Point Guard Roulette

The offseason's first big spin of change makes Russell Westbrook (whoa) a Laker

The last few hours before Thursday’s NBA Draft were riveting. The three-plus hours that it took to complete the first round of ESPN's draft broadcast, when every single notable twist reached viewers first via Twitter like always and no trades involving established players materialized, dragged on interminably.

Let’s focus, then, on the pre-draft developments, especially since they tipped off the league’s forthcoming game of Point Guard Roulette in such rousing fashion even before it starts in earnest Monday in free agency.

All that chatter since we launched this Substack about the Los Angeles Lakers wanting to add a playmaking guard of stature? On Thursday afternoon, just when the Lakers seemed poised to strike a deal for Sacramento's sharpshooting Buddy Hield, they pivoted extravagantly and validated those rumbles by lasering in on a much more audacious swap for Washington's Russell Westbrook.

I'm a basketball sap who loves a homecoming story, and I was as absorbed as anyone last season when Los Angeles’ own Westbrook made his run at catching (and then passing) Oscar Robertson for the league's all-time lead in triple-doubles, but mark me down as a huge skeptic of this dice roll for the Lakers.

Hield was such a sensible fit, given the Lakers' limited trade assets and severe salary-cap restraints, to address their glaring lack of shooting. Few teams are as well-suited to cover up for Hield's defensive deficiencies as the defensively stout Lakers. While Westbrook is clearly still a better player overall, and so stubbornly intense at nearly 33 that he's sure to provide a much-needed jolt whenever James or Davis is unavailable, Westbrook’s arrival not only presents major spacing issues because of his shooting limitations but also limits the sort of team that the Lakers can build around their new star trio. James, Davis and Westbrook, remember, will combine to earn $120 million next season. They have only five players on the current roster if you count Alfonzo McKinnie.

But this is the move LeBron wanted, since there was no realistic pathway to pilfering Chris Paul from Phoenix, and the Lakers delivered. It’s on James as much as anyone if it doesn’t work … although I will certainly be the first to issue a mea culpa if the Lakers can surprise us again and find a route next week to acquiring Hield, or another proven shooter, as part of a Dennis Schröder sign-and-trade.

Point guards will continue to dominate discussion throughout the early stages of free agency because that is where all the depth lies in the 2021 marketplace. Some key developments:

  • Utah has made retaining Mike Conley its top priority, league sources say, and is preparing a three-year offer said to be in the $75 million range. Such a deal will become much more palatable for the Jazz once they complete their looming trade with Oklahoma City that will send Derrick Favors and (you guessed it) a future first-round pick to the Thunder for a future second-rounder and the privilege of foisting Favors’ $9.7 million salary for next season upon OKC.

  • Miami, Dallas and New Orleans will be at the forefront of the pursuit for Toronto’s Kyle Lowry once free-agent negotiations are permissible at 6 p.m. ET on Monday. Lowry is the top target for all three teams. The Heat would appear to have a recruiting advantage through Lowry’s close relationship with Miami star Jimmy Butler.

  • We said it last Friday: Schröder’s time with the Lakers was over. Plenty of mystery persists, though, about where he’s headed and whether the Lakers can ensure that they don’t lose him without compensation. A reunion with his former Thunder coach Billy Donovan in Chicago? Would the New York Knicks, who have moved so cautiously in the Leon Rose era, really surrender valuable salary-cap space on a pricey Schröder signing rather than preserve their flexibility for a trade run at a certifiable star like Damian Lillard or Bradley Beal? Pinpointing a good fit for Schröder is a challenge.

  • Like Westbrook, Ricky Rubio is another veteran point guard who has already changed teams, heading from Minnesota to Cleveland in one of Thursday’s few moves (Detroit shipping big man Mason Plumlee to Charlotte was another) involving veterans. Other point guards of note we’ll be discussing in free agency include Paul (until he resolves his future with the Suns), Spencer Dinwiddie (Washington keeps coming up as a potential sign-and-trade suitor), Lonzo Ball (restricted free agent), Derrick Rose, Goran Dragić, Reggie Jackson, Cameron Payne, T.J. McConnell and Cleveland’s Collin Sexton (presumed available via trade).

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We warned you in a Spotify Greenroom earlier this week that Draft Week was too soon for a trade headlined by Lillard, Beal or Ben Simmons to come to fruition. Here’s why:

  • For all the undeniable tension in the Pacific Northwest, neither Portland nor Lillard is ready to entertain trade possibilities … certainly not while Lillard is in Tokyo trying to focus on the Olympics.

  • The Wizards agreed to the Westbrook trade, league sources say, believing it would enhance their chances of Beal committing to a long-term extension to stay in the nation’s capital rather than hasten his exit.

  • Philadelphia continues to ask for a massive return in its attempts to construct a Simmons trade. To illustrate: There were ill-founded suggestions circulating earlier this week that the 76ers were warming to the idea of a potential deal with Portland in which CJ McCollum landed in Philadelphia as the prime acquisition from the Blazers. It was made clear, when I checked it out, that Lillard remains the Trail Blazer coveted by Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey. The Sixers know they have to get this right and keep insisting that they are determined not to rush into anything.

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Quite an announcement we got from the NBA, some 10 minutes into Thursday’s draft, that it will be releasing a freshly crafted list of the best 75 players in league history in October as part of its 75th anniversary celebrations planned throughout the 2021-22 season.

We will be digging into this in much greater detail over the next few months, but keep in mind these two important caveats:

  1. The NBA is not going to rank the players from 1 to 75, so you can surrender any dreams you have about a league-authored press release that clearly identifies its official GOAT selection. The league will merely list all 75 players, presumably in alphabetical order, as chosen by what it describes as “a blue-ribbon panel of media, current and former players, coaches, general managers and team executives.”

  2. It will be a completely new list, meaning that the players selected to the league’s top 50 in 1997 are not all automatically assured of a spot in the top 75. That also raises the possibility that top-50 snubs like Dominique Wilkins and Bob McAdoo are rectified.

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Teams interested in Atlanta restricted free agent John Collins, league sources say, are increasingly operating under the premise that Collins can’t be lured away from the Hawks because he is intent on re-signing with them. … Toronto’s surprise selection of Scottie Barnes with the No. 4 overall pick in Thursday’s draft over Jalen Suggs immediately convinced some rival teams that the Raptors’ appetite for trading Pascal Siakam will only grow after Siakam’s tumultuous season while the Raptors were forced to play in Tampa. … There was considerable chatter heading into the draft that Chicago’s Daniel Theis will be a prime free-agent target for the Houston Rockets. … Theis’ fellow center Donta Hall, who finished last season with Orlando, has jumped to the EuroLeague by signing with AS Monaco. … The NBA’s 50 Greatest Players were feted at the 1997 All-Star Game in Cleveland and, in a quaint bit of symmetry, it will happen again with the 75 Greatest Players when Cleveland hosts the 2022 All-Star Game in February.