FOX Sports NBA Analyst
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 ways with both Russell Westbrook and one of their coveted first round elections.
Westbrook and the team’s 2027 first-round pick are headed to the Utah Jazz as part of a three-team deal that returns former Lakers draft pick D’Angelo Russell to LA 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 are also going to Utah as part of the deal.
The consensus among rival scouts: a good to big run for the Lakers. It’s enough to get them into the playoffs even though they currently sit 13th in the Western Conference, two games out of the final postseason berth and four games behind the Dallas Mavericks, who have the guaranteed sixth and final playoff spot.
“Short-term desperation,” said one Western Conference scout, “but they should make the playoffs now. I don’t see them finishing sixth. They’re definitely a threat. [to pull a first-round upset]depending on the matchup.”
Westbrook’s name has been constantly in trade rumors 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 pushed for the team to sign him. acquired, but clearly. they lost faith in him once they were companions.
Keeping Westbrook past this year’s trade deadline became untenable a few days ago when James expressed his disappointment at not acquiring former teammate Kyrie Irving, a move that would have 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-ball threat, allowing the Lakers to play him in the starting lineup alongside James. One of the reasons Westbrook found success off the bench is that it gave him more floor time with James off him, both in their prime as primary ball handlers. Russell is a decent one-on-one threat, but as a 39% 3-point shooter, opponents will be much more reluctant to leave him open on the perimeter when he doesn’t have the ball either. It also helps that two-thirds of his 3s have been assisted, reflecting his catch-and-shoot ability.
Beasley provides another capable floor spacer, averaging three 3-pointers per game on 36% shooting. Vanderbilt’s defense and overall energy (7.9 rebounds per game in 24 minutes) should also be a welcome addition.
Although Russell was the only All-Star among the three, scouts who spoke to FOX Sports were the least confident in his impact, largely because they question whether he will have the first-team attitude needed as an agent free pending Scouts see Conley as an upgrade for Minnesota in both leadership and decision-making, hoping to get more of the Timberwolves’ talent (Rudy Gobert, Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns) than Russell, which He tempered how much of an improvement scouts expect him to be for the Lakers.
“They got rid of a bad fit for three betters,” the Western Conference scout said. “Beasley and Vanderbilt will make LeBron happy. Russell is a wild card. He has a hard time playing with stars and wants to get paid.”
The belief is also that the Lakers’ No. 21 defenseman could slide even more. However, what impact this has remains to be seen.
“They’re worse defensively, but who cares?” said a second Western Conference scout. “The NBA has legislated defense out of the modern game.”
This is the team’s fourth notable makeover since James came on board nearly five seasons ago. Combined with an earlier deal that brought 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: a championship, a successful play-in tournament before exiting in the first round and two missed postseasons.
Making another postseason appearance would seem like a reasonable goal.
“If they stay healthy, they have a good shot now to get into the play-in,” said one Eastern Conference scout. “Can they get to sixth or maybe even higher? Yes, but it would take a big winning streak down the stretch.”
While scouts might envision a regular-season run, asking the new additions to be significant postseason contributors is another matter. All three have been to the playoffs twice, but only Beasley has second-round experience.
“It definitely puts them in the mix for sixth to eighth on the list,” said a third Western Conference scout. “I don’t know if they’re too far behind, but they could definitely make up ground. They surrounded Bron with shots, and I’ve learned never to bet against the King. At best, they could make it to the second round. in my opinion. D- Lo, Beasley and Vando don’t have an extremely high basketball IQ, which makes it difficult 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 making 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,” about 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 @Rick Bucher.
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