Westbrook trade should give LeBron James, Lakers new postseason life

The Los Angeles Lakers waited roughly 24 hours to give LeBron James his gift for becoming the NBA’s all-time scoring leader: They parted with both Russell Westbrook and one of their coveted remaining first-round draft picks.

Westbrook and the team’s 2027 first-round draft pick are headed to the Utah Jazz as part of a three-team deal that returns former Lakers draft pick D’Angelo Russell to L.A. from Minnesota, along with Jazz wings Malik Beasley and Jarred Vanderbilt. The Timberwolves receive, in part, Jazz point guard Mike Conley and Nickeil Alexander-Walker. The Lakers’ Juan Toscano-Anderson and Damian Jones also go to Utah as part of the deal. 

The consensus among rival scouts: a good-to-great haul for the Lakers. Enough to potentially get them into the playoffs despite currently sitting 13th in the Western Conference, two games out of the final postseason play-in slot and four games behind the Dallas Mavericks, who hold the sixth and last guaranteed playoff berth.

“Short-term desperation,” one Western Conference scout said, “but they should make the play-in tournament now. I don’t see them getting to sixth. They’re for sure a threat [to pull a first-round upset], depending on the matchup.”

Westbrook’s name has been in trade rumors consistently since last season — his first in purple and gold — ended with the Lakers finishing 33-49 and in 11th place. He agreed to come off the bench this season after another rough start and flourished as the leader of the Lakers’ second unit, but it wasn’t enough to satisfy the Lakers — or James, who had lobbied for the team to acquire him but clearly lost faith in him once they were teammates.

Keeping Westbrook beyond this year’s trade deadline became untenable a few days ago when James expressed his disappointment in not acquiring former teammate Kyrie Irving, a move that would’ve presumably required sending Westbrook to Brooklyn. Irving was dealt to the Mavericks earlier in the week.

[Lakers swap Russell Westbrook for D’Angelo Russell]

Scouts are cautiously optimistic that Russell will be a better fit than Westbrook as a more proven off-the-ball threat, allowing the Lakers to play him in the starting lineup alongside James. One reason Westbrook found success off the bench is that it gave him more time on the floor with James off it, both at their best as the primary ball-handler. Russell is a decent one-on-one threat, but as a 39% 3-point shooter, opponents are going to be far more reluctant to leave him open on the perimeter when he doesn’t have the ball as well. It also helps that two-thirds of his 3s have been assisted, reflecting his catch-and-shoot capability.

Beasley provides another capable floor spacer, averaging three 3-pointers a game on 36% shooting. Vanderbilt’s defense and overall energy — 7.9 rebounds a game in 24 minutes — also should be a welcome addition.

Despite Russell being the only All-Star among the three, the scouts who spoke to FOX Sports were the least confident about his impact, in large part because they question if he’ll have the necessary team-first attitude as a pending free agent. The scouts consider Conley an upgrade for Minnesota in both leadership and decision-making, expecting that he’ll get more from the Timberwolves’ talent — Rudy Gobert, Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns — than Russell did, which tempered how much of an upgrade the scouts expect him to be for the Lakers.

“They got rid of a bad fit for three better fits,” the Western Conference scout said. “Beasley and Vanderbilt will make LeBron happy. Russell is a wild-card. He struggles to play with stars, and he wants to get paid.”

The belief is also that the Lakers’ 21st-ranked defense could slide even further. How much impact that has, though, remains to be seen.

“They got worst defensively, but who cares?” a second Western Conference scout said. “The NBA has legislated defense out of the modern game.”

This constitutes the team’s fourth notable makeover since James came on board nearly five seasons ago. Combined with an earlier deal that brought in power forward Rui Hachimura from the Washington Wizards, the Lakers should have at least two new starters and four new faces in their eight-man rotation. The results of the previous three makeovers: one championship, one successful play-in tournament before making a first-round exit, and two missed postseasons.

Making another postseason appearance would appear to be a reasonable goal. 

“If they stay healthy, they have a good shot now of getting into the play-in,” an Eastern Conference scout said. “Can they get to sixth or possibly even higher? Yes, but it would take a big-time winning streak down the stretch.”

While the scouts could envision a regular-season run, asking for the new additions to be big-time postseason contributors is another matter. All three have been to the playoffs twice, but only Beasley has any second-round experience.

“It definitely puts them in the mix for the sixth to eighth seeds,” a third Western Conference scout said. “I don’t know if they are too far back, but they could definitely make up ground. They surrounded Bron with shooting, and I’ve learned never to bet against the King. Best-case scenario, they could make the second round in my opinion. D-Lo, Beasley, and Vando don’t have extremely high basketball IQs, which makes it tough to have them all on the floor in late-game situations, but they could get hot.”

With the all-time scoring record in hand, it at least gives LeBron something else to set his sights on this season, which is the gift of an improved supporting cast — and better late than never.

As for the goal of reaching the postseason? It’s better than nothing.

Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, “Rebound,” on NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with young onset Parkinson’s, and “Yao: A Life In Two Worlds.” He also has a daily podcast, “On The Ball with Ric Bucher.” Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.

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