Russell Westbrook-Kyrie Irving Saga: Lakers Should Plan Long-Term, But Future Might Be Brighter With Fewer First-Round Picks
(Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

There’s been a lot of talk about making sure that a prosperous future lays ahead of the Los Angeles Lakers, most recently coming from owner Jeanie Buss.

What’s wrong with that? Nothing. That’s an unassailable idea at the first glance, maybe even a much-welcomed remark considering Luol Deng’s salary just came off L.A.’s books — some four-and-a-half years after his last game for the Purple and Gold.

But the context in which Buss talked about the franchise’s future makes her words sound like an alarm bell rather than music to the Lakers faithful’s ears. “We’re not making change for the sake of change,” the governor said about L.A.’s offseason plans last week. “It has to be good basketball decisions that help us now and don’t compromise our ability to deal in the future.”

It doesn’t take much to understand what Buss hinted at — over the last few months, report after report confirmed L.A.’s front office has been balking at including multiple draft assets to end the ill-conceived Russell Westbrook experiment.

Most recently, the Lakers’ unwillingness to part with their picks is widely believed to have stalled the negotiations over acquiring Kyrie Irving from the Brooklyn Nets in a deal that would show Westbrook the door.

To that I say: When did the Lakers — the freaking Lakers — start caring about draft picks so much?

Let me be clear here, I’m not currently looking for a replica of Les Snead’s FUCK THEM PICKS shirt because the L.A. Rams general manager is “my type of guy,” as LeBron James would say. It’s laudable the Lakers don’t want to get fleeced. That they want to be on the clock in the first round of the draft and select young prospects for themselves for the first time in years.

But sarcasm aside, the real question I’m asking is: Why now? Why didn’t L.A. think about the future before sending Danny Green and a No. 28 pick in exchange for Dennis Schroder two years ago? (Thank God for Schroder fumbling that bag, by the way.) Why didn’t the Lakers use that argument to talk themselves out of the Westbrook trade, keep three valuable role players on the team, and save their No. 22 pick last year — while, most importantly, saving themselves from the utter shambles that the 2021-22 season was?

There’s always a thrill that comes with drafting players — especially when you have a scouting department as good as the Lakers do. It’s so enjoyable to automatically assume that young guy will be the steal of the draft even though he’s barely put the cap on his head. And when it actually comes true… Geez. It’s difficult to wipe that smug smile off your face, isn’t it?

Not long ago, I argued the Lakers should prioritize youth — which they did — and be cautious about dealing their 2027 and 2029 first-round picks to trade Westbrook away. But as in every business venture, there has to be a balance between short-term and long-term planning.

Should the Lakers have added picks to sweeten a deal with the Houston Rockets that would have swapped Westbrook for John Wall? No — and, thankfully, that offer is now off the table. But when you have an option to get out of a mess — such as the one the Lakers are currently in — and seriously improve the roster by sending some picks away, you do it.

Did shipping all those first-rounders to New Orleans for Anthony Davis hurt in 2019? Sure. But not long after, the Lakers won their first title in over a decade, catching up with the Boston Celtics in the number of championship banners they got to hang for the first time since the early 1960s.

The Lakers won’t win again with Westbrook on the roster. Period. That’s not to say he was the sole source of L.A’s misery in 2021-22. Frank Vogel was responsible for it. Rob Pelinka was responsible for it, big time. (But also, for those painting Westbrook as the ultimate scapegoat, let’s not forget Vogel paid the highest price for the Purple and Gold’s embarrassing performance — the same Vogel who Westbrook publicly threw under the buss during his exit interview just three days after the head coach’s firing.)

Westbrook’s skillset and mindset simply make the former Oklahoma City Thunder star a poor fit with this team. Nearly everything the 2017 NBA MVP has to offer on the court, LeBron James can do as well — and can do it better. But above all, Westbrook simply cares about different things. James and the Lakers want to win, win only, and win now. Meanwhile, Westbrook takes joy in still being on the court at 33 and making sure no one will ever take that triple-double record away from him. And that’s fine. No one’s got the right to tell him — or anyone else — how to live his life and run his career.

But that also means the Lakers need to end this terrible marriage as soon as possible. And if basketball gods for some reason have enough mercy to present them with an opportunity to get a player of Irving’s caliber in return — even in spite of the playmaker’s own… quirks — they should dedicate all their energy to make it happen and finally get a good night’s sleep.

Even if such a deal costs more draft picks than the Lakers would like to commit, the move might actually give them better odds at making the future bright than holding onto those picks. James has warned the Purple and Gold that he has high expectations of the team after the nightmare 2021-22.“I’m obsessed with win or bust,” he said on “The Shop: Uninterrupted” recently. “What makes me have sleepless nights is when you don’t have everyone that feels the same way on your club.”

Westbrook and James clearly don’t see eye to eye — both figuratively and literally, as shown by what happened during L.A.’s opening Las Vegas Summer League game against the Phoenix Suns. And regardless of what Darvin Ham has been saying about him, Westbrook has proven countless of times he won’t change the way he plays — meaning the Lakers will end up with two unhappy big-name players on the roster if he stays. (Maybe three, as Davis belongs to the Klutch stable that also represents James and is entering his prime.)

That would be a perilous situation to be in for an organization that has famously taken good care of its stars for decades.

L.A. should vividly remember how long it took to bounce back and become an attractive spot for the NBA’s best again after hitting rock bottom in the early 2010s when the disgruntled Dwight Howard abruptly left in free agency. How star after star — among them, ironically, Westbrook — scoffed at the Lakers’ offers to join the team, leaving them with Ed Davis and Xavier Henry to lead the way, and Robert Sacre to cheer on them from the sidelines.

And so, should the Lakers risk incensing James any further by keeping Westbrook — in the four-time NBA champion’s final year of his contract, no less?

The Lakers are already swapping their 2023 first-rounder with New Orleans and giving away another one in 2024 or 2025 to the Pelicans in the aftermath of the Davis trade. They might as well try to keep James happy and stay as competitive as possible for the next two years so they don’t strengthen their rivals again — as they did this year, sending the No. 8 pick to… of course, New Orleans.

Besides, even if the Lakers sacrificed both the 2027 and 2029 first-round picks to acquire Irving, they would still have five other first-rounders for their own use from 2023 through 2030.

Perhaps the sudden hesitance to use the available resources and get the most out of the 37-year-old James’ remaining time in L.A. is a smokescreen, just a part of the negotiations with the Nets. All in all, Buss said not long ago any team that enjoys the privilege of having James on the roster should aim for the highest honors, no matter the cost.

“You’ve got to go for it. You’ve got to use that opportunity to win,” she said on ESPN’s First Take in March 2021, speaking of the Lakers’ enormous luxury tax bill even though her team — alongside all other NBA franchises — had taken a financial hit due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic ridding them of gameday revenue.

James will be donning the purple and gold jersey for at least one more season. In Buss’ own words, the Lakers faithful should expect nothing less than the team “going for it” if the priorities at the top of the ladder haven’t changed.

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