Last year, as the Lakers season fell apart, the coaching staff and front office discussed benching Russell Westbrook to jumpstart the lineup. It never happened though, reportedly with head coach Frank Vogel as the lone holdout.
Now, there is one clear instance where Darvin Ham differs from his predecessor, as the Lakers will bring Westbrook off the bench in the team’s preseason finale. Per reporting from Dave McMenamin and Adrian Wojnarowski, the Lakers will use this new lineup as a test run for what Westbrook leading the second unit could look like during the regular season.
ESPN reporting with @Mcten: The Lakers are planning to bring Russell Westbrook off the bench in the final preseason game vs. Kings tonight (ESPN, 10 ET). Darvin Ham and Westbrook have been exploring possibility of Westbrook quarterbacking second unit and they'll try it tonight.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) October 14, 2022
Ham had promised a sixth different starting lineup to close out the preseason, but the theory was that would involve a change in the two players surrounding the Lakers’ nominal big three, not removing one of those big three altogether.
Setting contracts and egos aside, the basketball fit of not starting Westbrook makes a lot of sense considering how he gets marginalized playing next to LeBron James. As ESPN notes, the idea is to “give Westbrook a chance to play both faster and freer with the ball in his hands leading the second unit, something that perhaps mirrors the autonomy that Rajon Rondo had during the 2019-20 season.” Recall that Rondo was often the first sub in those games midway through the first quarter, coming in for James, so that the two primary ball handlers could be staggered as much as possible.
The Lakers have built their rosters to take the ball out of James’ hands more and more since the 2020 championship season, despite James functioning as the point guard for the entire year on the way to the title run. Perhaps this is an acknowledgment that James needs to run the show again.
There are plenty of complementary off-ball guards on the roster who can function in that Avery Bradley/Kentavious Caldwell-Pope role of defending point guards while playing the two on the other end. Patrick Beverley, Kendrick Nunn, and Austin Reaves immediately come to mind; and now, all three of them could theoretically start next to James and Anthony Davis with Westbrook vacating his spot in the starting lineup.
The Lakers might also be able to get a true center into the starting five by removing one of their non-shooters, fulfilling Davis’ wish of playing power forward more often. With Thomas Bryant and Damian Jones both in the midst of somewhat disappointing preseasons, however, perhaps Wenyen Gabriel could make his case for a starting role as an energy big next to the superstar duo. The Lakers could use some extra size in that first group.
Whatever configuration the Lakers end up choosing, the primary takeaway here is that Ham feels emboldened to make such a dramatic change at this juncture in the season. A year ago, Vogel was reportedly too worried about damaging his already-tenuous relationship with Westbrook to make a move that could have benefited the team. Now, Ham not only has the organizational backing to not start his highest-paid player, but he also feels comfortable enough in his relationship with Westbrook to change his point guard’s role after 13 seasons in the league, nine of them as an All-Star.
The Lakers roster is still imbalanced and could use some fine-tuning, there’s no denying that. But there is much more hope moving forward if the coaching staff can actually use do its job and manage the roster as a basketball team, rather than adhering to other agendas.