At Last, The Lakers And Russell Westbrook Are Kaput
2:53 PM EST on February 9, 2023
The Lakers did a trade! You may have failed to notice this, or brushed past it, amid all the coverage of the Brooklyn Nets finally tearing down what remained of their aborted, spectacularly failed, hilariously embarrassing Big Three era. Following a solid, forward-thinking but possibly short-of-needle-moving swap for Rui Hachimura on Jan. 23, the Lakers jumped back into the Deal Zone Wednesday and managed to offload disgruntled point guard Russell Westbrook, in a three-team deal with the Utah Jazz and Minnesota Timberwolves, two teams stuck with the Lakers in that ultra-fluid morass of also-rans hovering unhappily around the Western Conference play-in picture.
There are a lot of moving parts in this transaction. The Lakers are sending out Westbrook, plus deeply unsexy role-players Juan Toscano-Anderson and Damian Jones, plus a lightly protected 2027 first-round draft pick, one of only two the Lakers have available to trade before 2030. In return they are acquiring the services of Malik Beasley and Jarred Vanderbilt of the Jazz, and are bringing home wayward son D'Angelo Russell, who was drafted by the Lakers in 2015 but nuked his credibility with teammates and with Lakers then-president Magic Johnson by leaking a video of Nick Young talking about cheating on then-fiancée Iggy Azalea. What an absolutely insane sequence of words!
As a consequence of this scandal, Russell was traded to the Nets in 2017, where he rehabbed his image both as a teammate and a player on the last Brooklyn team that was not perfectly loathsome. After two fun seasons, Russell was moved to Golden State in the sign-and-trade that brought Kevin Durant to Brooklyn in 2019, and then was traded to Minnesota for Andrew Wiggins after 33 games spent stinking up the joint for a genuinely horrendous Warriors team bogged down by superstar injuries. Russell is a fairly miserable player to watch, and Lakers fans will hate him very much in purple and gold, but also will accuse you of rank hateration if you dare to note his slightest imperfection.
The Timberwolves, as has pretty much constantly been the case for several decades, needed a shake-up. Last season the Timberwolves made the playoffs for just the second time in 18 years, but the Friends Of Karl-Anthony Towns mode of roster construction left them short of real-deal championship contention, the all-in Rudy Gobert trade so far looks like a disaster, and with Russell's contract expiring after this season and Towns recovering very slowly from a serious calf injury, now seems like a fine time to clear the decks for hotshot third-year wing Anthony Edwards, who for the rest of this season can have just as much of the offense as he can handle. Certainly 35-year-old Mike Conley, who the Wolves acquired from Utah in the trade, will not use a Russell-sized portion of Minnesota's offensive possessions.
This convoluted transaction marks the fifth time that Westbrook has been traded in the five seasons since his $205 million supermax contract extension kicked in, at the start of the 2018–19 regular season. The specific incentives motivating the Westbrook trades over the years have only gotten weirder and more desperate, as the persistent difficulties of building a winning roster around Westbrook have taken some of the luster off of his eye-popping statistical productivity. Houston wanted out of the Chris Paul business in 2019, after the Paul-James Harden pairing seemed to have bumped into a low ceiling, and sent out a boatload of future draft picks to pull Westbrook away from Oklahoma City. One miserable season later the Rockets were done with that experiment, swapping Westbrook to a Wizards team desperate for any way to offload the disastrous contract of a catastrophically injured John Wall. And one year later the Wizards lucked into a package of useful role-players and some draft capital when the Lakers had the insanely bad idea, counter to conventional thinking and almost immediately regretted, that Westbrook could be the third part of a championship-grade superstar trio.
Whatever they say now that he's gone, the Lakers will not miss Westbrook at all. The chemistry in Los Angeles was pretty sour from the start. The team's misshapen roster cost title-winning head coach Frank Vogel his job; Westbrook's personal misery at being pretty openly unwanted by his teammates cost him his relationship with his longtime agent; and eventually his awful fit in lineups with LeBron James and Anthony Davis sank Westbrook to a spot lower on the depth chart than Troy Brown Jr. and the unbelievably dreaded Patrick Beverley. Even with the Lakers playing marginally better basketball over the course of this season, the vibes have not recovered: Westbrook got into a "heated verbal exchange" with Lakers head coach Darvin Ham Tuesday night, at halftime of the very game where James broke the NBA's all-time scoring record.
Now, with just a few months left on that mega-deal, Westbrook has finally regained some value, as a large expiring contract that upon its completion will wipe a huge block of salary off of the books of a rebuilding Utah squad maneuvering its way through a long-term rebuilding project. Jazz CEO Danny Ainge told ESPN last week that even after his team's hot start to the season the Jazz aren't interested in any "short-term fix" and aren't looking to "necessarily go win a championship this year," as they hunker down for the multi-year asset-accumulation process that has defined Ainge's success as a personnel honcho. Relatedly, a handful of teams with more urgent postseason ambitions are reportedly circling Westbrook in anticipation of an impending buyout, which would make Westbrook a free agent.
It's very likely that none of this matters too much. The Jazz are happy to slide out of the playoff pack if it means gaining trade assets; the Timberwolves are in a holding pattern while Towns is out indefinitely; and the Lakers are 13th in the West and a long shot to make even the play-in, even after all this wheeling and dealing. Westbrook still hasn't quite made his way to a place where he's wanted, but a buyout might just do the trick. If nothing else, at least he and the Lakers are finally free of one another, bringing to an ignominious close one of the really spectacularly stupid ideas of the modern era.