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With Russell Westbrook returning, Lakers enter free agency with little flexibility

Lakers stars (from left) LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook watch a game together from the bench.
Lakers stars, from left, LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook watch a game together from the bench.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The Lakers enter free agency Thursday with just the taxpayer midlevel exception and minimum contracts to fill their roster around LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook, who will exercise his player option and stay under contract for another season, guaranteeing a $47-million salary, sources told The Times.

Westbrook needed to make a decision whether to opt in or become an unrestricted free agent by Wednesday. The move was widely expected.

Westbrook posted a video of himself singing the chorus to Beyonce’s “Break My Soul,” repeatedly singing Tuesday morning, “You won’t break my soul.”

After joining the Lakers last offseason in a trade, Westbrook struggled, averaging 18.5 points, 7.4 rebounds and 7.1 assists, all numbers below the standards he has set for himself. The Lakers failed to make the playoffs.

The Lakers, who flirted with Kyrie Irving before he opted in to his deal with the Brooklyn Nets on Monday, have explored Westbrook trades without success. Internally, there’s some optimism that Westbrook will rebound under a new coach and in a new system. And if not, there’s a belief that he will become easier to move as the season goes on because of the way contracts are prorated.

In the meantime, the Lakers are left to fill out their roster with limited financial options for a talent pool that most evaluators around the NBA believe is weak.

Russell Westbrook, who struggled through his first season with the Lakers, intends to exercise his option and remain with the franchise another year.

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Among the big men the Lakers could target are Orlando center Mo Bamba as well as former Lakers Thomas Bryant and Damian Jones. Wings such as Indiana’s T.J. Warren, who has been out injured since December 2020, and former first-rounders Josh Jackson and Josh Okogie are available. Another former Laker, Gary Payton II, would give the team some defensive snarl that it lacked last season.

The Lakers could also look to acquire players via trade, with rival executives believing Chicago’s Coby White could be a target. Moving Talen Horton-Tucker, a player whose ball-dominant skills are viewed by rival scouts as being redundant with the Lakers’ stars, could be a way to upgrade to suit the Lakers’ needs.

Those needs? After missing the postseason for the second time in four seasons with James and the first time since trading for Davis, the team needs improvement all over the court.

Like many other teams, shooting and defense are at the top of the list, while the team’s decision to draft 19-year-old Max Christie signals the Lakers understand that youth and building for the future are areas that need addressing. Also under contract are Kendrick Nunn, who did not play last season because of a knee injury and exercised his option for next season, and Austin Reaves.

Durability, especially considering James’ and Davis’ injury histories, is also an important trait.

The Lakers should be an attractive spot for young players hoping to rebuild their reputations. As one agent put it, the Lakers could have the two most important things to offer a player outside of money — “minutes and shots.”

Like last season, though, the Lakers’ shopping list will need to be centered on complementary pieces at discount prices. If the Lakers get production on the cheap — as they did from Malik Monk and, at times, Carmelo Anthony — they will need Davis and James healthy and Westbrook comfortable.

Once upon a time the Lakers’ Russell Westbrook bet was a sign of hope. Then the reality of an aging roster, and injuries to LeBron James and Anthony Davis, set in.

New coach Darvin Ham already said he viewed Westbrook as a key piece of the team’s immediate future during Ham’s introductory news conference.

“Russ and I had some really, really great one-on-one convos man, and the biggest word I think came out of that, those discussions, was sacrifice. That was the biggest word, sacrifice,” Ham said. “We’re going to sacrifice whatever we got to do. And it’s not just Russ. It’s going to be sacrifices that LeBron has to make, that AD has to make, on down the line to the rest of our roster. Again, we have to start on the defensive end in terms of what his role is going to be.

“I’m going to expect him to be the same tenacious, high-energy player that he’s been all his entire career. A lot of now may have him without the ball in his hand. Most of it now may have it on the defensive end. But, again, we have to sacrifice.”

The Lakers still have a lot of work to do, and that starts Thursday.


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