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The Lakers' all-in gamble on Russell Westbrook is backfiring and might get ugly

Scott Davis   

The Lakers' all-in gamble on Russell Westbrook is backfiring and might get ugly
  • The Lakers benched Russell Westbrook in the final minutes of a loss on Wednesday.
  • Westbrook, who has struggled this season, left without talking to reporters.

As the Los Angeles Lakers enter the second half of the season, they have a major decision to make on Russell Westbrook: figure out how to make it work or cut ties.

To date, the partnership has not worked. The Lakers are 22-23, 8th in the West, and struggling mightily to build any chemistry or continuity. Meanwhile, the 33-year-old guard is averaging his fewest points since his second season in the league, and the Lakers have performed better when he's on the bench.

On Wednesday, Lakers head coach Frank Vogel sat Westbrook for the final 3:50 of the game, as the Lakers lost to the Indiana Pacers, 111-104.

After the game, Vogel was asked about the decision and said, "Playing the guys that I thought were going to win the game."

Meanwhile, according to ESPN's Dave McMenamin, Vogel — who is on the hot seat himself, according to multiple reports — had the backing of Lakers management to sit Westbrook, a nine-time All-Star and former MVP, if he felt it was necessary.

McMenamin reported that Westbrook left the arena before teammates were out of their showers and before reporters could speak to players for postgame interviews.

According to McMenamin, the tipping point came when Westbrook allowed a drive from the Pacers' Caris LeVert with 7 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. The Lakers had reportedly stressed taking away LeVert's right hand.

Westbrook shot just 5-of-17 from the field game for 14 points, though he did make 4 of 6 three-point attempts. His benching comes in a particularly cold January in which he's shot just 32% from the field and 25% from three.

There were mixed reactions from the Lakers on Westbrook's benching, though they all seemed to point to him being upset.

According to The Athletic's Johan Buva, LeBron James had a terse exchange with a reporter when asked how Westbrook felt about the benching. James asked if the reporter had followed Westbrook this season. When the reporter said yes, James replied, "There's your answer."

Carmelo Anthony, a former superstar who has had to adjust to life as a reserve role player in recent years, tried to preach understanding.

"I don't think it's nothing personal," Anthony said. "It's just something that he's not used to. You would think somebody like that would be on the court. But with the flow of the game, there's been times I haven't been in the game, or other guys haven't been in the game. So I don't think it's anything personal."

According to McMenamin, Anthony started to say it's something Westbrook has to figure out before cutting himself off and saying, "We gotta help him figure it out."

Westbrook was the Lakers' all-in move, and now they may be stuck

As we wrote in July, when the Lakers made the trade for Westbrook, the deal was essentially their last chance to go all-in.

The trade cost them Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell, and the 22nd pick in the draft. While it wasn't necessarily a heavy price to pay, it left the Lakers with just four players on the roster — LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Westbrook, and Marc Gasol (who was later traded) — and almost zero assets left to deal.

The Lakers still owe the New Orleans Pelicans two draft picks from the Anthony Davis trade, and they can't trade another first-round pick until 2027.

On a roster filled with veterans plucked from the scrap heaps, the Lakers' best trade assets now may be Talen Horton-Tucker, a 21-year-old having an up-and-down third season, the injured guard Kendrick Nunn (who hasn't played this season), or undrafted rookie Austin Reaves, playing an outsized role for the Lakers.

None of these pieces are going to land the Lakers a savior.

Of course, that thinking is partially what got the Lakers in this mess: the belief that they needed a third star. Westbrook is a star in name only at this point in his career. While he can positively impact the game, his deficiencies stand out more, especially next to a player like James, as many skeptics pointed out when the trade was made.

The Lakers may have been better off valuing depth and role players over adding another big-name playmaker. The 2019-20 Lakers won the championship with James playing point guard, surrounded by shooters, slashers, and defenders. They boasted a similar roster construction last year, but a first-round playoff exit while injuries plagued the team made them change course. It was a change reportedly driven by James, who felt, as he entered his 19th season, that he could use playmaking help.

Of course, the Lakers lacked major trade assets already, so with limited options (landing, say, Damian Lillard, was not possible), they got Westbrook — a talented but flawed guard with a hefty contract who wasn't in high demand.

That contract is exactly what may now prevent the Lakers from moving on from Westbrook. He's being paid $44 million this season and has a player option worth $47 million next year that he is likely to pick up. The number of teams who can absorb Westbrook's contract is limited. Finding a team interested in Westbrook, can send out a matching salary in a trade, and give the Lakers something they want in return will be even more difficult.

As Westbrook told The Athletic's Sam Amick last week, he and the Lakers just have to keep trying new ways to fit together.

"Trying to figure it out," Westbrook said. "I mean, we still don't have the answer. We done changed the way we play a couple times (laughs). Just for me, it's trying to figure out the best way to be able to implement how I play the game with this team."


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