Darvin Ham and the Lakers appear to have made the difficult choice of moving Russell Westbrook to the bench, at least for the time being. Whether it sticks or not, a former Lakers sixth man believes this is a good opportunity for Westbrook.
On “The Crossover NBA Show” with Howard Beck of Sports Illustrated, Robert Horry commended the idea. The seven-time champion who started all of 38 games (regular season + playoffs) during the Lakers’ three-peat is familiar with coming off the bench for contending teams and believes it can be a successful set-up for Westbrook:
“You can look at Russ as Manu Ginobili. Think about the energy. Everybody knows Manu should’ve been starting. He should’ve been starting, but he provided a certain energy off that bench that a team needed, and I hope Russ looks at this situation — if it does happen — as not a demotion, as something that can help the team be better. Think about it, even if I came off the bench, I could give two craps about starting, I just wanted to be in in the fourth quarter because that’s when it mattered. So if this does happen, it’d be good for the team.”
The partnership between LeBron James and Westbrook clearly hasn’t been symbiotic, as both players have ball-dominant tendencies that minimize the other. Staggering the two to give them their own units makes logical sense, and Westbrook could thrive as a bench player with his pace. The Lakers have historically struggled with James off the court, but they’ve never had a backup point guard as talented as Westbrook. Unlike last season, the team actually surrounded Westbrook with young, athletic guards who can complement him, not unlike what Oklahoma City did during his MVP season.
The trick here is that Westbrook has to buy into a new role. The 13-year veteran hasn’t come off the bench since his rookie season, and it’s hard for stars to willingly sublimate themselves, even if it’s for the betterment of the team. Horry came off the bench for the Lakers when Phil Jackson came aboard, but Horry was never even an All-Star, let an all-NBA or MVP-level player. The list of stars who have reinvented themselves as role players doesn’t include players with Westbrook’s resume.
But Horry thinks that Westbrook can chart a new path forward with the right mindset, provide he resists the example of previous stars who couldn’t handle their new realities:
“I’m hoping Russ doesn’t be an Iverson if it comes to that, because he’s still a good player, he’s still on the cusp of still being a great player. He’s still able to do a lot of things that 90 percent of the league can't do. And he can’t have that mindset as, ‘Oh, I’m a starter’. You’re a basketball player, period.”
Allen Iverson never had a second act as a role player because he didn’t adapt after he passed his prime. Players in his draft class lasted multiple seasons longer in the league, but Iverson was done at 34. Westbrook turns 34 next month, and in his lone season with the Lakers, proven as stubborn as Iverson when it came to tweaking his game to fit into new surroundings.
But it’s a new season, and it’s time to judge Westbrook by his current actions. Agreeing to come off the bench, even if it is just preseason, shows a willingness to compromise that wasn’t there last year. The way things went in 2021-22 wasn’t good for Westbrook, and it wasn’t good for the Lakers. This is Westbrook’s chance to change that by putting the Lakers first, and proving that he’s every bit the team player he says he is by making the hard sacrifice.