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What the Lakers’ (hire a coach) offseason (Russell Westbrook returns?) should look like

Rob Pelinka listens to a question from a reporter during the Lakers' media day.
Rob Pelinka, the Lakers’ vice president of basketball operations and general manager, has big decisions to make this offseason.
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)
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Hey everyone, I’m Dan Woike and welcome back to another edition of the LA Times’ Lakers’ newsletter, my weekly chance to speak directly with you if you don’t mistake this email for slightly discounted tires.

One of my favorite things to do is take summer road trips (this is not actually true, but it’s a folksy enough of device to get us to where we want to be in this email). And after you load up the car, pack the kids, cue up the “Encanto” soundtrack and pray for no tantrums, you head toward your final destination with some pre-scheduled stops along the way.

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That’s sort of the stage of things right now with the Lakers – eventually they’ll get to the 2022-23 season but not until they stop at the world’s largest thimble and rickety theme park on the way.

In this week’s newsletter, I wanted to share what I think the route will look like, highlighting the key stops on the itinerary.

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Stop 1: Hire a coach

In my mind, before the Lakers do anything else, they need to figure out who will be in the big chair on the bench.

The decision will dictate not just the strategy the team will employ and the kinds of players needed to implement it, it’ll speak to the overall strategy of the front office.

Will the famously (or infamously) collaborative portions of management cede control and hire a coach who will assemble his own staff. Will the organization pay top dollar and offer a lengthy contract to hire a top candidate?

Will it be a coach tied directly to LeBron James or Anthony Davis? Is it creative? Is it predictable?

Lakers coaching candidates are likely to include (from left) Quin Snyder, Doc Rivers and Nick Nurse.
(Associated Press)

It’s a tone-setting decision for what will come next and will either codify the direction the Lakers are going or muddy it.

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Stop 2: Make a Westbrook decision

Lakers guard Russell Westbrook brings the ball up during a game against the Jazz
Russell Westbrook
(Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

This is a thorny one.

Like we discussed last week, trading Russell Westbrook as he heads into the final year of his contract (presuming that he’s not allergic to money and accepts his $47-million option) is complicated.

Dealing him for multiple rotation players – something the team desperately needs – probably means taking back bad salary or injury concerns and, mostly likely, both. It’ll also probably means parting with yet another first-round pick and maybe two, essentially selling off their only remaining assets for a player with one more year on his deal.

Westbrook, for his part, hasn’t seemed too enthused with the Lakers, either. This week, he caused a stir among fans by scrubbing his Instagram, leaving a singular post for people to dissect.

Dealing with all this before the team has a coach seems like a bad idea, though whoever leads the team on the bench will want to know what the plan is for Westbrook – a massive part either incoming or outgoing in what this team will look like.

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Stop 3: Put the faith in the scouts

Austin Reaves
Austin Reaves
(Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Of all the places where you can feel confident about what the Lakers can accomplish, making an impact in the draft when you have no picks seems like a longshot. But operating out of the first round hasn’t slowed the team’s scouting department from finding rotational players from the margins of the league.

Turning unheralded prospects into productive members of the organization has been over-shadowed by the team’s star hunting, but with cap room so scarce, it’s a critical piece of the organization’s future. Armed with Austin Reaves’ success last season, you can expect the Lakers to be competitive for the top undrafted players – and that’s if the team doesn’t try to buy its way into the second round to select a player.

Stop 4: Sign a team

Los Angeles Lakers guard Talen Horton-Tucker, right, drives past Denver Nuggets forward Zeke Nnaji.
Talen Horton-Tucker drives past Denver Nuggets forward Zeke Nnaji.
(David Zalubowski / Associated Press)
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The Lakers have James. They have Davis. They have Talen Horton-Tucker. Kendrick Nunn has said he’ll pick up his player option. The team has a club option on Reaves (no way they don’t pick it up), Stanley Johnson and Wenyen Gabriel. Add Westbrook and there’s still seven spots to be filled with only the taxpayer mid-level exception.

If the Lakers offer that to Malik Monk (and he accepts), the Lakers will be bargain shopping as they try and fill out the lineup with two-way players who complement what already exists.

A look at the players who could be there at that price range is pretty ugly, meaning the Lakers will need to be lucky or persuasive and, maybe, both. They’ll need to find multiple rotation players, and gulp, maybe even a starter without being able to spend real money.

It’s gonna be tough.

Wild-card: The LeBron James x-factor

LeBron James
(Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

Lurking underneath all of this is James and the prospect of a contract extension.

If the Lakers sign him to one, it links them to the most “win now” player maybe in the league’s history, a superstar nearing 40 with a proven track record of being the centerpiece of a winner.

If the Lakers don’t agree to an extension with James, they only have one more guaranteed season with him, a situation that could be incredibly uncomfortable.

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Without James’ commitment, can the Lakers credibly sacrifice future assets for short-term solutions if James is just set to walk? And if James has one year left on his deal, and the Lakers aren’t aggressive enough to his liking, he could pull the eject lever, leaving the team with a title (and not much else) in his tenure with the organization.

Whatever the Lakers do, the road ends at the start of the next season. But only a fool would expect that it would be perfectly smooth.

Song of the week

Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Maps

Pretty self-explanatory here – but an all-time great driving song that’ll leave your hands bruised from drumming against the steering wheel.

In case you missed it

Where did Lakers go wrong? Suns vs. Pelicans is a tell-tale example

Plaschke: HBO’s ‘Winning Time’ gets some things about Showtime era right — but not Jerry West

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Can Jerry West take his case against HBO to the Supreme Court? Or any court?

Judy Seto, a longtime Lakers training staff presence, is no longer with the team

Inside the Lakers coaching search: Will they learn from problems of the past?

Until next time...

As always, pass along your thoughts to me at daniel.woike@latimes.com, and please consider subscribing if you like our work!

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