Look at the Los Angeles Lakers. After years of flicking away rotation players and first-round draft picks like doughnut crumbs, they have finally made some moves that go towards building a full-fledged NBA roster. On Wednesday they finally unloaded Russell Westbrook’s expiring contract, and in return received Malik Beasley, Jarred Vanderbilt, and their 2015 No. 2 overall draft selection D’Angelo Russell.
It was a three-team deal with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Utah Jazz. The Timberwolves got back Mike Conley and Nickeil Alexander-Walker. The Jazz received Westbrook, Juan Toscano-Anderson, Damian Jones, and the Lakers’ top-four protected 2027 first-round pick.
Take a bow, Danny Ainge
First and foremost, a round of applause to tanking legend Danny Ainge. The Jazz started off the season by surprisingly pulling out scrappy wins and peaking as a No. 3 seed in mid-November. Since then they have gradually slid down the standings to the final play-in spot. This year was supposed to be a rebuild for the Jazz, and Ainge waited a respectable amount of time before turning the lights out on 2022-23. With the Western Conference so jumbled, Utah has a good chance at falling into top-five odds for a shot at the No. 1 overall pick and Victor Wembanyama.
This is the roster the Lakers needed
The Lakers, if they had begun this season with their current roster, would be a shoo-in for the postseason. The ideal starting lineup for them would be LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Thomas Bryant, D’Angelo Russell, and stick Lonnie Walker IV back in the starting lineup.
Russell has played the best basketball of his career this season averaging 17.9 points per game on 46.5/39.1/85.6 shooting splits and keeping his turnovers down. A second ball handler in the lineup and more importantly, a shooter opposing defenses have to respect.
A team that had no depth three weeks ago now has options on the bench for Darvin Ham to actually be excited about deploying. When the defense needs a shot of life the Lakers can substitute Vanderbilt in at power forward or a small-ball center. He is 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-1 wingspan. Improved defense was a major difference in the Timberwolves’ success last season, and Vanderbilt was a significant part of that. He was second on the team in both defensive box plus/minus and defensive win shares.
For some offensive juice that can still play competent defense, they can go to Austin Reaves — who has been dependable with the ball in his hands all season as well as an improved shooter — and Beasley’s 39.1 percent from the 3-point line. The Lakers also traded for Rui Hachimura, who while far from a knockdown shooter from long range can still score points and provide some always-necessary size.
Don’t forget about the grizzled veteran guards off of the bench either. What Patrick Beverley and Dennis Schröder lack in size, they make up for in experience and toughness. Schröder can still dribble around almost anyone in the league, and when Beverley’s shot is on target he can make a big one when necessary. At least one player every night from this roster should be able to make a consistent jump shot every night.
What the Lakers put alongside James and Davis to start this season was a lot of inexperience, along with a star player making $47.1 million but not capable of production commensurate with his percentage of the salary cap. With this trade, the Lakers got younger and still added players who have been key contributors on postseason teams.
For every team in the west that is not the Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs, and eventually the Jazz, the postseason is very much within reach. The Lakers found a way to make themselves more viable for one of those spots, without mortgaging a significant portion of their future to do so.