Russell Westbrook didn’t have to accept his role when Darvin Ham decided to bring him off the bench. He could have made things so uncomfortable the Lakers would’ve had no other choice but to send him home. As he’s flourished as the sixth man, not only has he potentially extended his career, but he gave the Lakers something they probably didn’t dare to hope for: Options.
Sure, Westbrook accepting this role has probably also greatly helped his prospects, but had he decided to go out like Allen Iverson, he still would’ve been a first ballot hall of famer. He’d still have hundreds of millions of dollars in the bank. He’d still have been considered one of the greatest at his position in the history of the game.
Yeah, the ending of the story would’ve been a downer, but it absolutely would have been worth reading. He could’ve retired with his head held high.
Instead, though, he checked his ego, and has played quite easily the best basketball of his time as a Laker. When I asked Lonnie Walker IV about it, he sure made it sound like Westbrook playing this well in this role really turned things around this season:
Now, it’s still fair to wonder whether it makes the most sense from a roster building perspective to use $47 million in cap space on a sixth man who you’re pretty nervous about playing in clutch minutes, but honestly, that’s for a different piece. I think it’s pretty cool that a player of his caché has actually chosen to do what is best for the team rather than offer up those empty words.
What Westbrook as done as a sixth man is allowing the Lakers to be patient. When they talk to teams to decide the next steps in his career, they can viably tell them they have options to improve that don’t involve getting whatever they can for an aging superstar who didn’t seem particularly interesting in playing winning basketball last year.
The best way to have leverage in negotiations is to have options, and that’s exactly what Westbrook has given Rob Pelinka and the Lakers front office as they try to give LeBron James and Anthony Davis a legitimate chance at winning a title this year.
(Quick side note: I still very much have questions about whether Pelinka actually wants to do that and the moving goal posts he’s using as an excuse not to make a move keep making my point for me.)
Whether or not the Lakers trade Westbrook is a different matter, though. He deserves a ton of credit for accepting where his career is right now and committing to winning basketball. If Walker is right, and his example is what guys are pointing to for what sacrifice looks like, then you could very well make the case he’s saved this Lakers season.
Given where things were last year and where they appeared to be heading before this one, that’s a remarkable turnaround for the hometown kid who was getting booed out of his own arena.
This week on “I Loathe Basketball,” I spoke to Harrison Faigen about the smoke swirling and Kyle Kuzma and a potential return to the Lakers, Westbrook’s incredible course correction, a stat we found a hilarious and Patrick Beverley hating Santa Clause.
And for a short-form recap pod, check out Lakers Lowdown, in which Anthony Irwin recaps the previous day’s news and gets you ready for the day ahead in LakerLand, every weekday morning on the Silver Screen & Roll Podcast feed.