2022 NBA Draft

Rob Pelinka, Lakers ready to 'embrace' Russell Westbrook if he opts in

With the 2022 Draft behind them, the Lakers say they want to help Russell Westbrook find renewed success in 2022-23 should he return to L.A.

Russell Westbrook was in attendance earlier this month when the Lakers introduced new coach Darvin Ham.

LOS ANGELES — Both parties have had conversations on what a continued partnership might look like. Yet, the Los Angeles Lakers lack exact clarity on if Russell Westbrook plans to exercise his $47 million player option for the 2022-23 season.

“He hasn’t given a final decision on that yet,” Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka said following the NBA Draft on Thursday. “He has more days to figure all that out with his family. But if he comes back, he will be embraced here with open arms and want to put a path in front of him to have a successful season.”

Assuming Westbrook exercises his player option by June 29, the Lakers have expressed some relative openness with retaining Westbrook despite his inconsistency last season with his shooting, ball-handling and defense. The Lakers are mindful, too, that it may be hard to deal Westbrook given his depressed trade market. Additionally, the team is hopeful Westbrook can improve under new coach Darvin Ham and have more time to mesh with All-Stars LeBron James and Anthony Davis than when they played only 21 games together last season.

Nonetheless, Pelinka said he and Ham have met with Westbrook to stress that a continued partnership could happen only under certain conditions.

“We’ve been honest about how we think he fits with this team and what we expect of him next year if he decides to opt in and be here,” Pelinka said. “He’s ready to embrace the philosophy of defense first as well. He made that clear to Darvin and me if he chooses to come back.”

The Lakers may have to weigh another difficult decision. With Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving reportedly at an impasse over contract negotiations, would the Lakers be willing to pursue him via free agency?

The path appears unlikely given the Lakers only have a mid-level exception worth $6 million. Meanwhile, Irving has until June 29 to decide on his $36.9 million player option. Therefore, it appears more likely the Lakers could only acquire Irving via a sign-and-trade.

Kyrie Irving reportedly has a sign-and-trade wish list if his contract negotiations with the Nets reach an impasse.

Despite Irving’s All-Star resume and history of winning the 2016 NBA title with James in Cleveland, he has elicited question marks in recent seasons.

After injuries limited him with Brooklyn in 2019-20 (20 games) and 2020-21 (54), Irving appeared in only 29 games last season both because of ailments and his refusal to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, which prevented him from playing in any Nets home games until New York City lifted its mandate before the playoffs. During his time in Cleveland (2011-17), Boston (2017-19) and Brooklyn, Irving has also received criticism for his leadership qualities.

How much will a player’s availability history and leadership style influence Pelinka’s thought process with any trades or free-agent signings?

“I think those are core characteristics that we really look for,” Pelinka said.

He then gushed about the Lakers’ newly acquired players on Draft night. The Lakers selected Michigan State freshman wing Max Christie at No. 35 after acquiring that pick from the Orlando Magic for a 2028 second-round pick and cash. The Lakers intend to soon sign Vanderbilt junior guard Scotty Pippen Jr. and Syracuse senior forward Cole Swider to two-way contracts.

It remains to be seen how much any of those prospects will receive playing time next season. The Lakers also have decisions to make on the team options they hold on Austin Reaves, Wenyen Gabriel and Stanley Johnson.

Pelinka said the Lakers “feel really positive about all three of those guys” with both their play last season and their offseason work to date. He added the team’s recent Draft picks reflect the franchise’s ambitions to add young players that offer positional versatility and hustle, qualities Pelinka said he will strongly value when free agency begins on June 30.

“Guys that will really get after it defensively,” Pelinka said. “Darvin is going to prioritize guys that play hard and compete on every play and compete in the gaps. Those are the type of guys we’ll identify in free agency as well. Having shooting around our three stars will be really important to create space.”

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Mark Medina is a senior writer/analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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