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The 1 crucial factor that could prevent Lakers from making a Russell Westbrook trade

jeanie buss lakers russell westbrook

The Los Angeles Lakers may still trade Russell Westbrook, He Of The Possibly Rebuilt Jumper, though a deal looks increasingly unlikely with two weeks to go before training camp.

The potential landing spots, basic frameworks, and hold-ups to a Westbrook blockbuster are well-known. The Lakers would rather not part with both of their tradable future first-round picks (2027, 2029) without recouping a star-caliber player, nor do they want to take back undesirable long-term money. Tricky!

If the Lakers were open to dealing both picks, they could probably have Myles Turner and Buddy Hield by now (for the record: I’m in favor of this move). They could send Russ into the San Antonio Spurs’ cap room and take back Doug McDermott. They could help the New York Knicks (Evan Fournier, Julius Randle) or Charlotte Hornets (Gordon Hayward, Terry Rozier) shed unwanted contracts.

The Utah Jazz, in full Victor Wembanyama Mode, remain at the forefront of the conversation. They possess multiple rotation pieces that could improve the Lakers ASAP: Mike Conley Jr., Bojan Bogdanovic, Jordan Clarkson, Malik Beasley, Jarred Vanderbilt. The two sides recently reached an accord of this ilk, and there continues to be a dialogue between the front offices.

The Lakers’ reluctance to part with the picks gets more attention amid the scuttlebutt, but their intention to keep their cap sheet clean for 2023-24 — besides LeBron James and Anthony Davis — is the bigger obstacle to moving Westbrook.

Ostensibly, the aim of this mandate is to retain the space to add a third star — perhaps Kyrie Irving — ahead of a deep free agent class.

However, LeBron and AD together will consume approximately $88 million in cap space in 2023-24. Even factoring in a projected cap spike, that will not leave the Lakers with enough room to add a third max contract, then fill out a roster (free agents — especially stars — settling for contracts below market value is a rarity.)

This brings us to the true reason ownership wants to keep the future books relatively clean: to avoid the big, bad repeater tax.

The repeater tax is a severe financial penalty triggered when a team wades into luxury tax waters four times within a five-year window. Essentially, once triggered, a team has to spend $3.50 for every dollar, which dramatically hikes up the overall bill. The next CBA will reportedly include even stiffer tax penalties.

As it stands, the Lakers are on track to be about $40 million into tax territory this season. They were $45 million over in 2021-22 and $4 million over the year prior. (In 2019-20, they stayed about $10 million under the threshold and won a title with affordable role players circling their two stars. Hmm…) If Los Angeles can avoid paying the tax in 2023-24, their repeater clock would reset.

Remember: while the Lakers are valued at nearly $6 billion, they still operate as a mom-and-pop shop. Unlike say, the Golden State Warriors, Lon Angeles Clippers, Brooklyn Nets, or a handful of other clubs, the Lakers are not operated by a new-money tech gazillionaire or private equity gurus.

To be fair, Buss is willing to front some large bills — as long as they produce a competitive squad, unlike the 33-49 unit of 2021-22.

“I’m growing impatient just because we had the fourth-highest payroll in the league,” Jeanie told the Los Angeles Times in May. “When you spend that kind of money on the luxury tax, you expect to go deep into the playoffs.”

Jeanie has never paid the repeater tax (instituted in 2014) since wresting control over the franchise from her brother, Jim, in 2017. Infamously, ownership let Alex Caruso walk for tax purposes.

Now, if Jeanie feels like the Lakers have a contending roster — maybe with Kyrie, or even with Myles and Buddy — she could make an exception. We know the Buss family values star power and banners, and it’s plausible that the mandate to retain future cap room is primarily to form a new Big 3 while near-40-year-old LeBron and AD are under contract.

Realistically, though, Lakers ownership is going to ensure the tax clock restarts while using the looming free agency class as a convenient cover story. If that’s the case, any player earning significant money beyond 2023-24 is a non-starter in Westbrook trade talks. That rules out Turner, Hield, Conley Jr., Clarkson, Hayward, Rozier, McDermott, and Fournier, among others.

Maybe there’s a happy medium. Lakers management could take on some future salary if they can keep a first-rounder, and/or if they believe the Myles/Buddy package vaults them up the standings. Maybe they offer both picks for only dudes on expiring deals (Bogdanovic, Beasley).

But, if Rob Pelinka and the basketball operations department are indeed under a non-negotiable mandate to avoid the repeater tax, then simply allowing Westbrook’s $47.1 million to come off the books next summer is the smoothest fiscal option, by far. Just something to keep in mind.