Is a Bradley Beal-Russell Westbrook trade between the Wizards and Lakers realistic?

Is a Bradley Beal-Russell Westbrook trade between the Wizards and Lakers realistic?

Bradley Beal was right. Speculation about his Washington Wizards future will never end.

Let’s flash back to July 8, the day the Wizards held a news conference to celebrate re-signing Beal to a five-year, $251 million contract that included a no-trade clause. When Beal was asked how much he hoped the new contract would end rumors that he will leave Washington, he had a blunt, but prescient, answer. “It’s never going to end,” he said. “It’s not, because now you guys are going to be like, ‘Oh, when’s he gonna lift his clause?’ It’s never going to stop.”

It’s already begun, including within The Athletic. This week, none other than our very own John Hollinger, a former Memphis Grizzlies executive, wrote he’s “immediately drawn” to the idea of the Los Angeles Lakers trading Russell Westbrook and at least one future draft pick to Washington for Beal.

Speaking of Beal, Hollinger wrote: “He is one of the few star players who can easily fit in as a third option next to James and Davis, yet is good enough to take over as the lead operator when James is off the court. Moving him to L.A. also seems like one of the few options that would save Washington from a disastrous no-trade clause in Beal’s generous five-year, $251 million deal. It would let the Wizards re-sign Kyle Kuzma without going into the luxury tax and likely leave enough cap room to ink another starter-caliber player too.”

But how realistic is that trade idea? To answer that question, The Athletic has convened Lakers beat writer Jovan Buha with Wizards beat writer Josh Robbins for a roundtable discussion.

Josh Robbins: It was inevitable that this trade idea would emerge, especially if the Wizards started to struggle — and struggle they have. The injury-riddled Wizards had lost 10 straight games before they defeated the Suns 113-110 Tuesday night in Phoenix.

The Lakers have a rich history of getting guys they covet through trades, among them Dwight Howard in 2012, Anthony Davis in 2019 and Westbrook himself last year from the Wizards.

Jovan, you reported a week ago that the Lakers have interest in Beal, along with Kevin Durant and Damian Lillard. For anyone who isn’t fully up-to-date on the Lakers’ situation, why would the team covet Beal? How would he fit in?

Jovan Buha: The Lakers are always star-hunting. It’s embedded in the franchise’s DNA. And, as history shows, they rarely go longer than a few years without adding the next torch-bearer.

The 29-year-old Beal fits the bill of an All-Star in his prime. He would improve the Lakers in both the short term and long term. As Hollinger wrote, he’s an ideal third star who would complement James and Davis perfectly. He’s a good high-volume 3-point shooter who is more than capable of running the offense when James is off the floor. Beal is the best fit among the third options that the Lakers have either acquired or considered acquiring (Westbrook, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan).

Westbrook has thrived in his sixth-man role, but the awkward fit between him and James and Davis has reared its head in crunch time, when teams often put their center on Westbrook and ignore him on the perimeter. The Lakers have recently adjusted by benching Westbrook late in some close games — like in their recent 119-117 win over the Wizards — but having another trusted shooter, scorer and playmaker in the closing group would do wonders for what’s been the worst clutch team in the league.

Robbins: I agree: Beal would be perfect alongside James and Davis. In Washington, Beal is the No. 1 option on offense, even with Kristaps Porziņģis and Kuzma on the roster. Beal, when healthy, has done well in clutch situations, which the NBA defines as the final five minutes of a game with the score within five points or fewer.

He played superbly during the fourth quarter of the Wizards’ win Tuesday. In clutch situations, he’s now shooting 17 of 24 on field-goal attempts (71 percent) and 15 of 17 on free-throw attempts (88 percent) — impressive considering how much other teams concentrate on him.

Just imagine how effective he could be alongside James. And just imagine how effective he could be alongside James and Davis.

Buha: So why would the Wizards want to trade him?

Robbins: They don’t. Knowing how rare All-Star-caliber players are — heck, there are only a total of 24 of them each season — they want to keep Beal and upgrade the roster around him, going with a “middle-build” strategy.

Washington could have traded him a couple of years ago, when his value was at its highest, and didn’t. Washington also wasn’t interested in trading him last season before he suffered a season-ending ligament tear in his left wrist in late January.

Because the team gave him a no-trade clause in his new contract, he would have to go to the Wizards’ front office — where he has great relationships with president and general manager Tommy Sheppard and team owner Ted Leonsis — and ask for a trade. And the Wizards, in turn, would have to be willing to move him.

When he signed his new deal, he said he knew the front office had work to do to build a sustainable winner and that he would be patient. And to be sure, the Wizards’ talent level is much closer to (or slightly better than) .500 than it is to their record of 12-20. Injuries are primarily to blame.

But although Beal has been loyal, he wouldn’t be human if he’s not feeling at least a bit impatient. I think the team’s recent struggles — even though they stem from injuries — hammer home how far the Wizards are from being relevant.

What star player would not want to go to play in Los Angeles for the league’s premier glamor team, especially if that star is guaranteed another $208 million more over the four seasons to follow? That’s a rhetorical question. I would guess that playing for the Lakers — and alongside an all-time great — would be extraordinarily attractive.

Bradley Beal (right) would be a superb fit with LeBron James and Anthony Davis. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea / USA Today)

Buha: The question I wonder from the Wizards’ perspective is: Would they be selling low on Beal? Could they get more for him? His contract is obviously gigantic, in both sheer salary and the remaining years. And for as good as he is, I think most would rank him as something like the 20-25ish-best player in the league. That’s fine if you already have James and Davis on your roster. But he’s not quite at the level where he could be your No. 1 option and lead you to contention (he can probably be your No. 2).

His contract’s value is polarizing among NBA personnel. I’m guessing the Wizards could find a better deal than the Lakers’ offer. But they’d have to get Beal to sign off on it, of course, considering he has a no-trade clause.

Robbins: You’re right. When we’re discussing whether the Wizards would be selling low on Beal, it’s impossible to ignore the no-trade clause. That no-trade clause gives Beal enormous leverage on where he would go, and that veto power greatly limits the Wizards’ ability to seek out the highest possible value for him.

From the Wizards’ perspective, that’s a huge problem, because it could stifle their ability to launch a successful rebuild.

And that may be why the Lakers would have an advantage over other teams that would want to add Beal.

As you know, the NBA has a rule that prevents teams from trading their own first-round picks in consecutive years. So let me ask this: What, exactly, are the draft picks that the Lakers are permitted to trade under league rules?

Buha: The Lakers are only permitted to trade their 2027 and 2029 first-round picks ahead of the Feb. 9 trade deadline.

As of the June 22, 2023 NBA draft, they’ll be able to trade their 2023 first-round pick as well (which will likely be swapped with the New Orleans Pelicans because of the Anthony Davis trade). So the Lakers can trade a maximum of three first-round picks this summer — which would certainly appeal to the Wizards (and the rest of the league). The Lakers have a slew of second-round picks, too, in case Washington wants further draft compensation. But the real prize, obviously, is their 2027 and 2029 first-round picks.

Robbins: And which draft picks would the Lakers be willing to part with?

Buha: The Lakers are only interested in trading their 2027 and 2029 first-round draft picks if the deal elevates them to title contender status. There aren’t many deals that reach that threshold, obviously. But I think this one could. A healthy trio of Davis, James and Beal wouldn’t be championship contenders this season — the Lakers aren’t even in the West Play-In Tournament right now — but they’d at least have a puncher’s chance next season.

The Lakers’ 2027 and 2029 picks are two of the most valuable assets currently available on the trade market. A Beal trade could potentially decrease the value of those picks later in the decade, but it’s difficult to project five and seven years into the future. James will be 42 by the time that pick conveys. Davis will be 34. Beal will be nearly 34. The Lakers may be rebuilding by then, which would be appealing for the Wizards.

Robbins: I understand why the Wizards would benefit from a cap flexibility standpoint by moving Beal’s remaining $208 million over the next four seasons for Westbrook, considering that Westbrook will be an unrestricted free agent in July. Washington would be creating significant flexibility for itself. The value of moving off a $208 million remaining commitment to a single player is not to be underestimated.

Still, it’s important to note that the Wizards historically have not done well in luring free agents. There would be little reason to think the cap flexibility would be helpful unless the team would overpay someone significantly. Heck, there would be no guarantee that the Wizards will even be able to re-sign Kuzma when he becomes an unrestricted free agent in July.

Worse, the timeframes on the incoming picks would be a huge problem, in my opinion. Yes, the thought of the Lakers potentially circling the drain by 2027 and 2029 would be attractive to the Wizards because it would increase the value of the incoming picks.

But the Wizards cannot wait four-plus years for additional draft help to arrive.

If the Wizards trade Beal now, they should seek to begin a rebuilding effort sooner rather than later. By waiting until 2027 and 2029 to receive first-round picks, the Wizards would be slowing down their own rebuild.

To borrow (and twist) something Billy Crystal’s character said in “When Harry Met Sally…”: When you begin a rebuild, you want that rebuild to begin as soon as possible.

I do suppose the Wizards could subsequently flip the Lakers’ 2027 and 2029 first-round picks in a subsequent trade, though.

Buha: In that case, what do you think the Wizards would realistically be looking for in a Beal trade? Draft picks over the next few years? An attractive young player? Is there a team (or teams) out there that checks those boxes more than the Lakers? Or do you think the Lakers are in the driver’s seat if he asks out?

Robbins: Presumably, the Wizards would not want to trade him now — unless he approaches management and says he wants out. Even then, in theory, the Wizards could choose to retain him.

But if they were to trade him, they would want what any rebuilding team would want: a young player or players with upside — preferably high-level starter upside — and first-round picks that have a chance of being early in the lottery.

That’s the problem with the no-trade clause from Washington’s perspective: Because of Beal’s veto power, the no-trade clause limits Washington’s ability to seek out the best possible deal. So if there is a team that checks more boxes than what the Lakers would offer, the Wizards would be constrained in their ability to deal with that team. Beal would have to give a green light to being moved to that team.

Ideally from the Wizards’ perspective, if he ever does want a trade, he would give them a list of multiple potential destinations and allow the Wizards to find the best possible deal among those teams.

If I were in the Wizards’ shoes, I wouldn’t like the thought of a deal with the Lakers before February’s trade deadline. Yes, a deal would create more cap flexibility. But the draft picks would arrive too far off to suit me.

The reality, though, is more complicated. Because of the no-trade clause, if Beal ever wants out before the February deadline, a deal with the Lakers may be the best outcome the Wizards could hope for. Westbrook’s matching salary is the grist that could make it happen.

(Top photo of Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal: Geoff Burke / USA Today)

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