Rumored Russell Westbrook To Indiana Pacers Trade Could Be Difficult To Negotiate

Reports throughout the summer have suggested that the Los Angeles Lakers may try to trade away guard Russell Westbrook to balance their roster. The Indiana Pacers have salary cap space, a desire to obtain more assets, and veterans that the Lakers have previously had interest in.

As a result, the two teams have felt like natural trade partners in a possible Westbrook deal. But negotiations for such a trade are tricky, given the motivations of both teams, and there are several reasons why a deal between the two franchises may not happen until something changes.

Bob Kravitz reported in The Athletic that Indiana and Los Angeles had trade talks surrounding Westbrook — the full proposal included the former MVP and a 2027 first round pick heading to Indiana while Buddy Hield and Myles Turner traveled to Los Angeles.

Kravitz described such a trade construction as “currently dead,” in July. Michael Scotto of HoopsHype reported that a slightly modified deal had been discussed as well — one that involved the same players but also included a 2029 first round pick and Talen Horton-Tucker heading to the Pacers while also having Daniel Theis moving to the Lakers.

These two rumored proposals sum up the difficulties of any potential Lakers-Pacers trade involving Russell Westbrook: Los Angeles wants to keep some of its available first round draft picks, but Indiana wants as many assets as possible if they are going to take in Westbrook’s large contract — he’s set to make $47 million in 2022-23.

Indiana is well below the salary floor, the minimum total team salary an NBA team must pay over the course of a season. They have plenty of salary cap space to absorb Westbrook’s deal without sending out equivalent contracts in return – which is often required in other deals. The Pacers situation from a trade perspective is unique.

The franchise has transitioned from one era to the next in recent months. That pivot has led to them making long-term minded trades, they have acquired two future first round picks (Cleveland and Boston picks in 2023) and multiple young players (Jalen Smith, Aaron Nesmith, and Tyrese Haliburton) in deals while keeping their salary cap sheet clean. The Pacers are looking for assets and flexibility to set themselves up for success long-term.

The Lakers, meanwhile, have essentially opposite goals. With LeBron James and Anthony Davis on the roster, the purple and gold have championship aspirations. And yet, this past season, they won just 33 games and missed the postseason. Los Angeles is looking to get better – much better – this coming season.

Moving Westbrook and acquiring contributors in the same deal would help LA accomplish that. The 2017 MVP has been a poor fit with the Lakers, and the team was three points per 100 possessions better with Westbrook on the bench than on the court. Many view the Lakers trading Westbrook as addition by subtraction.

Acquiring talent for Westbrook is the goal for General Manager Rob Pelinka. And the Lakers, even before this offseason, had prior interest in Pacers’ veterans Myles Turner and Buddy Hield. From the 1,000-foot view, a Pacers-Lakers framework makes sense.

Digging into the details makes constructing a swap more difficult. First and foremost, enticing a team to take on Westbrook’s massive contract is a requirement for the Lakers in any deal. The triple-double machine doesn’t fit into many team’s goals for the 2022-23 season given his current talent level, salary, and ability to mesh with other players, so his contract is viewed as a considerable negative. To send him to another team, the Lakers will likely have to include an asset as a sweetener.

Meanwhile, Indiana has placed a high value on Turner in past trade discussions. Hield is a newer Pacer, so his value to the franchise is less clear, but he did put up career-best numbers for the team after they acquired him in February. Still, his poor defense and large contract make him a neutral value asset, at best.

Turner and Hield combined, without any other players or picks involved, are perceived to have worth that would net at least one first-round draft pick. And given how much the Pacers like Turner, it may take even more.

Using those determinations of value – one first-round pick required for the Lakers to trade away Westbrook, one first-round pick necessitated to acquire Hield and Turner – a trade involving those three would seemingly require the Lakers to send the Pacers two first-round draft picks.

In a vacuum, that sounds like a workable deal. Both teams accomplish their goals. But there are complications that create a barrier between that trade and reality.

From the Lakers perspective, dealing draft picks is risky. They sent several picks to New Orleans in a trade for Anthony Davis in 2019, which means they cannot currently trade any of their first-round picks outside of their 2027 and 2029 selections. If they were to deal both of those first-round selections that they can legally move, they would then have limited assets to improve their team further in future deals. That is likely unappealing for a franchise that is trying to win with an aging LeBron James, even though maximizing the roster for this coming season has some value.

Additionally, Los Angeles can have significant cap space next offseason, and Hield’s contract spans two more seasons. Acquiring the elite outside shooter would limit the team’s flexibility in 2023 free agency.

For the Pacers, Westbrook would have little to no on court worth. Tyrese Haliburton, their most promising young player, plays the same position and has a large role coming his way. Westbrook would take minutes and development opportunities from the 22-year-old. On a younger team hoping to develop its 12 players under 26 this season, Westbrook would be an awkward fit at best. The guard would burn a large hole in the Pacers’ wallets for the whole season with his limited value to the franchise.

Additionally, the Pacers have to consider the opportunity cost of moving Hield and Turner in this hypothetical deal. Executing a swap with the Lakers means the Pacers could not trade Turner to a different franchise. Could the blue and gold get more value for the pair of veterans from another team? What if they were traded individually? After missing the final three months of this past season, a strong start to the 2022-23 campaign could boost Turner’s value. The Pacers will need to ensure they are maximizing Hield and Turner’s worth in a move.

A trade also removes the on-court value of the two veterans from the blue and gold. For a franchise that has never bottomed out, that could be important.

When zooming in on both team’s motivations, a trade becomes more difficult to imagine. That’s why, according to HoopsHype’s reporting, the deal was expanded to include other pieces — Horton-Tucker and Theis — that altered each team’s perceived return.

Horton-Tucker has since been dealt to Utah, he cannot be in any trade between the Lakers and Pacers now. But there are other ways that the two teams could negotiate if they are locked in on making this framework become reality.

The biggest negotiating tool that the team’s have is pick protections. Draft picks can be traded with protections — for example, if a traded selection is protected 1-5, then the team that sent away the pick would keep said draft choice if their record makes the pick end up in the top-5. Otherwise, it would be traded. When a pick is protected, often there is a secondary agreement in place if the pick does not convey (e.g. if a top-5 protected pick ends up being the fourth overall pick, then instead two second round picks are sent).

A pick can be dealt without any protections, meaning that no matter where it lands in the draft it gets traded. Such picks have incredible value, as displayed this offseason in trades involving Rudy Gobert, Dejounte Murray, and Donovan Mitchell.

The Pacers would theoretically want as many picks as possible from the Lakers, and they want those picks to be unprotected. The Lakers, on the other hand, would want to trade as few picks as possible with strong protections. This could be an area where the teams negotiate and come closer to making a deal happen. Perhaps one first-round pick completely unprotected and another with strong protections would be a happy medium for the two franchises.

Pick swaps could change the calculus of a deal as well. Teams are permitted to trade swap rights in a draft — for example, the Lakers could offer the Pacers swap rights in the first round of the 2028 NBA Draft. In that scenario, if the Lakers ended up with a better first-round pick than the Pacers in 2028, the teams could flip draft slots in the first round. If the Pacers end up with better draft position, they could elect not to swap positions. That flexibility has value and could be useful in an exchange.

Another way the teams could change the overall value being moved around is by adding in other contracts. HoopsHype reported that Indiana tried to get the deal done with newly-acquired center Daniel Theis involved, for example. Theis has two guaranteed years remaining on his contract that total just over $18 million, but he has no clear role on Indiana. If the Pacers view clearing that money from their books as valuable, Theis could change the overall value of a deal. But the Lakers, remember, don’t want to acquire long-term salary.

T.J. McConnell could have a contract viewed similarly to Theis in this scenario. But he has a more obvious role with the Pacers this coming year, and maybe even beyond that.

Something else to consider — could the Pacers include some of their lesser young players to encourage the Lakers to ease pick protections? That could be a unique way to balance the trade. For example — if Aaron Nesmith or Goga Bitadze, two young former top-20 picks, were included in the deal, would Los Angeles be more willing to trade picks with weak protections?

One final way the two teams could directly negotiate is the inclusion of cash considerations. In the event that Indiana and Westbrook would like to execute a contract buyout after the trade, having more cash available could be helpful for the Pacers. The Lakers can send up to $6.3 million in a trade and as low as just over $100 thousand. That amount could be negotiated.

If none of those tweaks — pick protections, swaps, additional salary, younger players, or cash — help get a deal done, the Lakers and Pacers would likely have to alter the framework entirely. Would taking Turner out of the deal work, for example? Then the framework would be based around Westbrook, Hield, and whatever other assets the teams decide to exchange. That could be a happy medium that improves both teams without damaging Los Angeles’ trade flexibility in the future.

Maybe Hield could be removed from the deal so that the Lakers don’t take on any long-term salary. How much would Los Angeles be willing to include, in terms of picks, in such a scenario? That would give the Pacers a significant asset return for Turner, but it may not be the best time to move the 26-year old big man. It would leave Indiana with fewer valuable veterans for future deals.

Every altered trade scenario features some added solutions and some added roadblocks. That is representative of the many hurdles the Los Angeles Lakers and Indiana Pacers will have to clear if they revisit trade talks. Maybe a third team that places more value on certain pieces involved in the deal could help balance things, but such a deal becomes too complicated to predict.

Either way, with large salaries, the success of an all-time great, valuable assets, and a former MVP all involved, negotiations between the Lakers and Pacers are tricky. Something may have to change in order to get a deal done, such as a slow start to the season from the Lakers or an injury for the Pacers. Any deal that could ultimately happen will require careful discussions and brokering — otherwise, both teams could be better off looking elsewhere for trades.