Over the last 24-48 hours, the all-consuming story around the Los Angeles Lakers has shifted, bouncing from the apparently rapidly disintegrating job security of Frank Vogel to Vogel receiving clearance from his bosses to bench Russell Westbrook down the stretch.
Westbrook was clearly upset by that choice, as the nine-time All-Star not only skipped his league-mandated postgame media availability, but Dave McMenamin of ESPN reported that Westbrook did not speak with his teammates before leaving The Crypt on Wednesday. Kyle Goon of The O.C. Register added even more details, reporting that “the 33-year-old point guard nearly left the floor after he was subbed out for Malik Monk, but teammate DeAndre Jordan shepherded him back,” and then Westbrook “watched the next few minutes unfold, apparently jawing from the bench with his jersey untucked, although exactly what was said (and at whom) is still unclear.”
So, yeah. As one would expect, Westbrook was not thrilled by this development.
Still, with around a day to collect his thoughts, Westbrook called up Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN to get his side of the story out there, and he said that while he was “surprised” that Vogel benched him, he’s just “disappointed” the Lakers didn’t win afterwards:
Asked whether he was surprised that coach Frank Vogel substituted him out of the final four minutes of L.A.’s fourth loss in five games, Westbrook told ESPN: “Surprised, yes. I was disappointed I didn’t go back in, but I’m more disappointed that we lost the damn game.
“I want to be able to be on the floor to help my teammates and be able to help our team win in games like that — but that was a decision that was made.”
That’s pretty diplomatic stuff from Russ, who also told Woj that he’s still “committed” to helping this team win a title, and believes they still can:
“We obviously haven’t been fully healthy, but I’m committed to making this thing work. The communication is there with everybody in the organization to make this thing work, to make this team we all want it to be in the future.
“I have accepted everything that has been asked of me and tried to do it to the best of my ability. I’m not the ultimate decision-maker of if it’s working — or if it’s not working. I’m OK with sacrificing some of the things that I’ve been able to do in this game to win, because that’s the most important part of this game. I’ve done everything they’ve asked me to do to this point.”
Now, is Westbrook actually this zen about all this after his fairly explosive initial reaction? It’s fair to hazard a guess that the answer to that is “maybe not.” But to be as fair as possible, Westbrook at least deserves credit for saying the right things. He had a real opportunity here to make the situation worse, to start an open and public feud with Vogel right during the Lakers’ most important road trip of the season, and he declined. Low bar and all that, but he still deserves credit nonetheless.
The other thing is, as (justifiably!) prideful as Westbrook is, he’s not blind. He knows better than anyone how horribly he’s been playing, deadpanning just last week that he “can’t make a f------ shot” right now. He’s well aware that this is one of the coldest stretches of his career.
Now, does he think that means he can’t help the Lakers win, or deserves to be benched? Clearly not. But he’s also quite obviously self aware enough to avoid making things worse by openly feuding with his coach and organization, and to understand that while he may not want to be benched, he hasn’t been playing well enough to make that a completely laughable idea. Who knows if all that can eventually lead him down a path to turning things around, but for now at least, he’s declining an opportunity to stoke the flames further. For a Lakers team with enough negative headlines without Westbrook’s help right now, that’s at least one small blessing.