If the Los Angeles Lakers played a game tomorrow, Alfonzo McKinnie would have to play all 48 minutes. They have only five players on the roster. McKinnie is one of them. Three are holdovers from last season: LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Marc Gasol. And then there's the controversial new addition, Russell Westbrook.
You've heard all of the critiques by now. He can't shoot 3's. He's an inconsistent defender. His shot selection is horrific. He's getting older and he's incredibly expensive. His high-usage playing style is redundant on a team with James and Davis. They're all valid to an extent, and to varying degrees, they're going to hinder the Lakers on their quest for an 18th championship. But as blanket criticisms of the 2021-22 Lakers, they are as incomplete as the roster itself. Westbrook's fit with James and Davis carries very obvious questions, but how can we judge his overall fit on a team that hasn't even been built yet?
McKinnie isn't going to play 48 minutes alongside Westbrook next season. When it counts, he won't play any. One-third of this roster is in place and two-thirds of it are not. So before we pass judgment on Westbrook, himself, we need to figure out who he's going to play with and how much they are going to cover or exacerbate those very real flaws of his. The 2021 NBA Draft is officially in the books, so now, let's dive into what could come next in free agency.
Salvaging the Hield trade.
Let's go over a brief timeline of Westbrook's acquisition:
- At 11:30 p.m on Wednesday night, The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor reports that the Lakers have "stepped up their efforts" to land Sacramento Kings guard Buddy Hield. The deal had been rumored for weeks and would have likely been built around Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell and the No. 22 overall pick. Hield is a career 40.6 percent 3-point shooter, exactly the sort of supplementary spacer the Lakers needed with or without Westbrook.
- At 5:00 p.m. ET on Thursday, ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reports that Harrell has picked up his $9.7 million player option for the 2021-22 season, clearing the way for him to be dealt to Sacramento. Four minutes later, at 5:04, Wojnarowski reports that there is "momentum towards" the deal's completion.
- Only 10 minutes later, at 5:14, The Athletic's Shams Charania reports that the Lakers and Wizards are engaged on a Westbrook trade. Soon after, the deal is agreed-upon.
- Before the Draft begins but after the Westbrook trade has been reported, Wojnarowski says in regards to the Hield deal that the Kings are "likely to be aggressive in getting that deal complete with the Lakers."
- With the No. 9 overall pick, the Kings select Davion Mitchell, a combo guard who will likely play shooting guard in the NBA. The same position as Hield.
- During the Draft, Bleacher Report's Eric Pincus reports that according to one Western Conference executive, "the Wizards highly value Caldwell-Pope but may be open to either Kuzma, Harrell or both rerouted to another team."
Now there are two scenarios to discuss here. The first is that the Hield trade is really, truly dead. It's a distinct possibility. We have firm reporting that the players expected to go to Sacramento are now headed for Washington. The Kings may have taken Mitchell because he was the highest player on their board, or they may believe that they can trade Hield elsewhere. This is the easiest and likeliest explanation.
Here's the completely unverified alternative: the Lakers, Kings and Wizards are discussing a multi-team deal that would land the Lakers Westbrook and Hield. Completing such a deal would not technically be legal right now. Westbrook and Hield are owed nearly $67.3 million next season, including incentives. At this level of salary, teams can take back only 125 percent of the money they send out, plus $100,000. Essentially, that means that the Lakers would have to send out 80 percent of that figure to make an allowable trade. That would be impossible at the moment. The five players on their roster not named James or Davis entering Thursday were owed just under $40.4 million combined, a figure that is even lower when you take out Gasol and McKinnie, who are not currently reported to be in the deal. They literally do not have enough salary right now to get to the threshold for acquiring Westbrook and Hield. To do so, they'd need to send out roughly $53.8 million.
So how do the Lakers make up the difference? By signing-and-trading their own free agents. Dennis Schroder, Alex Caruso and Talen Horton-Tucker are all expected to command sizable contracts this offseason. If the Kings or Wizards want those players and can agree to deals with them, the Lakers can add them to the deal as further matching salary. If other teams want those players, the Lakers can use draft picks to entice them into formatting those deals as sign-and-trades, which would, in turn, allow them to loop whatever teams sign those players into the bigger transaction.
To put this more simply: Kuzma, Caldwell-Pope and Harrell combine to make roughly $35.7 million. If another team agrees to pay Schroder $18.2 million next season, boom, the Lakers have over that $53.8 million figure to aggregate in this deal. Things get slightly more complicated with Horton-Tucker and Caruso because of Base Year Compensation concerns that change their outgoing salary in trades, but those are solvable problems. If the Lakers need a bit more money for a deal, McKinnie's minimum salary can be included as well.
With Westbrook coming in, Schroder is almost certainly leaving Los Angeles. The Wizards might want Schroder themselves to replace Westbrook in their own lineup, but if they prefer new addition Aaron Holiday, the Lakers can still use Schroder to help complete this deal. As long as his new team is willing to take draft capital as a bribe for cooperating in a sign-and-trade, the Lakers can use him match money. If he's going elsewhere, Horton-Tucker might interest Washington enough to send Kuzma and Harrell to Sacramento as Pincus suggests. He likely intrigues the Kings as well. He was college teammates with Tyrese Haliburton. There would be plenty of moving parts here, but this is workable in basketball terms.
It just isn't legal right now because free agents cannot start talking to new teams until Aug. 2. They do it regardless. The entire league tampers before free agency. But we saw what happens when a team gets caught last offseason, when word of a sign-and-trade that would have sent Bogdan Bogdanovic to the Bucks leaked. The deal never materialized and the Bucks were stripped of a second-round pick for tampering. If the Lakers, Kings, Wizards and some other team do have an agreement here or are even talking, it is in their best interests to keep it quiet. That might explain why Wojnarowski reported that the Lakers were close to a Hield deal while Charania got the scoop on the Westbrook trade. Different reporters were given different components, but not the whole.
This is, again, speculation. Nothing is verified here, but if you want to read tea leaves, there are plenty of tea leaves to be read. But even if the Hield trade is dead, that doesn't necessarily mean that the Lakers are out of luck on the trade market.
What can the Lakers get for Schroder?
This is an extremely guard-heavy free-agent class, but as always, there are more needy teams than viable starters. Let's assume, for now, that the Suns and Jazz will retain Chris Paul and Mike Conley, respectively. That leaves the Knicks, Pelicans, Mavericks, Heat and 76ers as teams known to be looking for a lead ball-handler either through cap space or a trade. The Bulls do not currently have the space to pursue one, but they can easily create it by waiving some of their partially guaranteed players. That is already 20 percent of the NBA before factoring in surprise suitors.
Kyle Lowry is at the top of the list here. All six of these teams will make bids for him. He can only sign with one of them. Spencer Dinwiddie, Lonzo Ball and DeMar DeRozan will be the backup options. They will likely land with three of these teams, though it should be said that the Knicks have the space to sign two of them if they want to. That leaves, at a minimum, two viable landing spots in which Schroder is likely to be a priority even if we don't know where those spots are. That doesn't even include the Wizards, who may well be his final landing spot.
So what are some possible Schroder scenarios? Let's divide this section in half. First, we'll cover scenarios in which the Lakers simply trade Schroder into another team's cap space. This would allow them to create a trade exception worth whatever his new salary is. They could then turn around and use that exception to absorb a similarly-priced player. Then, we'll discuss more traditional trades.
Scenario 1 - trade exceptions:
SNY's Ian Begley reports that the Orlando Magic have discussed trading veteran wing Terrence Ross. Ross is owed $12.5 million, likely less than what Schroder gets. The rebuilding Magic may be interested in draft capital or perhaps Horton-Tucker.
- The Mavericks are trying to create cap space, and will need to if they plan to try to retain Tim Hardaway Jr. in addition to making a major free-agent move. If the Lakers are interested in a reclamation project, they could offer to take on Josh Richardson's $11.6 million salary if he indeed opts in for next season.
- Schroder's salary probably may not get quite this high, but Eric Gordon at $18.2 million appears attainable to a Houston team that is neck-deep in a rebuild and just drafted Jalen Green at his position. Gordon played with Westbrook during the 2019-20 season.
Scenario 2 - traditional sign-and-trades:
The 76ers probably wouldn't trade Tobias Harris for Schroder, but they seem to want a point guard badly. It's worth asking, though the Lakers would have to send out even more salary to get to his $36 million max. More feasibly, the Lakers could ask for Seth Curry, a cheaper version of Hield as far as shooting goes, but Daryl Morey values shooting so much that it seems unlikely that he would make such a swap for an average shooter like Schroder.
- Boston doesn't have a point guard right now since trading Kemba Walker. Marcus Smart probably isn't attainable, but again, it's worth a call.
- If Miami operates above the cap, perhaps it would be open to swapping Goran Dragic for the younger Schroder. Dragic is yet another point guard, but he's a comfortable shooter and a big expiring salary the Lakers could flip later if necessary.
These are not especially enticing options compared to Hield. Many of them aren't even realistic. But there are viable perimeter players that the Lakers could pursue using Schroder, in some form or another, as their bargaining chip. Considering how much volume Pelinka gave up to get Westbrook, one of these moves is practically a necessity. Remember, the alternative would mean signing 10 free agents. Nine of them would be for the minimum. That is untenable. The Lakers have to cash in on Schroder as a trade chip in some fashion. He is their best chance at landing a fourth meaningful starter. They do have one more method of doing so, though.
First order of business: the Lakers have to retain some of their own free agents with Bird Rights. They just don't have any realistic means of replacing them. Schroder is probably on the way out. Caruso and Horton-Tucker will be prized trade chips, but odds are, at least one of them is back on a healthy new deal, if not both. The two players to watch in this regard are Wesley Matthews and Markieff Morris.
Matthews can get a 20 percent raise on his $3.6 million bi-annual exception from last year through his Non-Bird Rights. The Lakers basically have no choice but to offer him this deal. The market simply doesn't produce 3-and-D players of his caliber for $4.3 million, so they have to take this one where they can assuming Matthews is willing to return. He's taken discounts to play for contenders two years in a row, so expect him to do the same this offseason. Morris has made the minimum in Los Angeles the last two seasons. His situation is more nebulous. His Early Bird Rights give the Lakers the right to pay him 105 percent of the non-taxpayer mid-level exception. That would be slightly above $10 million next season. He won't make that much, but he'll ask for more than the minimum. The Lakers would be wise to grant it.
As far as external free agents go, their one major carrot is the taxpayer mid-level exception. That can last up to three years and will start at roughly $5.9 million. That's not a lot of money, but remember, these Lakers are one of the most desirable destinations in recent memory. They are a championship contender playing in Los Angeles that might even have a starting position available. Numerous free agents will be interested in filling this slot. Ideally, the Lakers will want either an elite 3-point shooter to help balance out Westbrook or a more balanced 3-and-D player. Here are a few candidates:
- Otto Porter Jr. If he's healthy, he's the best of the bunch. He's coming off of a max contract for a reason. He's an elite shooter that can defend the best big wings in basketball credibly. He could get bigger offers than this, but if he wants to rebuild his value in a desirable situation, the Lakers are a strong fit.
- Patty Mills. He can find a starting point guard job somewhere if he wants one, but if winning is his goal, the Lakers would love his shooting.
- Alec Burks and Reggie Bullock. The Knicks have major cap space ambitions this offseason, and some of their own free agents will be lost to them. Burks is the better on-ball creator. Bullock, who spent a brief period with the Lakers two seasons ago, is the better defender.
- Danny Green. Another returning Laker. Philadelphia needs to re-sign him for the same reason the Lakers need to bring back their own free agents. They can't replace him. Still, if he's interested, he's a prototypical 3-and-D role player.
- Nicolas Batum. He's already in Los Angeles, and if he wants to win next season, purple and gold are the colors to do it in now that Kawhi Leonard is injured.
- Doug McDermott. He's is probably out of their price range, but his elite shooting paired with his growth as a ball-handler and rebounder would do wonders for this offense.
Any one of those players is capable of starting for the Lakers if necessary. More likely, they'd be closing options with Davis moving to center. Speaking of centers, the Lakers are almost certain to sign at least one more center for the minimum. If the goal of this trade was to recapture of the physicality of the 2020 championship team, Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee are both available. If the Lakers want to ensure optimal spacing around Westbrook, there are spacier options like Gorgui Dieng, Luke Kornet or DeWayne Dedmon.
As for the non-centers, it's your standard combination of ring-chasing veterans and players familiar with the Laker coaching staff or stars. Avery Bradley returning in a smaller role would make sense. J.J. Redick, Lou Williams, Wayne Ellington, Kent Bazemore, Austin Rivers and Tyler Johnson all fit the typical ring-chaser mold in the backcourt, though some will be costlier than others. Mo Harkless and Justise Winslow both need to rehab their value. The Lakers could use some big wing defenders. And then there's one more veteran who deserves his own paragraph.
There is a good chance Carmelo Anthony is on this roster next season. Whether or not he should be is a matter of debate. Yes, he can shoot 3's and create his own shot, and yes, he is friends with James, but that might actually be more of problem than a benefit. Anthony is among the NBA's worst defenders. Politically speaking, benching him just isn't feasible. His reputation among other players is just too strong. The Lakers endured a similar situation last season in which Frank Vogel was forced to start Andre Drummond because of promises the front office made to him when Gasol was clearly the superior option. He finally got fed up and benched him for the final game of the season. Do the Lakers want to put themselves through that again? Anthony is not the sort of player you take a flyer on. If you sign him, he's playing meaningful minutes.
Depending on how the rest of the offseason goes, the Lakers might need him to play those minutes. This is an extremely precarious position. The Lakers have to essentially build an entire supporting cast from scratch over the next week. They might have ideas on what they want that cast to look like, but the market is a cruel and unforgiving place, and whether or not they'll admit it, there is an upper-limit on their spending. The Lakers will eventually hit a point at which the luxury tax becomes too prohibitive to keep adding prominent players. HoopsHype's Yossi Gozlan estimated a $200 million tax bill if the Lakers keep Caruso and Horton-Tucker, add Hield and use their mid-level exception. The Lakers need far more if they plan to build a championship team. It's going to be pricey.
Shooting is expensive. Defense is expensive. The Lakers need to stock up on both if this Westbrook experiment is going to work. Until they do, their status as a Western Conference favorite is tenuous to say the least.