The Los Angeles Lakers can best divide their season into two parts: before and after the Russell Westbrook trade. Before the trade the Lakers were a 25-30 team on the fringes of the lottery. The post-trade Lakers are a 27-16 team currently playing in the Western Conference Finals. The difference is almost unbearable, and the results ultimately justify the decision, champion or not. Ask Joel Embiid how hard it is to reach the conference finals. This Lakers season was successful in large part because of this unit transfer.
The deal sent Westbrook out and brought in D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley and Jared Vanderbilt. For three months, the trio was a fan favorite in Los Angeles. Russell swept the Memphis series with his 3-point shooting in Game 4. Vanderbilt’s defense needed Ja Morant and later Stephen Curry. Beasley helped carry the offense when LeBron James was injured in March and April. Vanderbilt’s starting lineup of Russell, James, Anthony Davis and Austin Revis outscored their opponents by 37 points in 77 minutes. In one move, the Lakers look set to build an entire supporting cast around their superstar duo.
That supporting cast was largely absent from the Western Conference Finals. Vanderbilt has played all 41 minutes during the three Laker losses. Beasley hasn’t even seen the court outside of garbage time. And Russell? He now shoots 27-8 for the series. The Lakers lost the minutes he played by 53 points and won the minutes he spent on the bench by 31 points.
This Lakers season was defined by the Westbrook trade, and yet it was the players not involved who largely carried it throughout this postseason. Almost 82 percent (276 of 337) of all Laker points in the Denver series were scored by just four players: LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Austin Reeves and Roy Hachimura. Three of those players have been around since opening night. A fourth was bought for scrap in January. Two other players getting consistent minutes in this series, Dennis Schroder and Lonnie Walker, were added in the offseason.
There is some irony in all of this. The Lakers may have already had most of the championship supporting cast they needed even before trading Westbrook…yet they still need to trade Westbrook for it to rise. That’s especially true of Austin Reaves, who spent most of his shared Westbrook minutes off the ball but who has emerged as this team’s point guard of the future since the trade. He finished the regular season averaging 16.5 points and five assists per game. He was even better in the postseason. Schroeder and Walker benefited for similar reasons.
But a championship supporting cast requires more than ball handlers. More than anything, they rely on role players who can reliably contribute on both ends of the floor. This was the downside of Westbrook’s trade. The Lakers turned an unacceptable negative into three potential positives. These positives have been highlighted for the most part in post-season trading. But just as the regular season and early stages are defined by strengths, the latter stages of the postseason are defined by weaknesses. The Lakers are well aware of Westbrook’s play in the postseason. They denied him protection on the perimeter in five easy games in the 2020 bubble.
Yet they ultimately used that contract to trade for three players with more easily defined weaknesses. Beasley and Russell couldn’t defend. Vanderbilt couldn’t score. They are not two-way players. In this series, they are largely not even one-sided players. Russell, who has struggled in the playoffs throughout his career, can’t shoot and doesn’t create anything for his teammates. Vanderbilt frequently gets screened off of Jamaal Murray, and that allows Moore to torture a weakened Russell on the other end of the floor. Beasley needs to make 40 percent of his 3-pointers to justify any minutes given his defensive weakness. He hasn’t come close since arriving in Los Angeles.
From that perspective, the Lakers traded one, high-maintenance Westbrook for three more. True, Westbrook’s absence had a positive effect on the roster itself, but it was ultimately his glaring weakness that made him such a weakness for the Lakers. Vanderbilt, Beasley and Russell all bring similar weaknesses to the table.
This business does not fail. Getting rid of Westbrook was a victory in itself. But considering how close the Lakers came to reaching the Finals, it’s hard not to wonder if there are more perfect players on the market that they could trade instead. We know of at least three.
The Lakers and Pacers have spent months negotiating a deal involving Myles Turner and Buddy Hield. Such a trade would have removed Westbrook from the Lakers’ roster before the season, but it would have cost two unprotected first-round picks. The Lakers eventually traded to a safe Utah. Turner is the definition of a two-way player, one of them The NBA Excellent rim protector and high-end 3-point shooter who can operate comfortably with Davis on offense. Hield is as vulnerable defensively as Russell or Beasley, but is much harder to play off the floor given the nature of his offense. He’s such a reliable shooter and such a dangerous off-ball mover that he’ll warrant significant defensive attention though.
Then there’s the Hall of Fame point guard who was involved in the Westbrook trade. The Lakers could have simply taken Mike Connelly Jr. for themselves. Instead they sent him to Minnesota. The logic was reasonable. Russell is very young and could be a core piece for years to come. But Conley has a much better playoff track record. Even in his mid-30s he can survive defensively. He was an offensive threat for the Timberwolves in the playoffs, sinking six of his eight 3-point attempts against the Lakers in the playoffs before posting a relatively strong streak against Denver. He would provide a level of offensive stability that Russell lacks.
It’s not even fair to call it 20-20 hindsight. Inserting Turner, Hield or Connelly into this series changes the complexity of the matchup so significantly that the basketball itself is unrecognizable. We can’t even say for sure that the Lakers will have it to arrive That stage against the Nuggets without the players they finally got. If Russell doesn’t sink three big 3-pointers in the fourth quarter of Game 4 against the Grizzlies, the Lakers will likely be eliminated in the first round. Hack, Russell, Vanderbilt and Beasley were essential for the Lakers to even reach the playoffs.
You can’t win in the playoffs without making the playoffs. It’s a balance the Lakers have tried to strike for three years now. As James and Davis continue to age and miss more time, the Lakers need players who can carry them from October to April. Yet the same players struggle in May and June for many of the season’s reasons that Westbrook always has. This puts Rob Pelinka in an almost impossible position. For the Lakers to credibly contend for championships, he desperately needs to build two different rosters: one designed to maximize the strength of a set of players to survive the regular season; Has been and Bill is devoid of the weakness that plagues the team in the postseason.
If it seems almost impossible, well, it should. There’s a reason only one team wins the championship every year. Pelinka dug himself a huge hole by trading for Westbrook in the first place. That he almost got over it says something about the team he built. Yet if the Lakers lose one more game to a team that has already beaten them three times in a row, the second half of the season will end where the first began: the Lakers apart as NBA champions. With a team. As impossible as it seemed when the team was 25-30, Banner No. 18 was and will remain the team’s goal. By that standard, Westbrook’s trade Pelinka in February fell short. If he gets it right next spring, he’ll have to find a way to add players who lack the frailties they’ve seen in Westbrook, Russell, Vanderbilt and Beasley for the first time.