For one half of basketball this season, Russell Westbrook looked exactly like the player the Lakers were expecting when they traded for him. Without LeBron James and Anthony Davis, Westbrook led a huge second-half comeback in Charlotte, scoring 30 points over the final two quarters and nearly pulling off an improbable win.
In the moment, it felt like it could be a turning point for Westbrook. But as with pretty much everything with the Lakers this season, that moment was just a flash in the pan and the exception, not the rule. Since that game in which he scored 35 points on 12/23 shooting with five assists, four rebounds and one turnover, Westbrook’s play has cratered once again. Over the ensuing 10 games, Westbrook is averaging 14.3 points, 6.6 rebounds, 6.1 assists and 3.2 turnovers while shooting 37.2% from the field, 18.8% from the 3-point line and 61.7% from the free throw line.
That stretch of play culminated in Tuesday’s loss to the Mavericks where he shot 5/17 from the field, scored just 12 points and was a relative non-factor most of the night. After the game, Westbrook — for perhaps the first time all season — was visibly down and frustrated in the postgame presser.
“One, we lost,” Westbrook said when asked about the source of his frustration. “Number two is that, looking at how I need to be better. That’s it.
“I just got to be better overall. What I’m doing right now ain’t good enough. It ain’t good enough.”
Self-awareness is nice, but it only covers so much. It’s not the first time Westbrook has pointed out his need to play better, even if it’s the most visibly upset he’s looked while saying it on Sunday.
He’s certainly not wrong. Since the All-Star break, Westbrook has put together a wild string of performances. After scoring 18 points on 21 shots with just one assist against the Clippers, Westbrook turned the ball over seven times to just one assist in a loss to the Pelicans. While Tuesday was a better performance than both those, the bar was literally on the floor and it still wasn’t a good outing.
Asked about Westbrook after the game, head coach Frank Vogel said the team as a whole must improve.
“We’re all going to keep supporting him,” Vogel said. “We all have to play better as a team. Coaches have to coach better, players have to play better. I know he’s going to be hard on himself but we’re all being hard on ourselves right now. I thought the fact he had zero turnovers after the last game our team had 24 turnovers was a positive. He’s just not finishing at the basket right now and he’s not knocking down threes.
“We’ll keep supporting him, keep putting him in positions to succeed. We adjusted the rotation tonight to try to give our team more space. We played a little more smaller lineups to open up the paint. I think, overall, that helped our team keep the turnovers down and, like with everything, we’re going to keep looking for answers to try to get us over the hump.”
It’s exactly what a coach should say on the matter, but it’s long, long been clear that there is very little hope of Westbrook turning things around. A poor fit from day one, a certain amount of adaptation would be required from Westbrook, James and Davis.
Partly due to a lack of in-game reps together and partly a reluctance to adapt, success has never been a consistent part of the season for the Lakers. They haven’t given up on trying to find a formula that works, though, as James detailed ways he can help get Westbrook in a rhythm down the stretch of the regular season.
“For me, when he’s off the ball and I have the ball, try to give him some good looks at the rim, which I was able to do tonight,” James said. “Sometimes when you just see the ball go into the hoop, it helps. That’s part of my responsibility.”
The reality is, though, that the changes have to come from Westbrook. Part of the problem with that is the changes Westbrook needs to make are both changes he has never ad to make before and one not conducive to his game and skillset.
Which means the likely outcome is more discouraging nights for him and the Lakers, perhaps a moment two or more of brief optimism and a likely parting of ways this offseason. It’s a frustrating reality and one Westbrook and the Lakers are realizing in the waning weeks of the season.