While many fans of the Los Angeles Lakers pined for another star who could transform the team into championship favorites, they instead spent the week acquiring multiple high-end rotation players and, in doing so, came away as one of the winners of the trade deadline.
Not only did the Lakers end their imprudent two-year experiment with Russell Westbrook, they also improved the team’s depth and flexibility, held onto one of their coveted future first-round picks and laid the foundation for a more sensible path forward.
In the first and biggest of their deals this week, the Lakers received D’Angelo Russell from the Timberwolves and Malik Beasley and Jarred Vanderbilt from the Jazz. The Jazz received Westbrook (who they are expected to buy-out) and a top-four protected 2027 pick from the Lakers. Los Angeles followed that up by acquiring Devon Reed from the Nuggets for Thomas Bryant and Mo Bamba from the Magic in exchange for Patrick Beverley.
Russell, on his fourth team in five seasons, isn’t an elite point guard and arrives in Los Angeles with questions about his shot-selection and defense, but he’s a better fit alongside James and Davis than Westbrook. Russell is shooting 39.1% on three-pointers this season compared to Westbrook's 29.6% clip. He’s an improving pick-and-roll ball-handler with better weapons than ever in the Lakers’ two stars. Defenses will no longer be able to go under on screens in the pick-and-roll because Russell is a threat from deep, which will create more space for James and Davis to roll to the rim.
Jarred Vanderbilt is a high-end defender and rebounder who will immediately upgrade the Lakers’ defense. In Los Angeles, he’ll be tasked with crashing the boards, defending multiple and making open shots. He’s knocking down an encouraging 37% of his corner 3s this season. At 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, Vanderbilt gives the Lakers an option to defend elite wings such as Kawhi Leonard and Phoenix-bound Kevin Durant.
A career 38% 3-point shooter, Malik Beasley is the cleanest fit. His decisiveness to shoot or drive will be welcome additions to the Lakers supporting cast (his 8.6 3-point attempts per game rank 10th in the NBA). Lonnie Walker IV has found success with the Lakers for this very reason, and Beasley is a much better perimeter shooter.
Add Reed, a hustle player who has made 38.4% of his 3s over his career; and Bamba, a stretch big with size and potential, and the Lakers have built a supporting cast that provides shooting, balance and versatility.
These moves give the Lakers much more lineup flexibility.
Ball-handlers: Russell, Schroder
Shooters: Beasley, Walker, Reed, Austin Reaves, Max Christie
Wings: James, Rui Hachimura, Troy Brown Jr.
Frontcourt: Davis, Vanderbilt, Bamba, Wenyan Gabriel
They can play three shooters – such as Russell, Beasley and Walker – around James and Davis for spacing. They can size up with Vanderbilt or Hachimura next to Davis, or go with multiple ball-handlers with Russell and Schroder in the backcourt.
When James sits, Russell can run the offense with spacing. Pairing Russell and Davis in these minutes would give the bench a clear identity. Russell can also run pick-and-pop with Bamba or have Gabriel roll to the basket.
Darvin Ham has more than 20 games to find the best lineup combinations. There will be a lot of experimenting over these next two months, but the Lakers face an uphill climb. At 25-31, the Lakers are 2.5 games outside the play-in tournament. Winning while experimenting is imperative.
The key will be how Russell meshes with James. Westbrook and James never truly clicked because defenses left Westbrook open from beyond the arc and he was never a willing screener.
Meanwhile, Russell has a chance to resemble a previous James teammate (and trade deadline target) Kyrie Irving. James and Irving made music in Cleveland by screening for each other. When James screened for Irving, defenses had to go over in fear of Irving getting an open 3, which left the lane open for James to stampede into the paint. When Irving screened for James, defenses had to choose between going under to prevent James from getting downhill or keeping a defender up to guard Irving on the pop. There was no correct choice.
Russell isn’t Irving, but he can replicate something close if he embraces becoming a screener for James (and Davis, for that matter).
The concern will be on the defensive end. Russell can be inspired to play defense in spurts, and it will be up to James and Ham to coax more consistency out of him. If it doesn’t work out, the Lakers have an out. Russell is a free agent this offseason and they can either let him walk or sign-and-trade him elsewhere and try again for a better fit.
This roster flexibility is also key to these moves. The Lakers have just four players with guaranteed contracts for next season (James, Davis, Vanderbilt, Christie). Everyone else is either a free agent, has a team option or a non-guaranteed salary. They still have their 2029 first-round pick. (If things go south in Los Angeles and Dallas, a James-Irving reunion remains possible.)
The moves the Lakers made did not make them the favorites in the West, but that was always an unrealistic expectation of the deadline. They don’t even guarantee a playoff berth, but there’s something to be said for sensible deals that improve your roster. They traded a single future first-rounder, negotiated protections on it, and got back three players aged 26, 23 and 23 who have a chance to grow in Los Angeles.
Most importantly, they appear to have a vision for how to build around LeBron James, the NBA’s new all-time scoring leader and, at 38, is still capable of winning championships with the right team around him.