pau Gasol did the very same thing the following summer.
As they currently stand, the Lakers have 13 players under contract for the upcoming 2016-17 season. Although it is uncertain whether guys like Metta World Peace, Robert Sacre and Robert Kelly will be a part of the mix moving forward, it probably doesn’t bode well for either of the three given the current trend and direction things are heading. World Peace was last seen at a recent, local tournament and dunk contest hosted by Orlando’s Aaron Gordon (in phenomenal shape this summer, by the way) at Venice Beach in Southern California. Much like they probably should have done last season, the Lakers could keep World Peace around the team as a presence for the younger players – or, perhaps in the event they acquire any headstrong superstar talents in the near future – in a player development role rather than taking up an actual roster spot.
All of that aside, if Westbrook were to privately agree to go to another destination with the promise to ultimately re-sign in an effort to immediately start the next phase of his career, then the Lakers could find themselves in the precarious position of having to pursue a deal of their own. For the record, all of this is also operating under the assumption that newly hired head coach Luke Walton would also be on-board with the idea of coaching a typically ball-dominant player like Westbrook as his first major challenge in the position. Westbrook was actually behind Steph Curry in terms of overall usage rate (31.3 percent and 32 percent, respectively), but obviously didn’t shoot as efficiently as the league’s back-to-back MVP.
Westbrook’s style and overall impact on the game is certainly a good-problem-to-have scenario, but it still shouldn’t go unmentioned. On the flip side, we should also remind you of the tremendous strides Westbrook has made as a playmaker over the last few seasons. After some questioned whether he had the natural instincts to be a floor general, he was fourth overall in assists per game in 2014-15 and as high as second in assists to Rajon Rondo last season. Point being, while he may not be the most ideal fit for the new system and basketball philosophy in Los Angeles, Westbrook has shown plenty of progress and growth over the years and a willingness to adjust his approach at times.
The question would really be whether Walton would hypothetically be able to get through to him even more effectively than his previous coaches (Scott Brooks and Billy Donovan) and inspire him to take yet another step as a player in terms of his efficiency rate. With relating to players being one of the strong suits often attributed to Walton, you probably have confidence in his ability to do exactly that if you’re the Lakers. Time will tell whether the Lakers ultimately have to pursue Westbrook via a deal, but L.A. would be in much better shape if they were able stand pat while continuing to develop that core.
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