Almost nothing has gone right for Russell Westbrook since he returned to his hometown Lakers last summer. Without relitigating the debacle that was the Lakers’ 2021-22 season, I think it’s fair to say that Westbrook’s inaugural campaign in the purple and gold was a disappointment.
After an offseason spent publicly praising and (not so) privately shopping Westbrook, the Lakers entered the preseason with the iconoclastic point guard still on their roster. For his part, new head coach Darvin Ham has remained steadfast in his praise of the former MVP, celebrating him for both his on-court talent and general disposition.
At his introductory presser, Ham said about Westbrook, “Russell is one of the best players our league has ever seen. He still has a ton left in that tank.” Even so, Ham made sure to establish that Westbrook’s return, following him picking up his $47.5 million option, would be on the Lakers’ terms, and not necessarily Westbrook’s.
And to his credit, Westbrook has by all accounts been on some of the best behavior he’s ever displayed in his career. He’s even allegedly become former foe Patrick Beverley’s BFF and committed wholeheartedly to doing whatever the team asks of him.
But in 66 minutes across four preseason games, Westbrook has not proven to be any more potent on either end of the floor than he was across his last lackluster year. On a per-75 possession basis — an equalizer of scoring efficiency across different eras and individual contexts — Westbrook averaged 10.7 points this preseason on 35% shooting from the field, 25% from deep, and 50% from the line. For a couple points of comparison, LeBron has averaged 27.2 points per 75 this preseason while AD is at 30.5 — both on excellent efficiency. Although no reasonable person expects Westbrook to match the Lakers’ two true stars in 2022, Westbrook is actually 11th on the Lakers in per-possession scoring among players who appeared in at least three preseason games.
His 1.2 assist-to-turnover ratio undercut his decent playmaking volume as he turned it over almost exactly as often as he recorded assists. The team’s near complete inability to bang an outside jumper certainly didn’t help him tally dimes (28.6% as a team, fifth-worst in the league), but so far, at best, Westbrook has looked as bad as he did last season, at least on offense.
Plays like these weren't frequent in preseason, but when they did happen they were absolutely crippling to the offense.— Cranjis McBasketball (@Tim_NBA) October 15, 2022
Anderson completely gaps Russ here to stop the ball screen. pic.twitter.com/7P6SyXDCKP
While the effort on the other end has improved from last season’s nadir, the results haven’t exactly followed. Westbrook is often a step or two slow in reading the opposing offense as their set unfolds, and lacks the superlative athleticism to make up for all of his deficiencies in the little things with the tidal wave of larger-than-life, showstopping plays he used to have in his arsenal.
And that’s all before factoring in the weirdness of some of his on court behavior.
Russell Westbrook with the preseason energy pic.twitter.com/xwXQLCGZ7k— NBA Memes (@NBAMemes) October 13, 2022
Not only did Westbrook engage in the NBA’s first ever game of hot potato, but a couple of seemingly awkward interactions with teammates went viral as purported examples of his lack of buy-in to the team concept.
First, while his team huddled in advance of the opening tip, Westbrook was by himself warming up in the corner. However, as Westbrook himself noted, that is simply the routine he’s done before every game for years, and only came after he left the huddle. Second, Westbrook appeared to show some reticence to join an in-game huddle called by Patrick Beverley after a defensive breakdown, but it turned out that Westbrook was actually talking to the coaches on the bench about his blown rotation and not merely avoiding his teammates.
Russell Westbrook on all the huddle speculation: pic.twitter.com/kx4cd50pPB— Melissa Rohlin (@melissarohlin) October 13, 2022
Although both of the alleged affronts to camaraderie were factually bogus, the first is still ultimately an example of a player who prefers to begin games by basking in the glow of his stardom, and the latter is yet another example of just how dim the light coming from that star really is.
And yet, Ham’s adulatory tone has only barely budged despite Westbrook’s continued residence in the realm of mere mediocrity. In the Lakers’ final taste of preseason action, Ham decided to bring Westbrook off the bench for the first time in more than a decade, but called the move not a “demotion,” but simply a “realignment.”
After only five minutes of game action, Westbrook came up lame with a hamstring sprain, truncating the team’s look at Westbrook in a nominally new role. But even in that short time, Westbrook’s final line looked a lot like a smaller version of his other recent performances: a pair of assists and turnovers which bracketed a pair of missed shots. Even though a highlight reel might suggest a positive impact on the Lakers’ game against the Kings, Westbrook was mostly ineffective during his short time on the floor, marked by his minus-4 net rating in the lopsided loss.
And now his pulled hammy has him listed as day-to-day, which could keep him out of the Lakers’ season opener at the Dubs on Tuesday night. Meanwhile, the Lakers are expected to begin re-engaging teams on potential trades as soon as they start to sort out how their roster looks in its current state. From what we’ve seen of him so far, it doesn’t appear as if Westbrook can be a central part of a contending team’s rotation.
As the Lakers continue to project extreme ambivalence about the former MVP’s continued tenure in L.A., the team has opened a pair of doors, one for Westbrook to reemerge as a winning player, and the other to package him with at least a first-round pick (or two) and finally divorce themselves from employing the mostly mercurial guard.
With time running out on the first option, the latter seems increasingly imminent. If they do deal him, Westbrook might find himself without a role on his new club, either coming off the bench for limited minutes or sent home altogether to wait out the final year of his current contract.
After that, who knows — Russell Westbrook might have another couple hundred games left in his NBA career, but I wouldn’t be shocked if it’s a couple dozen or less.
Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley — no, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can hear him on the Lakers Multiverse Podcast and find him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.