We’re just a little over a week into the 2022-23 NBA season, and while the Spurs have been one of the pleasant surprises so far with a 3-1 start, including this wild stat —
The Spurs were 13.5 point underdogs and won. That is their largest upset win since March 8, 1997 against the Pacers (+14.5).— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) October 23, 2022
That was Gregg Popovich's first season as head coach. pic.twitter.com/WTGBm9EfYP
— the Lakers find themselves at the opposite end of the spectrum: 0-3, at the bottom of the West, and struggling to get off the mat despite still sporting the championship-winning core of LeBron James and Anthony Davis. (They just chose to tear down the rest of the 2020 team around them.) Fairly or not, one player taking the brunt of blame for their slow start is Russell Westbrook, whose shooting struggles (28.9 percent from the field, 8.3 percent from three in 3 games) and poor shot selection stand out amidst a slew of other problems.
There were plenty of rumors about the Lakers looking to trade Westbrook in the offseason. Nothing came of it at the time, but with it becoming more and more clear that last season will repeat itself for the Lakers if they don’t make a change quickly, the rumor mill is churning back up. The Spurs have been inserted into plenty of those rumors both because they have the cap space to absorb Westbrook’s salary in an uneven trade (and then waive him), and the Lakers have reportedly discussed acquiring Josh Richardson from the Spurs. Vegas even has even given the Spurs the third-best odds to acquire him, for people who bet on that sort of thing.
The question is, should the Spurs be interested in helping their old rivals? This would be the third time in recent years the two teams were tied to trading one of their “stars”, but nothing ever came of those. The Spurs reportedly weren’t interested in helping Kawhi Leonard get to his dream destination in 2018 (plus the quality of the packages they were offered has always been up for debate), and rumor has it LeBron preferred Westbrook to DeMar DeRozan in 2021. (If so, that’s a bad mark on his GM resume. Whoops.)
Pettiness aside, perhaps the real question is, what’s in it for the Spurs? It’s hard to see any scenario where they would keep Westbrook since he would hinder the development of their young backcourt, so the assumption is he would be waived. More than likely, the Spurs will require some serious draft compensation to take Westbrook off the books for the Lakers. Knowing they face a real possibility of missing the playoffs again and a potentially uncertain future, the Spurs should demand unprotected first round picks or pick swaps that aren’t too far down the road, at a minimum.
The Spurs also need to consider what their own goal for this season is. The hot start is fun and exciting, and it remains to be seen if they can keep it up or are just on a hot streak, but if Victor Wembanyama (or Scoot Henderson) is in fact the goal, then moving their veterans (namely Richardson, Doug McDermott, and maybe Jakob Poeltl) at some point should be on the table. I’m not saying the Spurs should give the Lakers all those pieces — if they do acquire the picks they want from the Lakers, they wouldn’t want to help them improve too much — but one or two of those players should be acceptable. (Although I personally want the Spurs to keep Poeltl.)
There are few other potential suitors for the Lakers to work with, one being the tanking Indiana Pacers, who could offer a more intriguing package of Myles Turner and Buddy Hield (although it might be a more risky package for health reasons). The challenge they face is there probably isn’t a scenario out there where a team could acquire Westbrook and be able to reroute his massive $47 million salary, and because he’s on an expiring contract, there probably aren’t any teams who see the benefit of trading for him straight up, just to likely lose him in the offseason. It’s a move that simply wouldn’t pay off for anyone.
The bottom line is Spurs have all the leverage in this situation, so they should just sit back and see what they can gain from it, if anything. If the Lakers are stubborn about including ideal draft compensation, don’t budge. There will be plenty of other suitors to take on the veterans down the road, if the Spurs choose to go that route. If time goes on, and the Lakers are that desperate to get rid of Westbrook and have no other takers, the Spurs should be able to name their own price tag; they just need be wise about what they demand.