Brows wrinkled, eyes focused, Russell Westbrook looks like he’s listening when a reporter on Lakers Media Day asks how he’s resolved his issues with Anthony Davis. “Number one, extremely blessed to never have had the opportunity to play another season, that’s something I really honed in on. The details of a little bit of what happened don’t really matter to me,” he says.
He filtered out the negatives and accentuated the positives. On the floor, that tunnel vision was a double-edged sword, enabling nine All-Star appearances and an MVP, but also blinding him to his flaws.
“I think being healthy is the most important thing,” he continues, “I’m looking forward to the season and looking forward to doing great things.” At 33, none of those things are guaranteed.
After the worst season of Westbrook’s career, the Lakers were unable to find him a trading partner. Opposing teams seem to value his expiring contract more than his services on the court. He has resisted change for most of his career, but as he enters his 15th season, a repeat of last season could end his career.
He seems to know and tells ESPN he is “all in” for whatever role the Lakers ask him to play, but knowing is only half the battle. Westbrook talked about sacrificing all last season. But the Lakers got off to a rocky start, LeBron James and Davis suffered injuries, and Westbrook’s role switched from third fiddle to LeBron impersonator. Westbrook, a merchant of consistency and control, struggled. He tried to attack, but his overly aggressive drives kept his layups short on the edge. His patented stop-and-pop midrange jumper regularly clattered off the board.
“I just feel like he accepted a role he probably never played before, not knowing how hard it would be,” said Mike Penberthy, a former Lakers assistant coach. “It probably felt like he was in quicksand the whole time.” Penberthy remembers Westbrook as a player who was “very coachable”. He “listened, he wasn’t stubborn” and wanted to “tell him the truth”.
“He’d get into practice, and he’d be frustrated with how he played,” Penberthy said. “However, it’s hard to give that kind of answer when you’re answering questions after a game and you haven’t played as well as you’d like. He feels like he’s being attacked, so he’s going to defend himself. And by the end of the year he’s just…” Penberthy pauses. “I mean, it was just, when it rained, it poured, you know?”
Ironically, being more available than Davis or James meant taking on a disproportionate share of the blame. Lakers fans chased him out and harassed his family during games. Against the Spurs, a fan called him “Westbrick”, to which he replied: “No respect for my name.” The fan responded by saying it even louder. In his exit interview after last season, he admitted to focusing his energies on fighting stories he believed weren’t true.
The more public control, the more defensive he became. Under pressure, Westbrook reverted to his worst habits. In February, after multiple crunch time benchings, his willingness to do what he thought was best for the team was outweighed by his pride. “Honestly, I shouldn’t be hitting any benchmarks,” he said of ending games. “I’ve put in a lot of work and I’ve gotten a lot of respect in this game. I don’t have to hit a benchmark, or I shouldn’t. I’ve earned the right to be in the last line-ups.”
Now, when asked if it might not start, it sounds relatively loose. “I think I’m just excited to be on the floor, excited for the start of the season,” he says. “What unfolds, unfolds.”
If you’re in doubt, I don’t blame you. I am too. Recent history suggests that eventually he will hesitate – if this is not just presumption in the first place – but circumstances always come into play. Maybe the optimism of the training camp is starting to get to me, but my mind lingers on the small speck of his career that suggests adapting isn’t as impossible as it seems.
Back to February 22, 2020, in what was then known as the Vivint Smart Home Arena. Spotted in the left corner, Westbrook is engaged in a favorite pastime: munching with a Utah Jazz fan.
“I know a good hairdresser,” says the fan. ‘I can give you his number. He’ll be able to help you.” This strangely helpful fan also advised Westbrook to shoot the 3, as Rudy Gobert, who wanders through the paint, is the best defensive player in the league.
Westbrook flashes his famous side eye and quickly responds, “No, he’s not.” Then he turns and explodes for a baseline cut, timed perfectly to James Harden’s drive, which tosses Westbrook into the alley.
For the Lakers, this version of Russ would be a fever dream: playing off-ball, seamlessly taking advantage of the attention given to his creative, ball-dominant teammate. It wasn’t the only thing he changed with the Houston Rockets. In the previous three seasons, Westbrook averaged 5.6 three-point attempts per game with a groan-inducing clip of 31.5 percent. Over the course of the season, he cleaned up his shot selection: in the 19 games just before COVID-19 interrupted the season, he concentrated his attack within the arc, shooting less than two 3s per game.
According to a former teammate, Westbrook made the adjustment, even though no one asked him to. In November of that season, then-Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni told SB Nation, “We’re not trying to change Russ. We’re bringing him here as the MVP and what he’s done, he’s done. Now can he just — we playing a certain way does he move a bit there? That’s his. I hope he does. He has. If you have to change a man, you may not want to bring him in at all. So he’s adapted and we have adapted us to him too.”
At first, Westbrook struggled to adjust to playing alongside Harden, but the Rockets opened the season 11-3. Winning lessened the sting of his battle and kept negative attention at bay. Westbrook’s time in Houston, where he was freed from the pressure of carrying a team on his back, had a lightness to it. He told reporters that he didn’t feel the need to prove he could pull off triple-doubles.
He hosted summer training sessions at UCLA. According to the former teammate, he showed up at charity events and treated everyone equally, whether they were stars or material managers. He was an active voice in film sessions and team meetings. Austin Rivers called him the best teammate he ever had. When Westbrook said during his exit interview with Lakers that he “never got a fair chance to be who I had to be to help this team”, on or off the pitch, this was the man he was alluding to.
If Hardens was late to hold up the team bus, Westbrook would be upset. “You have to be on time,” a former teammate recalled Westbrook saying. “What the hell is this? It’s not normal.” Moments like these endeared him to the role-players, but put a strain on his relationship with Harden. Westbrook requested a trade and was sent to the Wizards in the off-season, prematurely ending their experiment.
Westbrook’s reasons were noble, but they also illustrated an unwillingness to adapt to the harsh NBA reality: The best player runs the show, and he wasn’t anymore. That’s certainly not going to change with the Lakers.
Maybe there are other ways they can put him at ease.
It looks like Westbrook has put his best foot forward this offseason by rallying the troops in the summer league (albeit while ignoring LeBron), coming to the facility when first time head coach Darvin Ham asks him to coach young players. The two apparently already bond on a level he never had with Frank Vogel. “It was all about selflessness, team orientation, having a defensive mentality, holding him to that – words that came out of his own mouth – that he will be on a high, high level defensively, along with the rest of our roster,” said Ham.
The Rockets even went as far as swapping center Clint Capela for Robert Covington with 3 and D wings, playing super small to make room for Harden and Westbrook to thrive. The Lakers, on the other hand, remain low in distance. They’ve taken on Dennis Schröder and Patrick Beverley for the past month to help out, but the veteran guards will also battle with Westbrook for minutes.
In the off-season, Lakers owner Jeanie Buss tripped over her words to make Westbrook feel valued, calling him the Lakers’ best player, then changing the statement to “consistent.”
I’m not sure how convincing that was. Rob Pelinka, the Lakers’ vice president of basketball operations, complimented Westbrook on Monday, but when asked if Westbrook would be on the roster this season, he put it this way: “If we have to keep upgrading our roster all season Shall we do that.”
The truth is Westbrook will either be traded or will spend the entire season seeing his name in rumours. While expectations have never been lower, the pressure has never been higher. Whatever Westbrook is doing this season, he’s doing it under a microscope.
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