Obviously, most of the attention focused on the Utah Jazz these days evolves around the as-yet unresolved Donovan Mitchell situation, and where he might land in a trade.
Beyond that, there’s plenty of wondering about whether and where veterans such as Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Jordan Clarkson might get dealt, and/or if the just-added Patrick Beverley could be re-routed as well before he ever dons the black and yellow.
Still, the Jazz have options beyond those obvious moves.
In fact, a Monday report from Shams Charania of The Athletic — mostly focused on updates about landing spots for Mitchell and Kevin Durant — included one intriguing tidbit at the very end:
“Utah, New York and Indiana are among the teams that have discussed deals with the Lakers involving Russell Westbrook and draft capital, sources said. There appears no deal imminent in those conversations — as the overall trade market plays out over the next two months of the offseason.”
Why would the Jazz trade for Westbrook?
Given that the former MVP has been considered an albatross — both on the court and contractually — for Los Angeles ever since LeBron James and Anthony Davis talked Lakers GM Rob Pelinka into trading for him last year, it’s fair to wonder what the upside is in acquiring an aging, poor-shooting, ball-dominant, stuck-in-his-ways point guard.
The answer, in effect, is Utah now getting the chance to be on the opposite side of the kind of deals it made to free itself from the contracts of Derrick Favors, Ed Davis and Tony Bradley.
Two years ago, the Jazz brought Favors back on a three-year agreement (the third was a player option) for the full, non-taxpayer midlevel exception. Less than one season in, they realized it was a significant mistake. The problem was, Favors was viewed as such a negative asset at that point, other teams were not exactly outbidding one another to take on his contract.
The Utah front office’s solution? Strike a deal with an opportunistic, non-competitive club with cap space, and entice them to take him on by attaching an additional asset. The Oklahoma City Thunder had no need for Favors on their roster, but by agreeing to pay the remaining two years of his salary, they effectively were able to swap a 2027 second-round pick for a 2024 first-rounder (protected 1-10 in 2024; 1-10 in 2025; and 1-8 in 2026; if the pick has not been conveyed by then, the Jazz are off the hook).
Utah made similar deals, attaching second-rounders to get other teams to take on Davis and Bradley. It’s a bad scenario to go to often, as it can leave a team bereft of picks.
Now, however, the Jazz find themselves potentially in a position to be on the other side. Rudy Gobert’s significant contract is gone. Mitchell’s could follow. And though new Lakers coach Darvin Ham has publicly insisted he expects Westbrook and his $47 million contract to be in Los Angeles this coming season, it’s hardly a secret that the Lakers are shopping the guard, hoping to make him someone else’s problem.
The Jazz, now in a rebuilding phase, and thus able to take on a distressed asset such as Westbrook without fear of damaging the on-court product, could swing a deal to be the landing spot for the nine-time All-Star — provided, of course, the Lakers added some draft incentive to do so.
What would a Westbrook to the Jazz deal entail?
So, let’s examine the particulars. How could these teams go about making such a deal happen?
First of all, the draft-pick compensation is already something of a thorny issue. The Lakers are hardly flush with draft capital, owing to their previous trade for Anthony Davis. Beyond a pick swap this year, they still owe one more first-rounder outright to the Pelicans — but New Orleans gets to choose if it wants that pick in 2024 or 2025. Between that and the Stepien Rule (an NBA mandate that you can’t trade first-round picks for consecutive seasons), the Lakers really only have their 2027 and 2029 first-rounders to offer right now.
Naturally, the teams they’ve been in contact with about Westbrook want both of those picks for taking on a declining player with a huge salary; just as naturally, L.A.’s front office would prefer to only attach one pick to Westbrook’s deal, so they can have the other to use elsewhere. Is there a team willing to settle for a single pick that’s at least five years away from being conveyed? Or will the Lakers have to choose between upping their offer or just keeping Westbrook?
The other issue: Unlike the Favors-OKC deal, where the Thunder had enough cap space to simply absorb Favors’ salary, the Jazz shockingly do not have room to just plug in Westbrook’s $47 million for 2022-23. And so, they’ll need to send some players back in return. Who, though, are they willing to part with that can also get them close enough to matching salary totals to satisfy league rules?
Well, as mentioned before, a rebuilding team really has no use for 30-something veterans such as Conley and Bogdanovic. Clarkson could also be of use to a contending team. Same for Beverley, who has fans in the Lakers organization, and who himself is an admirer of LeBron James. Beyond that, it’s no secret the Jazz would like to move on last year’s free-agent misfire, Rudy Gay.
Westbrook is set to make exactly $47,063,478 next season. The Jazz could hypothetically package Conley ($22.68M), Beverley ($13M), and Gay ($6,184,500), which would mean a total of $41,864,500 — or 88.95% of the salary they’d be taking back. It would put the Jazz a few million more over the salary cap, but they’d still be more than $3 million under the luxury tax threshold.
The only caveat to that deal is that it couldn’t happen until Aug. 30, to satisfy a league rule about combining a recently-traded player’s salary (in this case, Beverley) with other outgoing players.
From there, all sorts of similar permutations would work. Conley could be swapped out for Bogdanovic ($19.55M). Beverley could be swapped out for Clarkson ($13.34M). If the Jazz front office wanted the Lakers to take on a bit more matching salary, Conley could be swapped out for Clarkson and Malik Beasley ($15,558,035). Or, you could keep the original deal and simply add someone such as Nickeil Alexander-Walker, or Jarred Vanderbilt, or Udoka Azubuike, or … you get the idea.
Thing is, that’s a lot of assets to be giving away just to match the salary of a guy they don’t really want. Enough who are worth something anyway, that the Lakers would need to put both first-rounders on the table, or get a third team involved who can offer the Jazz more of what they want. And maybe both.
So, if the trade were to happen … what then?
Given the constant attention lavished upon the still-wildly-popular Westbrook, it’s worth at least a cursory assessment of the aftermath.
Here’s the short of it: If the Utah Jazz trade for Russell Westbrook, it is exceedingly unlikely he ever puts on a Jazz jersey. For one thing, it would make zero sense for No. 0, now 33 years old, to join a young, rebuilding franchise. New coach Will Hardy would have no reason to play the long-established guard at the expense of seeing what the Jazz’s young prospects can do.
Beyond that, and more infamously, Westbrook has been on the receiving end of racist behavior from fans in Salt Lake City on more than one occasion, and surely would have no desire to play in Utah as a result.
If the Jazz and Lakers make a deal, it would seem the likely end result is either Ryan Smith paying Westbrook just to stay away for the year remaining on his contract, or Danny Ainge and Justin Zanik negotiating a buyout, and freeing him to go play elsewhere.
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