November 28, 2022

Russell Westbrook trade: The Lakers and Jazz are a perfect match

The Russell Westbrook experiment in Los Angeles has not been going well. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

Here are the two most awkward storylines two weeks into the NBA season: The Lakers, who have a team with three projected Hall of Famers, entered Wednesday night losers of three of the first four game; and the Utah Jazz — who just traded both their franchise cornerstones in an effort to rebuild through the draft, have won three straight games over Western Conference contenders.

It’s unusual that two teams can both be declared winners in a blockbuster trade, but in this particular dance, it takes two to tango, and the Lakers and Jazz are perfect partners.

That’s because Russell Westbrook in a Lakers jersey has looked worse than Russell Wilson in a Denver Broncos jersey, and that says a lot because Wilson, a likely first-ballot NFL Hall of Famer, has been atrocious to start his season.

Westbrook has been categorically worse than Wilson, and he’s been worse for a longer time. He has somehow — unfortunately — superseded his poor play from last season. He is missing jump shots, giving up baskets, and even took a bad shot with a two-point lead in the final 30 seconds against the Trail Blazers.

[Former Knick Dennis Smith Jr. almost transitioned to the NFL before Hornets chance]

That shot, a miss, led to a Damian Lillard go-ahead three, and the Trail Blazers escaped with a victory.

And in Utah, things have gone much better than planned.

The Jazz have defeated the Denver Nuggets, Minnesota Timberwolves and New Orleans Pelicans — all teams that fancy themselves NBA championship contenders — with a superstar-less roster. Jazz general manager Danny Ainge essentially detonated the franchise with three moves this offseason: trading Donovan Mitchell to Cleveland; sending Rudy Gobert to Minnesota; and moving three-and-D wing Royce O’Neale to Brooklyn.

As a result, Ainge owns one of the deepest treasure chests of draft picks in all of basketball. The last time he had that, he built the Celtics’ roster as we know it, selecting Jason Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart in different draft classes.

But the Jazz have been better than anyone could have anticipated thanks to a surprisingly deep team of playoff caliber role players who’ve flat-out competed hard at both ends of the floor. Utah isn’t going to the NBA Finals, but they’re looking like a team that could try to squeeze into a Play-In Tournament game if they can bottle their energy from the first four games and carry it throughout the rest of the year.

That’s bad news for Ainge, because even with the evened draft lottery odds, the percentages work worse in a team’s favor if they win more games. And with Victor Wembanyama as the prized possession for any team that gets the No. 1 pick this season, winning games, for Ainge, is bad for business.

Which is why the Jazz and Lakers remain the perfect partners for this tango, and why it’s no surprise reports leaked that Ainge is now willing to accept the Lakers’ offer of their only two remaining first-round picks — in 2027 and 2029 — and Westbrook in a deal that balances their roster and provides a perimeter threat at the point guard spot in Mike Conley.

The Jazz can offer Conley, former Laker turned Sixth Man of the Year Jordan Clarkson, and Rudy Gay. They can also offer Kelly Olynyk, who came over from the Detroit Pistons in the Bojan Bogdanovic deal.

The Lakers, however, can demand more for two reasons: First, LeBron James becomes a free agent after next season, and if he leaves Los Angeles, you can all but assume those first-rounders in 2027 and 2029 will be high lottery picks. Second, the Indiana Pacers are another team who can offer a better package with Myles Turner and Buddy Hield having been focal parts of their respective teams in the past.

It’s fair to wonder, however, just how long Ainge will let his team rack up early-season wins, and just how long the Lakers will let the Westbrook experiment fail. In this case, opposites do, indeed, attract, and these two are the perfect match for trades that send them on their preferred path forward.