Russell Westbrook’s tenure with the Los Angeles Lakers has never been a smooth one, but Wednesday offered up a potential breaking point that could permanently fracture the relationship.
Trailing 101-94 late in the fourth quarter against the Indiana Pacers, head coach Frank Vogel opted to bench Westbrook in favor of Malik Monk and Austin Reaves, sitting his former star point guard for the final 3:52 of the team’s eventual loss.
The decision would have been a talking point regardless of the outcome of the game, but the Lakers losing only stoked the flames, and Vogel did little to extinguish them. Typically diplomatic with his responses, Vogel offered up a brief moment of brutal honesty when discussing his decision.
Frank Vogel on benching Russell Westbrook at the end of the game:— Jacob Rude (@JacobRude) January 20, 2022
"Playing the guys I thought were going to win the game
Late, late Wednesday night, Dave McMenamin of ESPN offered more insight into Vogel’s decision to bench Westbrook, revealing that it was a move made with the backing of the front office:
Long before Russell Westbrook was benched down the stretch of Wednesday’s 111-104 loss to the Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Lakers coach Frank Vogel was given assurances that the organization would support him in taking a hard line while coaching the star, sources told ESPN.
Over the past week and a half, Lakers management has told the coaching staff to coach Westbrook as the coaches see fit, even if that means pulling him from a game, as Vogel did for the final 3 minutes, 52 seconds of the fourth quarter against Indiana, sources told ESPN.
One source close to the situation described the message from management to the staff as, “You got to do what you got to do.”
The decision, obviously, comes against the backdrop of Vogel coaching for his job as the Lakers continue to flounder around .500 and the spotlight continues to grow brighter on the head coach. With wins an absolute necessity now more than ever, the Lakers finally made a move that, again according to McMenamin, they had long considered making:
The coaching staff had been debating whether to pull Westbrook from late-game situations for weeks, sources said, but always refrained because of worries about the lasting impact on Westbrook’s psyche.
As was feared, Westbrook was not happy with the call, as McMenamin reports that he left the arena without speaking to his teammates.
No one has played more “clutch” minutes for the Lakers this season — defined as games with a margin of five points or fewer in the final five minutes — than Westbrook’s 113. But in those minutes this season, Westbrook has nearly as many turnovers (14) as he does assists (20) and has more fouls (21) than both as he’s struggled to play second or third fiddle to LeBron James and/or Anthony Davis so far.
On Wednesday, Vogel opted to avoid the situation altogether in favor of his younger guards. as Westbrook finished the evening hitting four of his six 3-pointers but connecting on just one of his 11 shots inside the arc while notching just three assists and two rebounds.
It’s a move that you can’t go back on, either as a head coach or a front office, and will mark another crossroads for the Lakers. Westbrook’s play has been trending in the wrong direction for weeks now, as he and the Lakers struggled to find ways to make things work this season in the absence of Davis.
All the newfound context also makes Westbrook’s quotes given to Sam Amick of The Athletic last week perhaps more illuminating, now knowing in retrospect that the entire organization was debating whether to bench the star late-game or not as he gave them:
“We’re all trying to figure it out as a team, as a unit, to be able to say, ‘Ok, how can we figure this out?’” Westbrook said in our chat. “And I know I’m the one who has got to make the biggest sacrifice — and I understand that — so I’ve got to be able to figure out a way to be able to make the best out of it and make the best for this team and that’s it.”
Watch Westbrook closely on any given night, and you might see the frustration get the best of him. He’ll sit by himself on the bench while Lakers coach Frank Vogel gathers the team during a timeout, or camp out in the corner when the play doesn’t call for the ball to be in his hands. When asked recently about the way he has been used, he described it as “all over the place” and said “my job changes every night.” Hence the discomfort.
“Trying to figure it out,” he told me. “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.”
Wednesday might not be the point of no return for the Lakers and Westbrook, but nothing about his time in Los Angeles has gone according to the plan either he or the franchise envisioned in the offseason. Even if Vogel’s tenure with the team lasts only a handful more games, the front office’s signing off on benching Westbrook will have lasting effects on the relationship, even after Vogel’s seemingly inevitable departure.
The team has openly shopped Westbrook to no avail, something he’s well aware of. They have tried all sorts of options on the court to similar levels of success (or lack thereof). After Wednesday’s game, the Lakers are now 2.9 points per 100 possessions better with Westbrook on the bench this season than they are when he’s on the floor.
So Vogel’s decision on Wednesday was not out of the blue, nor is it a choice that necessarily spells the end of Westbrook’s time in L.A. But that Vogel and the team’s front office don’t see him as integral to winning basketball games right now is a far cry from how they viewed him in trading for him in the offseason, and encapsulates just how bad things have gotten for the Lakers this season already.