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NBA

Ball in Lakers’ court as Westbrook takes up $47.1m player option

The Los Angeles Lakers are now looking at their options after Russell Westbrook opted to trigger his player option, as had been expected.

Update:
The Los Angeles Lakers have been left looking at their options after Russell Westbrook opted to trigger his player option, as had been expected.
Pascal Le SegretainGetty

It was always going to happen, and now it has: Russell Westbrook has opted to trigger the player option that adds another year to his Los Angeles Lakers contract, and nets him a salary of $47.1 million in 2022/23. That leaves the Lakers with a problem to resolve - albeit it’s one they knew was coming.

Westbrook was never going to pass up player option

It was unthinkable that a player whose market value has plummeted would pass up a guaranteed amount of this enormity. Only Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry ($48m) will have a larger pay packet in the coming NBA campaign. James Harden is expected to take advantage of his $47.3m player option to stay with the Philadelphia 76ers, while John Wall has done likewise with his $47.3m option, but has negotiated a buyout with the Houston Rockets. Wall will waive more than $6m and sign for the Los Angeles Clippers, presumably on a contract similar to the one he has just walked away from.

Taking up his player option was the only possible scenario after a horrible season for Westbrook, both individually and collectively. Things just haven’t worked for the LA native since he joined his boyhood team last August, and the ‘big three’ he was supposed to form with LeBron James and Anthony Davis never materialised. Westbrook will turn 34 in November, in the opening weeks of his 15th season in the NBA. This will be the last year of a monstrous contract, previously the biggest in NBA history: an extension in 2016 (3x$85.7m) expanded in 2017 to 5x$205m, for a total of $233m over six seasons. It made sense when he signed it: the Oklahoma City Thunder, the team that gave him those extensions, had just suffered the trauma of losing Kevin Durant. Moreover, Westbrook was in the form of his life, racking up triple-doubles that made his numbers legendary. In 2017, he was named MVP after becoming the first player since Oscar Robertson to average a triple-double across a full season (he also did so in the next two): 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists.

Westbrook was flying when he signed contract - but now...

The good times are over. Between July 2019 and August 2021, Westbrook was traded on three occasions, each time taking his bumper contract with him. He went to the Rockets, where his partnership with Harden did not go well. Then to the Washington Wizards, where he won battles but no wars in a low-profile team; and finally to the Lakers, where he endured a disastrous season that was much more than bad numbers, but in which those numbers were also very poor: 18.5 points (his lowest since 2010), 7.4 rebounds, 7.1 assists with three turnovers per game, and lousy shooting (44% total, 28.9% on threes, 66.7% on free throws).

Westbrook during happier times, at the Oklahoma City Thunder.
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Westbrook during happier times, at the Oklahoma City Thunder.Russell IsabellaUSA TODAY Sports

Lakers never in doubt that Westbrook would take $47.1m

The Lakers have worked on the basis that Westbrook taking up his player option was a certainty. There is the option of him staying, of course. But that’s a course of action that seems unlikely to work, whatever is said and no matter how it is sold. The Lakers have tried to gain ground on a player who seems incapable of adapting and changing his game. The Lakers have leaked that, if the player stays, they’ll need him to be a low-profile Westbrook that’s specialised in defence, something that he hasn’t done properly for years and is hardly going to do now, with his 34th birthday coming up.

The ideal solution would be to trade him to another team. The moment Westbrook takes advantage of this player option he secures more than $47m… but loses any ability to decide on his future. And if his sporting value remains in the doldrums, his contract becomes attractive to teams that are in reconstruction or want to gain salary space, usually by transferring in exchange longer contracts equivalent to Westbrook’s, to then wipe their accounts clean in summer 2023.

The Lakers also have several ways to sweeten a deal: two first-round picks (2027 and 2029) and the right to exchange another two (2026 and 2028). That, plus some young players... The question is how to move Westbrook on without mortgaging the few ace cards the franchise has for future deals, and while making sure they get something of sporting value in return. There are few possibilities, so for now the most imperfect plan of all is very much on the table: Westbrook stays in LA (where it’s also not as if the Lakers seem about to countenance cutting him and spreading over several years the payment of that guaranteed $47.1m). And then, in summer 2023, we’ll see.

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