It is not a surprise that the Los Angeles Lakers are expected to revisit the trade market for Russell Westbrook, but one NBA insider reported the team is considering even more drastic measures if they are unable to find a suitable deal. According to Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer, the Lakers will consider stretching Westbrook’s contract this offseason, which would make him a free agent. Fischer described releasing Westbrook as the “most realistic option” for the Lakers.
“Los Angeles’ most realistic option may ultimately be stretching Westbrook’s $47 million player option for the 2022-23 season,” Fischer explained on March 2. “The Lakers have already shown a willingness to stretch Luol Deng’s contract, which finally slips off Los Angeles’ books this year, although that came under Mitch Kupchak’s stewardship. Stretching Westbrook, according to the strategist, would drop the Lakers to merely $2.5 million above the salary cap, which would allow them to sign a rotation piece to the non-taxpayer mid-level, and another player to the bi-annual exception.”
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Westbrook Has a Player Option That Would Allow Him to be a Free Agent in 2022
Westbrook is slated to have a $47 million salary for 2022-23 in the final season of his five-year, $206 million contract. The Lakers guard has a player option that would allow him to be a free agent this summer, but it is hard to imagine Westbrook opting out unless there is a mystery team willing to offer him a new lucrative long-term deal.
Heading into the deadline, all indications from Westbrook were that his preference was to remain with the Lakers. Westbrook is able to live in his hometown near his family and play for the team he grew up watching. The star may be changing his tune as now there is a “mutual interest” in finding Westbrook a new team this offseason, per Fischer.
The obvious preference for the Lakers is to find a trade partner willing to take Westbrook. The Knicks and Rockets are two examples of teams who also have bad contracts who may be willing to try Westbrook as a one-year rental. The Lakers will also have their 2027 and 2029 first-round selections to offer teams this offseason. There could be a team like the Thunder who would acquire Westbrook if the Lakers are packaging picks as part of the deal.
What Would It Mean to Stretch Westbrook’s Deal?
Stretching a contract allows an NBA team to release a player while decreasing their cap hit for the current season by applying the remainder of their deal across multiple years. It would essentially be the Lakers way of saying the team has a better chance of winning without Westbrook on the roster, even if they are unable to get something in return.
“You’ll at least be able to patch something together,” a league cap analyst told Fischer. “It might actually be their best move and puts some pieces around LeBron.”
LeBron Is Expected to Apply Pressure on the Lakers This Summer
LeBron James and Anthony Davis may have vouched for a Westbrook trade last offseason, but the guard does not have the safety net of being a Klutch Sports client. In other words, James can see what analysts and fans alike are noticing: the Westbrook experiment in not working with the Lakers. James is likely to once again apply pressure on the Lakers to make a deal this offseason, even if it means packaging future first-round picks with Westbrook to acquire something in return.
“What James is doing is likely aimed at one primary goal: Force the Lakers into major action this summer,” ESPN’s Brian Windhorst detailed on February 21. “He tried to do it nicely and now he’s doing it harshly.
“…Being aggressive and further mortgaging the future will be painful and risky. But James is making his feelings clear: He doesn’t care. Do it and they get more than new players, they will keep James deeply invested. That’s something no team has been able to say no to.”