Monday, July 4, 2022

Russell Westbrook trades: How Malcolm Brogdon, Buddy Hield could fit on Lakers in a hypothetical Pacers deal

The fundamental obstacle standing between the Los Angeles Lakers and a Russell Westbrook trade is one simple question: Why would any other team want him? He’s set to make $47 million next season. He’s never been able to shoot. Not even joining LeBron James and Anthony Davis could compel him to cut and defend and improve his shot-selection. He’s not even a particularly dangerous driver anymore. In 2020, he finished second in the league with 10.5 shots in the restricted area per game. He fell down to 6.9 last season, and his field goal percentage on such shots dipped by two and a half percentage points. Westbrook will turn 34 early next season and his game is extremely reliant on a brand of athleticism that has already started to fade. No team that is interested in winning next season is going to trade for him. If the Lakers are going to move him, the acquiring team has to have some other motivation for acquiring him.

The Indiana Pacers are one of only three teams to never have had a former NBA MVP winner on their roster. The other two, the Charlotte Hornets and New Orleans Pelicans, have at least had players who earned First-Team All-NBA status. No Pacer has ever achieved that either, and only one former Pacer (Paul George) has managed to do so after leaving the team. Aside from brief coaching stints from Larry Bird and Isiah Thomas, they’ve never exactly been a team that was known for employing famous people.

It shows in how they’re treated by fans. The Pacers ranked last in the NBA in home attendance last season, according to ESPN. You don’t see many Pacers jerseys at arenas outside of Indianapolis, either. When they aren’t competing for a championship, relevance has been pretty hard to come by. Is that a good reason to trade for Westbrook? Probably not, but for a Pacers team that would probably prefer to take a gap year or two before trying to win in earnest, it’s a selling point to one of the NBA’s cheapest and most stubborn owners.

“I don’t want to see it,” team owner Herb Simon said of tanking and rebuilding during the season. “And if I don’t want to see it, the fans don’t want to see it. Why would we want to go through a rebuild when we can build on the go? That’s the talent. Donnie [Walsh] did it all the time. Larry [Bird] did it. Kevin [Pritchard] will do it. We can do it.” 

Well, let’s say Pritchard, the team president, wants to stay in the lottery for another year. He knows he can’t sell Simon on an aggressive teardown … but trading for Westbrook? That’s the acquisition of a distressed asset, not to mention perhaps the most famous player ever to wear a Pacers uniform. We’re not tanking. No sir, we just added a former MVP that we can build our entire marketing and season-ticketing campaign around. And if it happens to help us pick up some extra draft capital, clear the long-term deals of Malcolm Brogdon and Buddy Hield off our books so we can use max cap space in the summer of 2023, and then hand the backcourt fully over to youngsters Tyrese Haliburton and Chris Duarte after that? Then all the better. So let’s imagine a world in which the Lakers have greased the trade wheels with enough draft picks to convince the Pacers to take on Westbrook. How would Brogdon and Hield fit on the 2022-23 Lakers, and where would the purple and gold go from there?

Offense

If you’ve been clamoring for the Lakers to prioritize shooting over the past few years, then boy, do I have some good news for you. Hield might immediately become the greatest 3-point shooter ever to wear a Lakers uniform, and Brogdon would be very high on the list of shooters the Lakers have acquired during the LeBron era. Neither has ever played with a shot-creator like James. They’ve combined to shoot over 40 percent on wide-open 3’s seven times over the past five seasons.

2021-22

37%

34.3%

2020-21

47.4%

40.3%

2019-20

42.3%

32.3%

2018-19

49%

45.7%

2017-18

47%

40.6%

Lest you believe that they’re only feasting on easy looks, their overall catch-and-shoot numbers aren’t far behind. 

2021-22

39.1%

33%

2020-21

39.6%

44.4%

2019-20

41.3%

36%

2018-19

46%

47.5%

2017-18

50.2%

35.3%

If you’re wondering why Brogdon’s shooting numbers seemed to decline in more recent years, the simplest explanation is the shift in his role. Brogdon went from a supporting player in Milwaukee to Indiana’s primary ball-handler, and that led to a worse overall shot diet. In his three seasons with the Bucks, he never attempted even one pull-up 3-pointer per game. He’s taken 2.6 or more per game in each of his three Pacers seasons, and even the catch-and-shoot attempts he’s gotten with the Pacers have been worse than the ones he got in Milwaukee. Turns out, Giannis Antetokounmpo has a fair bit of gravity inside. So does Anthony Davis.

The Davis fit here is the biggest question for Brogdon as a primary point guard. Davis has publicly craved a lob-throwing point guard, and Dennis Schroder even revealed that Davis came at him for his inability to make those passes during their lone season together. In part because of the vertically challenged big men Brogdon has played with in Indiana, he hasn’t really had much of a chance to throw many lobs over the past few years. In fact, of his 212 assists last season, only one came on an alley-oop… and it was a transition line drive to Myles Turner. This is chemistry that he and Davis would need to develop.

Where Brogdon excels as a playmaker is as a pocket-passer. The Lakers know this well. Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis shredded the Lakers on those passes this season.

Pocket passes are a great way to get a big man the ball on the move. Davis thrives with momentum, and Brogdon can squeeze these passes into the tiniest of windows. That’s another mark in Brogdon’s favor as a passer: he can operate in very close quarters. His size and length as a point guard make him a stellar wraparound passer.

This is a skill any Laker point guard needs because of Davis’ preference for the power forward position. If he’s playing with a center, Brogdon is going to be driving into a cramped lane, and the ability to sneak these little dump off passes into big men in traffic is paramount. 

Traffic is less of a problem for Hield because he’s such a proactive mover. He doesn’t even need a play-call to engage him. Four mostly stationary teammates watched him do a full lap around the arc on this bucket.

The Laker offense is not going to be particularly heavy on intentional motion. No LeBron James offense is, simply because it limits his ability to exert control over possessions, so the chaos Hield injects into every possession with all of this activity could help make up for the schematic simplicity the Lakers are likely to operate with. He’s an extremely reactionary off-ball player, very aware of the instinctive mistakes defenders make just by virtue of being unused to defending shooters like him. On this play, Kevin Durant takes only a single step to help against a driver, but the moment he takes his eyes off of Buddy, Hield instantly relocates from the wing to the top of the arc to create a wide-open look. His release is so quick that even Durant isn’t long enough to contest it.

Hield has spent most of his career on bad teams, and as such, his record-breaking numbers often get dismissed as empty calories. If they are, that’s Sacramento’s fault. Hield has four of the 25 most prolific 3-point shooting seasons in NBA history… and missed the postseason in all four of them. The only other player on that list to miss the postseason entirely, including the play-in round, is Kemba Walker in 2019. Only four players in NBA history have ever averaged four made 3-pointers per game across an entire season. The first three are Stephen Curry, James Harden and Damian Lillard. Make no mistake, Hield is one of the greatest shooters in NBA history. He’s just waiting for a playmaker that can maximize him. LeBron certainly fits the bill. The Lakers know this. They almost traded for Hield a year ago. Now would be a good time to rectify that mistake.

Defense

Brogdon has an excellent reputation defensively, but it’s become slightly outdated as he’s aged in Indiana. The younger version of Brogdon was one of the NBA’s better point-of-attack defenders, quick enough to guard point guards and overwhelm them with his size advantage. Milwaukee Brogdon typically rated as an above-average defender by most metrics. Now, he’s slightly below, with EPM, RAPTOR and D-LEBRON all painting him as a somewhat negative defender last season.

His added offensive responsibility might play a part in that, and maybe joining the Lakers would allow him to focus more on defense, but he’s also lost a step over the past few years. He hardly defended quicker guards last season, and that’s partially because he struggled with the few he faced during the 2020-21 campaign. Too frequently, he’d get burned and have to resort to fouling as his only alternative.

Brogdon isn’t a bad defender in a vacuum. He’s just better-suited to defending wings over guards now. He’s perfectly equipped to do so physically. He may only be 6-foot-5, but he has a 6-foot-11 wingspan. He’s lacking slightly in the muscle department, so wings that can outmuscle him near the basket would give him some problems, but, well, the Lakers have LeBron for those guys. Stick him on an opposing shooter and he’ll thrive. His length and sky-high basketball IQ make him a very strong help-defender.

Hield rates as a much bigger negative. Though he’s an underrated on-ball defender, virtually every metric is against him, and the eye test doesn’t do him many favors either. His effort waxes and wanes. He gets lost navigating screens too easily. He’s not much of a help defender. Much of the criticism he faces defensively is valid.

I’m going to offer a few rebuttals to suggest that while he’ll likely never be a stopper, there’s probably a half-decent defender in there somewhere:

  • Hield has had laughable defensive support in Sacramento. The Kings have ranked in the bottom five defensively in four of the past six years. They never rated higher than 19th. As a byproduct of Sacramento’s dysfunction, he has already played for five NBA head coaches. That’s not exactly a nurturing defensive environment.
  • Hield has the physical tools to defend fairly well. He’s moderately athletic and has a 6-foot-9 wingspan to compensate for his below-average height at shooting guard.
  • Hield was actually a fairly strong defender in college. It was only after he got to the NBA that these flaws really began to manifest.

Now, Hield wouldn’t be the first collegiate player to find himself overmatched defensively as a professional, but I can’t help but look back at his Oklahoma tape and maintain some optimism for his future. He was a big part of a Final Four defense that held Dillon Brooks to just seven points in an Elite Eight game.

Brooks wasn’t the only future NBA player Hield faced in college. Devonte’ Graham, Monte Morris and Jevon Carter all got cracks at Hield in the Big 12, and he held his own against each of them.

Some of this optimism might be misplaced, but this story is getting published in the middle of an NBA Finals series in which Andrew Wiggins is shutting down Jayson Tatum. Two years ago, that would have been unthinkable. Hield doesn’t have his athletic upside, but maybe putting him in the right environment yields similar improvement.

Still, neither Hield nor Brogdon can replicate what Alex Caruso once did against opposing point guards. Even if they both play major minutes for the Lakers, it might make sense for them to bring Hield off of the bench in favor of a better defensive guard just to properly align the matchups. Austin Reaves made a compelling case for a starting job a year ago. Maybe the Lakers find their defensive guard in free agency. Even if Hield and Brogdon are defensive fits here, they have limitations that the Lakers would need to work around.

Medicals

This is the part where I admit that I’m not a doctor. I don’t even play one on TV. I can’t tell you or the Lakers how to assess Brogdon’s medical risks. They may well decide that he just isn’t durable enough to acquire. The bar might be lower for them than it is for other teams because of the risks James and Davis already present. All I can offer is a year-by-year look at his injury history.

  • Brogdon played 75 mostly healthy games a rookie during the 2016-17 season.
  • He played just 48 games in his sophomore 2017-18 campaign. A torn left quadricep was the culprit here.
  • Brogdon missed 18 regular-season games and eight playoff games during the 2018-19 season because of a plantar fascia tear.
  • Brogdon’s 2019-20 was relatively healthy, though he missed 14 games due to a variety ailments to his back, hand and hamstring. He also missed time due to a bout with strep throat and a concussion.
  • The 2020-21 season was again relatively healthy, though he missed the final 10 games with a hamstring injury. 
  • Brogdon played just 36 games last season, with an Achilles injury lingering longer than expected to keep him sidelined.

The rest of the offseason

I’ve covered the need for extra wings and possible solutions in more depth here, but the short version is that even after this trade, the Lakers remain painfully thin at forward. If they can use the mid-level exception on a two-way forward like Otto Porter Jr., they probably should. But Brogdon and Hield add so much shooting that the Lakers are suddenly much more flexible as mid-level shoppers.

If they think Brogdon can defend some forwards, for instance, it might be worth trying to use the mid-level exception on a point-of-attack defender at guard even if that player isn’t a great shooter. A foursome of James, Davis, Hield and Brogdon could support Gary Payton II, Bruce Brown or Victor Oladipo in playoff lineups. Another option, and one that Lakers fans will likely roll their eyes at, would be a center. Isaiah Hartenstein is probably headed back to the Clippers, but his rim-protection would allow Davis to spend more time away from the basket. If that keeps him healthy? It’s a win. On the off-chance Orlando renounces their rights to Mo Bamba, his upside as a shooter and shot-blocker makes him a fit alongside virtually anybody.

Though they should still explore trades for him, Talen Horton-Tucker might even be able to fit onto a Brogdon-Hield roster. If nothing else, his youthful durability has value for the games that Brogdon inevitably misses, and Hield’s spacing should do wonders for him as a driver. The loser here, undoubtedly, would be Malik Monk. If the Lakers are spending their mid-level exception elsewhere, it simply wouldn’t make sense for him to re-sign into a backcourt with Brogdon, Hield, Reaves, Horton-Tucker and Kendrick Nunn. There just aren’t enough minutes left over there. If he did re-sign, the idea of dangling Horton-Tucker and Nunn as close to $20 million in tradable salary at the deadline looks awfully appealing. 

There are still plenty of holes here, and the mid-level exception could plug just one of them. But swapping Westbrook out for two elite shooters that might be able to defend and can certainly ease LeBron’s playmaking burden would be an unmitigated victory. Stay healthy, nail a couple of minimum signings and continue to develop the limited youth that remains this team suddenly looks pretty solid.

Is “pretty solid” enough to compel the Lakers to surrender the meaningful draft capital needed to make this deal? All signs suggest it wouldn’t. As fearsome as this team could be if everything goes right, there are just so many ways things could go wrong. Miss on the mid-level addition. Injuries to any of the principles. James aging out of his All-NBA status. The best version of a Brogdon-Hield Lakers team would have a chance to enter the championship picture next season, but no scenario would turn them into favorites. James has won a championship without being the preseason favorite before. He’s still more than good enough for the Lakers to bet on him doing it again. But until they give any indication whatsoever that they’re willing to do so, even a trade as sensible as this one appears unlikely.

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