Winners, losers from blockbuster Russell Westbrook to Lakers trade

Los Angeles Lakers v Houston Rockets - Game Four
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Russell Westbrook is going home — and LeBron James got his big-name secondary ball handler.

Westbrook was traded to the Lakers in a blockbuster trade that had been in the works for a couple of days (but seemed would not happen). LeBron James was pumped.

The full trade had the Lakers getting Westbrook, a 2024 second-round pick, and a 2028 second-round pick; the Wizards receive Montrezl Harrell, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, and the Lakers’ No. 22 pick in Thursday’s draft, which Washington traded again to the Pacers to get Aaron Holiday.

Who were the winners and losers in the Westbrook trade? Let’s break it all down.

Winner: Russell Westbrook

He wanted out of Washington, he wanted to go to a contender, and he ideally wanted to get back home to Los Angeles. Check, check, and check. The Lakers are the best team he has been on since Oklahoma City, and he has a shot at getting back to the NBA Finals. Beyond that, for a guy who is focused on fashion and his brand, he is now in one of the best fashion cities in the world, a place where marketing and branding opportunities are around every corner. This is everything Westbrook could have hoped for in an escape package from Washington.

Winner: The Lakers in the regular season

Russell Westbrook is a triple-double machine, a guy who plays hard every possession, every night, which can help win games during the regular season. The Lakers have been looking for someone to take some of the shot creation load off LeBron’s plate — Rajon Rondo did it in the bubble playoffs, but outside that nobody has done it consistently — and now they have their man in Westbook. He will have the ball in his hands when LeBron is on the bench. Westbrook can step in and run the offense on the nights LeBron or Anthony Davis are getting a DNP-rest (or maybe missing a game or two due to an injury). He had a stretch through the middle of last season where he played at an All-Star, maybe All-NBA, level, and that Westbrook helps the Lakers rack up more wins in the first 82 games.

Loser: The Lakers in the playoffs

Two years ago, in the Western Conference playoffs in the bubble, the Lakers faced the Westbrook/James Harden Rockets.  Los Angeles’ defensive strategy? Load up on Harden, get the ball out of his hands, leave Westbrook wide open on the perimeter and dare him to beat you with his jumper. The Lakers won the series 4-1, and Westbrook shot 25.9% from 3 during it (he’s a career 30.5% from beyond the arc). The Lakers will face that same problem from the other side in the postseason: Teams will ignore Westbrook on the perimeter. He is a career 40.8% shooter overall in the playoffs — he’s not efficient under the brightest of lights. Teams will help off him. Also, teams will pack the paint and dare Los Angeles to beat them from the outside — the two Lakers who made the most threes last year were Kuzma and Caldwell-Pope.

None of this even touches Westbrook’s defensive lapses. The Lakers title and identity the past two seasons has been defense first, and Westbrook gets a few steals thanks to hustle but is generally a liability on that end of the floor with some ugly lapses.

Part of the lack of spacing can be alleviated by how Rob Pelinka rounds out the rest of the Los Angeles roster — they desperately need shooting. Defense can be addressed in free agency, too. It won’t be easy or cheap: LeBron, Davis, and Westbrook combined to make $120.8 million next season, the salary cap is expected to be around $112 million, the luxury tax like close to $137 million. The Lakers can afford to go into the tax, but it ties their hands with the size offerings they can make (only a $5.9 million tax-payer mid-level exception). Maybe a Dennis Schroder sign-and-trade can help bring back some shooting and quality role players, but the Lakers are going to have to get creative in adding talent.

Winner: Washington Wizards

They were already winners because Bradley Beal didn’t ask for a trade. Now comes this Westbrook trade, in which the Wizards improve their woeful depth and save $6 million in the process. It makes them a little better on the court now, but it also gives them the flexibility to make trades — it’s hard to move Westbrook’s $44 million, much easier to move guys who make between $9.7 and $14 million. Washington still needs to put a lot more talent around Beal, but this trade makes that seem more possible.

Loser: Buddy Hield

The Kings’ sharpshooter wants out of Sacramento and almost landed with the Lakers for a package not that much different than what it took to get Westbrook. Momentum was building toward a Hield trade when the Westbrook offer suddenly caught the Lakers’ focus and changed everything. So now Hield is back in Sacramento, at least for the time being, and both sides are a little frustrated with that.

 

NBA owners, players union reportedly agree to push back CBA opt-out date

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NBA owners and players are both making too much money to risk screwing things up with a labor stoppage, right? RIGHT?

Don’t be so sure.

In a sign the two sides have a lot of work to do to reach terms on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement — primarily because of an internal dispute among the owners — the NBA (representing the owners) and the players union have agreed to push back the opt-out date for the CBA from Dec. 15 (this would end the current CBA on July 1, 2023). Marc Stein reported this earlier in the week (covered here) and ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski added details today.

Talks on a new CBA are ongoing, and a formal ratification of an extension — likely into February — is expected to come at a virtual board of governors meeting Wednesday, sources said.

What’s the stumbling block? A group of owners — bothered by the massive spending into the luxury tax of the Warriors, Clippers, and Nets  — is pushing for an “Upper Spending Limit” for teams. Call it whatever they want, that’s a hard cap and there is no chance the players will sign off on any form of a hard cap. 

The NBA has used a punitive and progressively intense luxury tax to rein in the spending of some owners. However, some owners — how many is unclear, but enough that the NBA has put the issue on the table — feel the tax isn’t doing its job in the wake of new, even wealthier owners. 

Unquestionably some owners are unbothered by the tax. To use the example I have used before, Steve Ballmer’s Clippers are on track to pay $191.9 million in payroll this season, which will result in a $144.7 million luxury tax bill (leading to a payroll and tax total of $336.6 million). The Warriors and Nets will be in the same ballpark. The Clippers will pay more in tax alone than 11 teams will spend on total payroll. Two-thirds of NBA teams will pay around $150 million in payroll or less, not much more than the Clippers’ tax bill.

Recently, the same NBA owners approved a rule change that would allow a sovereign wealth fund — the financial arms of generally oil-rich countries such as Qatar or Saudi Arabia — to buy up to 20% of an NBA team as a silent partner. That has not happened yet, but the door is open. It’s part of a pattern of wealthier owners — including hedge fund managers and the like — entering the playing field for the NBA.

All that has some of the more established, older owners feeling squeezed by this new group’s willingness to spend. That has the older owners pushing for a hard cap to stop what they see as an increased willingness to spend.

Again, there is no chance the players approve a hard cap. The owners know this, but some seem willing to play brinksmanship with a lucrative, growing business (particularly internationally) to protect their bottom lines.

If you read all that and thought, “this isn’t about the players really, it’s an owner vs. owner issue,” you’re spot on. The league and players are giving the owners more time to work out their internal issues.

Are struggling Mavericks on the clock with Luka Doncic?

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Luka Doncic is in the first year of a five-year, $215.2 million contract. More than that, when asked recently if Mavericks fans should be worried about him wanting out as the team has stumbled at points to start this season, Doncic didn’t sound like a guy looking to bolt:

“I don’t think they’re worried about it right now. I got what, five years left here, so I don’t think they should be worried about it.”

The Mavericks’ front office should be worried about it — teams are always on the clock with a superstar.

The Mavericks let Jalen Brunson get away in the offseason, then brought in Christian Wood (whose defense is an issue and he is coming off the bench). This remains a team a player or two away from contending despite having a potential MVP in Doncic carrying a historic offensive load.

That doesn’t mean Doncic will ask out at the deadline or this summer (he won’t), but if his frustration grows over the next couple of years… who knows. Tim MacMahon of ESPN put it well on the Hoop Collective podcast (hat tip Real GM):

“I think they have a two-year window. This season and next season going into that summer [2024]. I think they have a two-year window where, you know, like Milwaukee did with Giannis [Antetokounmpo], I think in that window they really need to convince Luka that he has a chance to contend year in and year out right here in Dallas. If they can’t get it done in that two-year window, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that he’s going to force a trade or ask for a trade. I’m just saying at that point if he’s not happy, he has all the leverage in the world if he would be looking to leave..

“I don’t think Luka will look for reasons to leave. I think he’d be perfectly happy spending his entire career in Dallas. But if he doesn’t have to look for reasons and they’re slamming him in the face, then that’s a problem. He’s also a guy who is a ruthless competitor, which means he loves winning. He’s used to winning. He won championships with Real Madrid. He won a EuroBasket championship with the Slovenian national team. He also detests losing. Like can’t handle it.”

The Mavericks made the Western Conference Finals last season, knocking off the 64-win Suns in the process — this team is not that far away. Not with Doncic handling the ball. But it feels like a team that has taken a step back from those lofty levels this season. There are many more questions than answers, and it’s impossible to guess how Doncic will feel after this season’s playoffs, let alone the ones ending in the summer of 2024.

But the Mavericks stumbles this season have to put the Dallas front office on notice — this team is not good enough. And if we know it, you can be sure Doncic knows it.

Curry thinking retirement? ‘I don’t see myself slowing down any time soon’

2022 Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year Awards Presented by Chase
Kimberly White/Getty Images for Sports Illustrated
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Stephen Curry is playing at an MVP level this season: 30 points a game, hitting 43.2% from 3 with a 66.4 true shooting percentage, plus pitching in seven assists and 6.6 rebounds a game. He remains one of the best-conditioned athletes in the sport.

In the face of that, even though he is 34, asking him a retirement question seemed an odd choice, yet a reporter at the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year award ceremony — Curry won the award, if you didn’t know — asked Curry about it seems he’s not interested.

Curry should not be thinking of retirement, but there is a sense around these Warriors that this era, this run is coming to an end in the next few years. Curry may be defying father time, but Draymond Green and Klay Thompson (especially post injuries) are not. There is a decline in their games (and this season, the role players have not stepped up around them the same way). With that comes a certain pressure to take advantage of the opportunities, there aren’t going to be as many.

Which is why the Warriors are a team to watch at the trade deadline (and will they sell low on James Wiseman to a team that still sees the potential in him?).

As for Curry, he will still be around and producing for a few more years. Nobody is ready to think about his retirement. Including Curry himself.

Block or charge: Alperen Sengun dunks on Zach Collins

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To borrow the catchphrase of the great Rex Chapman:

Block or charge?

The Rockets’ Alperen Sengun caught a body and threw one down on the Spurs’ Zach Collins but was called for the offensive foul.

NBA Twitter went nuts.

Rockets coach Stephen Silas challenged the call, but it was upheld (from my perspective, the replay officials are always looking to back the in-game officials if they at all can).

By the time Collins slid over and jumped, Sengun was already in the air — if anything that was a block. What the officials called was Sengun using his off-arm to create space.

I hate the call — that’s a dunk and an and-one. Not because it’s a great dunk — although it is that, too — but because Collins literally jumped into the path of an already airborne Sengun, Collins created all the contact. It’s on him. Under the spirit of the rules, Sengun’s off-arm is moot at that point — Collins illegally jumped in Sengun’s way and caused the collision.

Terrible call by the officials.

It was a good night for the Spurs, overall. San Antonio played its best defense in a while and Keldon Johnson — one of the few bright spots in a dark Spurs season — hit his first nine shots on his way to a 32-point night that sparked a 118-109 San Antonio win over Houston, snapping the Spurs 11-game losing streak.