When the Lakers benched Russell Westbrook last week, he was transparent about how disappointed he was, but he also responded to being held accountable in pretty much the exact way the team probably hoped he would.
In the two games since that loss to the Pacers, Westbrook has averaged 21 points, 10 rebounds and 8 assists on 53.1% shooting. That is admittedly an extremely small sample size, but is also better than his season averages in every single category.
No one is probably happier about this development than the Lakers themselves, and not just because Westbrook playing well is obviously good for the team. They’re also probably pretty encouraged because, as Ramona Shelburne of ESPN detailed in the huge story she dropped on Tuesday morning about the team’s Lakers’ year from hell, Westbrook has not always been so receptive to criticism this season (emphasis mine):
For weeks, the staff had considered benching Westbrook at a moment like this. Team sources said there was always concern as to how he’d react to such a move. Would he get defensive, as he often had when he felt like he was being singled out in film sessions? Would it erode the confidence that is so important to his game?
When Vogel finally did it, it was as understandable as it was stunning.
“Frank ripped the Band-Aid off,” one team source said.
It’s obviously not ideal that Westbrook apparently has been less than receptive to criticism of some of the warts in his game, but from a player who has always prided himself on doing things his way, it’s also not particularly surprising. But the Lakers under Vogel have always been a team that gets most of their work and improvement done through honest and unfiltered feedback in the film room. It was a huge part of their adjustments game-to-game on their title run. As the saying goes, that’s what the film room does. The Lakers have always let it tell the truth during those sessions.
Still, it’s important to note that this is just some anonymous people’s read on how Westbrook has responded to such critiques. He’s a competitor. Even if he doesn’t like the feedback in the moment, it’s possible that eventually it will start to click.
But what has that feedback been over? Well, we don’t know for certain, but we can hazard a guess based on both watching the games and some other recent reporting from The Four Letter: Defense.
Dave McMenamin of ESPN reported last week that it was Westbrook’s inattention to defense that led Vogel to make an example of him against Indiana:
The final straw, pushing the staff to honor their instinct to bench him, was when Caris LeVert blew by Westbrook on defense for a layup with 7 minutes, 13 seconds remaining.
The coaching staff had repeatedly emphasized the scouting report to take away LeVert’s right hand, and Westbrook, guarding LeVert at the top of the key one-on-one, didn’t angle himself properly to thwart the drive and allowed LeVert easy access to the paint en route to the hoop.
In the aftermath of all this, as Westbrook has tried to get his game moving in the right direction and respond to the unexpected demotion — and possible wake-up call — against the Pacers last week, Vogel, general manager Rob Pelinka, and teammates LeBron James and Anthony Davis have all tried to help Westbrook, according to Shelburne:
After Westbrook was benched, Pelinka knew the situation was at a critical juncture, so he met with Westbrook for nearly two hours when the team landed in Orlando on Thursday, according to team sources.
Vogel too has met individually with Westbrook several times throughout the season to try to find ways to help him feel more comfortable and succeed on the court, according to team sources.
James and Davis speak to him regularly, as well.
“Constantly,” one team source said. “They’re talking to Russ constantly.”
The good news is that Westbrook and Vogel both seem to be moving on from the moment, and Westbrook seems to be handling things the right way on the court as he moves forward. All the Lakers can hope for is that all these central figures to the team staying in his ear can continue to help him, and maybe eventually even push him towards making some of the changes the team has been asking him to make on film.
And if he doesn't? Well... then they’ve shown how they’re going to respond to that, too. No matter how defensive he gets.