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Who Won the Trade Between the Wizards and Lakers?

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The NBA community was stunned last night by a trade between the Washington Wizards and Los Angeles Lakers that sent former NBA MVP point guard Russell Westbrook to the other side of the country. He is now the only former NBA MVP to be traded three times in his career. The rapid-fire news was all immediately reported on by ESPN NBA insider Adrian Wojnarowski. 

There was some brief speculation that the Lakers might opt to instead trade for Sacramento Kings shooting guard Buddy Hield, something that was also touched on in a separate tweet by Wojnarowski, but the Lakers instead opted to give up more players and a first-round 2021 draft pick to acquire Westbrook. This decision was questioned by many who thought Hield was a more natural fit for the roster and allowed them to keep more key role players. 

The trade comes as something of a surprise, as the duo of All-NBA guards Westbrook and Bradley Beal lasted just one year. But the experiment was mostly unsuccessful, with the Wizards barely sneaking into the playoffs. Washington’s front office probably decided that Westbrook did not fit the same timeline as Beal and that he was not worth paying over $40 million a year as such. Getting rid of Westbrook’s contract was a better play for the future when they can potentially find Beal a more suitable partner using the cap space they created by moving him. Even if they took on the salaries of Caldwell-Pope, Kuzma and Harrell in the process, the money is spread out between three players. It will be much easier for them to potentially individually trade them in the future. Even if they have to cut one of them in a less-than-ideal scenario, dead money from one of those deals does not hurt anywhere near as much as dead money from Westbrook’s contract would.

The Wizards also later traded the 22nd pick for the 31st pick and Indiana Pacers guard Aaron Holiday, a solid shooter and defender who is the brother of Bucks point guard Jrue Holiday. The Wizards would later receive 6-10 forward Isaiah Todd from the Bucks who had traded the pick to the Pacers earlier in the night.

The Lakers, on the other hand, now have over $120 million sunk into the contract of three players. They now boast two of the 15 highest-paid athletes in America on their roster between James and Westbrook. Players such as Alex Caruso, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and as much he is lambasted, Kyle Kuzma were huge parts of their championship season. Their top-heavy salary distribution will make it hard to fill out their roster with quality role players and may inhibit their ability to keep players such as Caruso around.

Past that, the fit between James and Westbrook as ballhandlers is not immediately apparent, and Westbrook shot just 30% of his shots at the rim this year, the lowest number in his career, and had another poor year as a 3-point shooter. It is often said by players that analysts often overemphasize the importance of spacing in team construction. There might be some truth to this game, but it will be tested this year thoroughly. Lineups featuring James, Westbrook, Davis and Marc Gasol will often mean that James is the best shooter on the court. If anything has been learned about LeBron James over the course of his career, it is that he is at his best when he is surrounded by shooters.

If anybody can make this unorthodox marriage of games work it is LeBron James, who has one of the highest basketball IQs the NBA has ever seen. As a wise man once said, “hoopers gonna figure it out”. Until the regular season rolls around and we get to see the new Lakers trio in action, it appears Washington won this trade on paper. They offloaded a large contract and gained assets that are easily flippable. Similar to the Lakers trade, however, it will only be ultimately worthwhile if they can find Bradley Beal an adequate co-star in the near future using their newly flexible position. As if often the case with assessments of significant transactions in the NBA, it is a matter of wait-and-see. Here’s to hoping this offseason continues to entertain.

All stats courtesy of Pro Basketball-Reference and ESPN. All contract data courtesy of Spotrac.

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