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Lakers newsletter: Lakers find themselves in a quandary on anniversary of Russell Westbrook deal

Russell Westbrook
(Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

Hello everyone and welcome back to the Lakers newsletter, which has been on a bit of a summer hiatus. I’m The Times’ Lakers beat writer, Dan Woike, and I wish I could say I used the time to get a cold drink in my hand and some sunshine on my face, but I’ve been in the caves trying to figure out what’s next for the Lakers.

And I honestly don’t know. With LeBron James’ extension next up (he’s eligible beginning Aug. 4), today seemed like a good day to try and explain where the Lakers are at as of now.

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Deep in the corner

The offseason is supposed to be about optimism, where a team like the Lakers can ignore the obvious shortcomings of their roster and instead choose to be seduced by optimism that can only come with a handful of months acting as a buffer between promise and reality.

This, of course, is how the team and large swaths of its fans behaved last year.

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Friday, it’ll have been one year since the Lakers upended everything in a trade for Russell Westbrook — a trade that kickstarted an offseason full of missteps and mistakes.

That deal just didn’t submarine the Lakers’ last season, it’s robbed the organization and its fans of that excited buzz that should fuel summer months. Nearly every other team in the NBA, save for maybe Utah, has sincere reasons to be excited about the future. The Lakers? They own the NBA’s most unsolvable problem, the result of decisions that led the Lakers to one championship and a thousand headaches since.

It’s why they’re here today, stuck in neutral as they try and undo the damage from the Westbrook deal and a series of others preceding it that have made the team less flexible than a redwood.

They’ve painted themselves into a corner, and while they’ve got a great view of the 2020 title, getting back to it is going to require a lot of creativity.

Whether you look at the stalled talks for Kyrie Irving, the reported conversations with Indiana for Buddy Hield and Myles Turner or the statement issued to ESPN by Westbrook’s former agent, it’s not incorrect to infer a couple of truths.

The market for Russell Westbrook, the player, doesn’t really exist especially considering his $47-million price tag. Maybe a fringe contender would look at the former MVP and see a talent upgrade that could be the difference, but that’s sorta the exact thing the Lakers tried a year ago and they didn’t even make a 10-team postseason field in the West. And maybe, in a vacuum, a younger team would look to a vet like Westbrook, who has largely built a positive organizational reputation in places like Oklahoma City, Houston and Washington, but no one thinks Westbrook is ready for the Yoda stage of his career as a mentor to the next generation.

That’s why it’s going to take at least the Lakers 2027 or 2029 first-round pick to send him elsewhere right now. And if you want passable to pretty good assets back in that trade, you better be prepared to offer more.

And, even if you use those two picks, you still might not be good enough this season.

It’s negated a lot of the leverage the Lakers would’ve liked to have in trade talks — everyone knows that the team, because of the Stepien Rule, can only trade two first round picks (in 2027 and 2029). If the Lakers fully wanted to empty their arsenal, they could include pick swaps to sweeten any deal.

In total, it’s probably enough, according to some rival executives, to push the Lakers across the finish line in a deal with the Pacers for Turner and Hield (though the asking price for Turner has generally been at least a pair of firsts). And if the Nets decide to trade Kevin Durant, the package of Lakers picks and potential swaps should again be able to satisfy Brooklyn or a third team willing to take on Westbrook before, likely, buying him out and making him a free agent.

So why aren’t the Lakers jumping at these chances now?

They must have real concerns.

With Irving, it’s a combination of a lot of factors. Irving’s own injury history, questions about his long-term passion for basketball, his ability to be available in situations requiring he be vaccinated, his own pending free agency next summer — they’re all reasons to give people within the Lakers pause when considering whether or not this is the trade to go all in for.

Some rival scouts and general managers view any Irving deal requiring multiple picks to be perhaps too risky because of those factors — that those picks could maybe be better used as the Lakers build their next contending team.

But the counter-argument almost everyone makes next is that it’s almost criminal to have LeBron James playing effectively on your team and not punt on the future for the present.

If you have him, if you have Anthony Davis, you should go for it. And if you don’t want, then maybe it’s best if you move on from everyone and start anew. (The trouble, here, of course, is that the Lakers owe picks and swaps to the Pelicans, which is a great reason for the team to bottom out before 2025 or 2026.)

Sources have said the Lakers are more reluctant to part with picks this summer than in the past, maybe a sign that they realize there aren’t any quick fixes or maybe a sign that they’re willing to wait as long as possible in an effort to try and get price tags lowered.

In a perfect world, the Lakers would be able to pull off a series of moves — acquiring Irving by using Westbrook and a pick before adding even more shooting (think Eric Gordon or Hield).

But this situation is far from perfect, the Lakers forced to try and figure out if they can get good enough fast enough in a deal instead of waiting for the in-season trade deadline or the end of the season to deal with their Westbrook issues.

Asked what he’d do in their situation, one rival general manager just sighed.

Song(s) of the week

Pearl Jam – Live from Rome 6/26/18

I’ve been in a huge concert mood all summer, and it’s got me thinking back to what I’d consider to be my favorite show I’ve ever seen (I was on my honeymoon in Italy and talked my wife into a night at a soccer stadium). The best concert intro song….what a great night. Just wanted to share this memory.

In case you missed it

Slava Medvedenko selling two Lakers championship rings to raise money for Ukraine

Judge combines lawsuits from Vanessa Bryant and family of two other crash victims

LeBron James creates quite the spectacle in his Drew League return

Lakers’ Russell Westbrook splits with longtime agent over ‘irreconcilable differences’

LeBron James criticizes U.S. response to Brittney Griner’s case

Will the Lakers get Kyrie Irving? NBA scouts and team executives are torn

Lonnie Walker confident he can improve Lakers’ three-point shooting woes

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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