Look, playing for the Lakers comes with multiple levels of added scrutiny that don’t exist with other franchises. So say, in a completely hypothetical example, when a player with known chemistry issues who has been shopped the entirety of the offseason on the trade market has a couple of moments caught on camera that raise an eyebrow, it’s not simply brushed away.
Being a Laker includes a constant state of criticism that almost certainly isn’t necessarily fair, even if it’s expected. The tradeoff, or at least as it used to be, was competitive basketball and increased chances at titles, though the team is just two years removed from its most recent NBA championship.
All of which brings us to Wednesday’s game between the Lakers and Timberwolves and Russell Westbrook. Entering the season, Westbrook was under the largest of microscopes after a disastrous 2021-22 season. The Lakers did him no favors by spending the entire summer trying to trade him before agreeing to no deal and having him come back into the fold.
Mix in a little bit of Patrick Beverley — a longtime foe of Westbrook’s — and you have a situation designed to implode. If it felt like a matter of when, not if, then Wednesday might serve as the point of no return.
First, Westbrook had an awkward moment following team introductions. After taking part in the introductions themselves, Russ walks away from the team to the bench, the only Laker not to be in the huddle.
A Russell Westbrook clip where he's seen away from another huddle is making the rounds.— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) October 13, 2022
If you peep the entire video, though, Russ was with his Lakers teammates at the start.
( _michaelmorales10/IG) pic.twitter.com/y72eF9dDni
Later on, during the early moments of the second half, Westbrook seemingly opted out of taking part in another on-court huddle after committing a foul on Jaden McDaniels.
It's the preseason and I don't read much into anything. But if I were to read too much into something.......... pic.twitter.com/Hgcb91PNu5— Jacob Rude (@JacobRude) October 13, 2022
This isn’t an article to debate what Westbrook was specifically doing and whether it was right, wrong, normal or abnormal. Maybe Westbrook was talking to the official in the second clip (he kind of was) or maybe he normally isn’t an active participant in pre-game huddles (he’s usually at least NEAR the huddle though).
Westbrook, though, doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt. Not with this franchise and not after last season. He exploded last season on then-head coach Frank Vogel after being benched in the fourth quarter, then spent the rest of the year in a cold war with him as Russ refused to adapt and Vogel worried that removal from the starting lineup would only worsen the situation.
Russ then went scorched Earth in his exit interview after the Lakers missed even the play-in game. He blamed the coach, the front office and his teammates, opting out of much personal responsibility for the Lakers’ implosion last season.
He spent the offseason doing and saying the right things, but it often felt performative, especially after saying and doing the right things before his first season back in his hometown Los Angeles.
So, when video captures him maybe not being the best teammate for a second year in a row, it can feel like a sense of “here we go again” for Lakers fans. Much of Wednesday’s game felt odd, though not entirely Westbrook’s fault. He did only shoot three times in 25 minutes and looked a lot like his often-disengaged self from last year.
The team as a whole, though, shot 4-of-25 from the 3-point line through the first three quarters before the reserves salvaged that percentage in the fourth period. The vibes were just...off.
“The vibe was kind of off because we weren’t scoring,” Darvin Ham said after the game. “There’s going to be nights like that.... In all actuality, you’re going to have more nights where you gotta win it with your defense and the little plays and getting 50/50 balls and making sure you hold teams to one possession over and over and over and over again. It was a good lesson to be learned.”
The Lakers can’t afford to have bad vibes this season. You could hardly blame Russ for not feeling particularly wanted by the franchise, but there is a certain level of professionalism expected. Perhaps last night was a one-off occurrence. Perhaps both viral clips were taken out of context.
At best, though, things feel odd about the Lakers, and Russ too often feels at the center of that. It very well might soon force the Lakers into an uncomfortable decision to avoid things growing more awkward and potentially damaging to the season.