If Frank Vogel and Russell Westbrook have been walking a tightrope teetering towards disaster in recent weeks, Tuesday is when when the tension finally snapped. After a second-straight fourth-quarter benching, this one in a blowout loss to the Milwaukee Bucks at home, Westbrook took aim at the Lakers coaching staff.
Beginning with comments when asked about the team’s constantly changing starting lineups, Westbrook sounded off on Vogel and the other coaches for a number of things.
“You never know when you’re coming in, you never know when you’re coming out,” Westbrook said. “You never know when you’re playing, you never know... a bunch of things. And I’m speaking for me personally, so it’s a difficult process to be able to figure out and create some rhythm and some consistency where we can actually see what we’re able to do as a team, but those decisions are made by him and his coaching staff, and you’ve got to live with it and move on.”
Westbrook was offered the opportunity of potentially clarifying his statement when asked if Vogel had detailed to him when he would and wouldn’t play, but he only dug his feet in further.
“No. He hasn’t,” Westbrook said. “But I don’t need him to be clear. He makes whatever decision he makes, and that’s up to him. My job as a professional is to come to work, be in a positive mindset, put my head down and do my work to the best of my ability and be there to encourage my teammates. That’s it.”
The viral moment of the night for Westbrook came late in the fourth quarter. After entering the final frame trailing by 24 points, the Lakers had a spirited rally to cut the lead down to 10 after a dunk from Malik Monk. The Bucks responded, though, and closed out the final minutes of the game for the victory.
Westbrook watched it all from the sideline, not logging a single minute in the period. Instead, the lasting image was of Westbrook consoling LeBron James and Anthony Davis in the final seconds on national television.
Russ trying to cheer up LeBron and AD after a tough loss to the Bucks ❤️ pic.twitter.com/xhD8MXqfKM— ESPN (@espn) February 9, 2022
Asked about the moment postgame and what he said to his teammates, Westbrook again used it as a chance to fire a shot at the coaching staff.
“Just giving them some encouragement, just telling them ‘keep playing. Tough night,’” Westbrook said. “And I told them I wished I could help them. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in the game to be able to help them, and that’s why I came here: To help them out. So unfortunately I haven’t been able to do that for them, but that’s not my call.
“I can be there as a leader and as a voice and whatever is needed for the team and that’s what I’ll do until, you know, my number or whatever is called during that time.”
As the season has progressed, Vogel’s willingness to bench Westbrook in critical moments has only increased. With the Lakers' situation growing more and more dire, Vogel has turned to the players best able to lead the team to a victory and play with energy and verve on defense and off the ball, and that has not included Westbrook on multiple occasions.
That has certainly not sat well with Westbrook, who said he has earned the right to close games based on his production over the course of his career.
“Who? Me? (laughs) I don’t have that answer for you brother,” Westbrook said when asked if the staff had given him any concrete goals to hit in order to earn the right to close games. “I wish I did. I shouldn’t have to hit any benchmark, to be honest. I’ve put a lot of work in. I’ve got a lot of respect in this game. I don’t have to hit a benchmark. Or I shouldn’t have to. I earned the right to be in closing lineups. I mean, numbers will tell you. I don’t have to explain that.
“But once again, that ain’t my decision. That’s the decision that he and the staff think is best for the game, and unfortunately I’ve kind of just got to go with it and figure it out the best way I can, and be there for my teammates as best as I can, and make sure I come to work and do my job as a professional.”
Considering that Vogel had the backing of the Lakers front office when he initially benched Westbrook, it’s hard to imagine this ends well for the guard. Both sides had previously done well to be professional about the situation even if there was some simmering tension just underneath the surface.
But that very clearly boiled over on Tuesday, and makes the situation almost entirely untenable moving forward. Vogel clearly does not have faith in Westbrook to close games, and Westbrook clearly does not have interest in sitting on the bench in those situations.
When quotes like Tuesday’s from Westbrook come, there is no turning back. All of this happening less than 48 hours before the trade deadline only adds another level of drama to the matter. The Lakers have tried to shop Westbrook around this season to no avail, but that was before the situation reached DEFCON 1 like it did on Tuesday.
Now, anything feels possible moving forward, with the only certainty being that there can’t and won’t be anymore tightrope walking or status quos now. The Lakers have reached a breaking point with Russell Westbrook, and something has to change.
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