The main story of the Lakers’ opening night loss against the Warriors was Russell Westbrook. Sadly, the story wasn’t of a fantastic debut like Russ and Lakers fans had hoped for. Instead, we saw much of the offseason worries with adding Westbrook to this team play out in real-time, as he was inefficient from the field, made mistakes on defense, and had 4 turnovers (to only 4 assists).
It all led to Westbrook ending with far and away the worst plus/minus on the team with a staggering -23 in 35 minutes played. He was the only starter with a plus/minus worse than -2, with the second-worst on the team coming from Malik Monk at -10.
After the game, Westbrook fielded questions from reporters with answers that made Michael Myers seem like a blabber-mouth in comparison. It was obvious that the poor performance in his first meaningful game as a Laker got to him, something that Anthony Davis spoke about with the media.
“Russ was very hard on himself — and I told him today ‘I think I’m 0-3 in my Lakers season openers, so it’s Game 1.’” Davis said. “The same way he’s feeling right now is the same way I was feeling my first year here. I got a little reassurance from (LeBron) and we were fine. So we’ll be fine. We’ll figure it out, he’ll figure it out and we’ll figure it out together as a team on the defensive end for sure.”
LeBron James also commented on Westbrook’s debut, joking that he might end up telling Russ to go home and “watch a comedy” to “put a smile on his face”. He and Davis both chalked most of their new co-star’s poor performance up to nerves in his hometown debut, with both superstars using a similar phrase.
“I think it was just first-game jitters,” LeBron said when asked what needs to go better for Westbrook moving forward. “There probably was a lot going through his mind, just being a kid from L.A., watching the Lakers growing up and then however many years down the road, putting on a Laker uniform and stepping into Staples Center. I can only imagine how many friends and family and contacts he had wanting to come see his first game as a Laker.
“Those things, those demands, those asks and those people wind down as the season moves along. I’m not worried about Russ at all. He just needs to be himself.”
Anthony Davis’ Lakers debut was much more recent than LeBron’s, with Davis likening his 2019-20 opener to Westbrook’s while bringing up those same “first-game jitters” LeBron spoke of.
“There’s always the narrative that when you come here the lights are brighter and all that, and Russ, his narrative has been that he’s fallen off,” Davis continued while comparing his debut to Westbrook’s. “Mine was ‘can he do it under the bigger lights?’ And you come here and you see everybody courtside, and the lights are brighter than in most arenas, you look at the rafters, there’s just a lot that goes on.”
Davis also brought up the same “coming home” nerves and issues James referenced (and is more than familiar with from his two stints in Cleveland). Davis may not have ever joined his own hometown team, the Chicago Bulls, but he understands that there is a lot Westbrook was probably “processing” on Tuesday night.
He also knows all about the pressure he put on himself during his own Lakers debut, and remembers how upset he was by his own opening night loss to the Clippers two years ago. Davis recalled walking into the locker room fuming, and having James tell him “you’re fine” between cracking jokes with friends on the phone. It made him realize it was just one game of 82, and he says that’s something he tried to impart to Westbrook.
“He didn’t play as well as he thinks he could have,” Davis said. “I was trying to tell him the same thing, like ‘I was the same way you were.’ And we said some things to him, he smiled and everything like that, so I expect him to be better in the game Friday, but we’re with him. It’s his job to continue to be himself and we’re going to help him through all these little avenues and challenges along the way, and we expect the same from him. He’ll be fine, we’ll be fine.”
Davis is being a little generous when comparing Westbrook’s atrocious debut with his. Although Davis was inefficient from the field — only making eight of his 21 field-goal attempts — he did have 14 free-throw attempts to end his first game as a Laker with 25 points while providing two blocks and a steal on defense.
The two superstars seemed to talk mostly about Westbrook’s negative mindset afterwards, and how he just needs to turn the page, but the two aren’t even close to concerned about his fit with the team after just one regular season game.
“He’s got to be himself,” Davis said about Westbrook. “I think a lot of times and even in the preseason, he wants to get everyone involved, and rightfully so, it’s what he do. I mean, he’s averaged a triple-double, so he wants to get those assists and get guys going, which opens up the lane for him. But a lot of times when he gets there, they fan back out and he has a wide-open layup or a dunk, but he’s looking to pass.
“We just want him to be himself. Be aggressive. Be Russell Westbrook. Be the reason why we traded for you, and once he does that, everyone else will figure out how to play around him,” Davis continued. “It’s a learning experience, and like I said, it’s Game 1 for our first game, and we’ll continue to build around him and make him more comfortable to where he can have those games that we’re used to.”
With two full seasons in the purple-and-gold finished, Davis seems to have an increased state of wisdom about the journey, helping him understand what was going wrong with his game in those early days of the 2019-20 season as he adjusted to playing with James. He’s happy to pay it forward and help Westbrook get through a similar adjustment process.
“I kind of had that my first year with LB,” Davis said. “Like I didn’t want to shoot the ball too much, but if you’ve got good looks, you’ve got to take them shots and be aggressive. We’d rather (him) be aggressive than be a little tentative and not aggressive.
“It’s a learning experience for sure, playing with me and LB, but the good thing is that we all play different positions,” Davis continued. “The ball is going to be in his hands. We’ve got to get him comfortable in more pick and rolls, get him some more post-ups when smaller guys are guarding him and let him get downhill where he’s best.”
It’s nice of LeBron and Davis to say they want Russ to be Russ, but the actual execution of that within the team’s systems will be hard. We’re talking about the king of triple-doubles, a player who has shown he can do nearly everything on the offensive end (except shoot the three). While occupying the court at the same time as LeBron and Davis, it’s going to be hard for Russ to be the version of himself that he has been in the past half-decade of his career. That is unless Frank Vogel and the team are fine with taking the ball out of the hands of LeBron and Davis’ hands, something you’d imagine they don’t want to do often given how well the two came out of the gates last night.
So this will be tricky for the Lakers. While everyone clearly wants Westbrook to make the necessary sacrifices in his game to fit in, LeBron and Davis may have to make sacrifices themselves so that this team is reaching its ceiling come playoff time. It’ll be a balancing act, and only time will tell whether or not the three superstars can walk the tightrope without falling to the floor at the end of the season.