When the 2021-22 season ended for the Los Angeles Lakers, the widespread assumption was that Russell Westbrook would be gone by the time their next season began. Westbrook's ball-dominant playing style clashed with LeBron James on the court and his abrasive personality clashed with coach Frank Vogel off of it. But with Vogel fired at the end of the season, the bread crumbs have begun to trickle in that Westbrook's departure isn't quite so inevitable. Earlier this month, The Athletic reported that Vogel was fired in part due to his inability to maximize Westbrook. Sam Amick's reporting has maintained that tone into the search to replace Vogel.

According to Amick, the Lakers are asking coaching candidates how they might utilize Westbrook in their systems if hired to replace Vogel. Now, there are a dozen good reasons why the Lakers might be asking this question. One possibility is that the Lakers are trying to use media leaks to convince possible trade partners that they are not desperate to deal Westbrook. It might also just be a window into the mind of a candidate. Westbrook is a uniquely difficult player to build around. Even if he isn't on the roster, the Lakers can learn a lot about a coach by asking how he might solve the problem that Vogel couldn't.

But the simplest answer here is that the Lakers are asking about Westbrook because they believe there is a realistic chance that he is back on the roster next season. If they are unwilling to surrender assets to move him, there is a good chance that is the case. Westbrook will be owed over $47 million next season after he picks up his player option, and that's not an easy contract for most teams to fit on their books. The few that can likely acknowledge how poorly Westbrook played last season and aren't especially enthusiastic about adding him without being compensated for it.

There are valid longer-term arguments in favor of keeping Westbrook, though few have anything to do with his value as a player. Keeping him means getting off of his contract scot-free next summer. Trading him likely means taking on long-term money and surrendering draft picks. The Lakers might be prioritizing the long term here, but it conflicts with what owner Jeanie Buss said in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times

"I'm growing impatient just because we had the fourth-highest payroll in the league," Buss said. "When you spend that kind of money on the luxury tax, you expect to go deep into the playoffs. So, yeah, it was gut-wrenching for me to go out on a limb like that and not get the results that we were looking for. I'm not happy. I'm not satisfied."

The Lakers will almost certainly be a tax team again next season, and LeBron James will become a free agent after that if he is not extended this summer. Lose James and the Lakers are right back where they were after Kobe Bryant retired: in the lottery and subject to the whims of star free agents who may or may not want to be Lakers. Keeping Westbrook and likely sacrificing another season would be the patient approach.

But this is the rare moment in which impatience is likely the correct course. James will turn 38 next season. He doesn't have that many superstar seasons left. So long as he is one of the NBA's best players, the Lakers have a chance to compete for a championship so long as he is surrounded with the proper talent. Keeping Westbrook likely prevents the Lakers from acquiring such talent. They cannot hope to compete for a championship with a $47 million albatross on their cap sheet. The more leaks like this come out, the more realistic Westbrook's return and another disappointing season becomes.