Russell Westbrook is set to play for his fourth team in four seasons after being traded for the third straight summer, this time to the Los Angeles Lakers. And after a run of co-stars he deemed imperfect, the two franchise pillars he’s joining are certainly not a seamless fit for Westbrook’s skill set as he enters his 14th season in the league. There will be — and have been — basketball questions asked about this group.
And not one bit of it matters to the Los Angeles native.
There have been a slew of criticisms lobbed at the Lakers’ acquisition of Westbrook, the third star they’ve sought to pair next to Anthony Davis and LeBron James. But while his fit isn’t flawless, his talent is unquestionable, as he averaged a triple-double for the fourth time in five seasons last year in Washington.
Westbrook has collected a slew of individual awards to recognize his bonkers statistical production throughout his career, punctuated by an MVP award in 2016-17. Add it all up and Westbrook brings with him to Los Angeles a comfort with himself and his career to date both on the court and away from it.
But given that he’s never won a title and has been shipped out for three straight summer, does he still feel like he has something left to prove?
“No, I don’t,” Westbrook said when asked at his introductory press conference last week. “I’ve been blessed and thankful to be able to be in this league so long and lucky to be able to play and be healthy. When I got drafted in the NBA, that was me proving people wrong. When I was able to... go to UCLA from the inner city, that was me proving people wrong. Just making it out of the hood was proving people wrong.
“I don’t need to do that anymore. I’ve been able to bless the people around me, my family, been able to impact people all across the world with this platform that’s been given to me. And I’ll continue to do that. And obviously, we want to win a championship. But the ultimate goal is to make sure we use what we have to impact those around you.”
That type of mindset of not letting the outside noise dictate things — fitting for a man whose motto is “Why Not?” — is what Westbrook will carry into the season in every aspect. Despite the critiques of their offseason and Westbrook’s fit, the Lakers will enter the year as one of the favorites to win the title spearheaded by their new Big Three.
The Brooklyn Nets will line up right alongside the Lakers as contenders, while the Phoenix Suns are the reigning Western Conference championships and were the team that ousted the Lakers in the first round. The Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets and Golden State Warriors all figure to be in the mix as well.
None of that will matter to Westbrook, as he remains focused internally on the Lakers.
“My mindset is, I never really worry about no other team, to be honest,” Westbrook said. “I only can control what’s in our locker room and how we are able to compete and go out and put our team up against anybody. And that’s just kind of how my mindset is. And that’s where I stand with that.”
While the trades have been plentiful in previous offseasons, each of the last two transactions have been viewed more as the swapping of bad salaries. At the time of the Thunder-Rockets trade that sent Westbrook to Houston, Chris Paul’s trade value was so low that the Rockets attached four draft picks to unload him.
The following offseason, Westbrook was dealt for John Wall, who had a draft pick attached to him in the deal as well. While each instance featured multiple draft picks going out in return for Westbrook, it was still attached to large contracts with a perceived negative value.
This time around, the Lakers sought out Westbrook as the missing piece as they chase another title. That reassurance also has helped Westbrook get in the right mindset as he looks to bring a ring to the team he grew up cheering for.
“The biggest thing for me is, being in this league, when you know teams that actually want you... To me, that means more than anything else,” Westbrook said. “And at that point, it’s my job to make sure that I come in and do what I’m supposed to do. And that’s to come in and compete and make sure that we have a chance to compete for a championship.”