The fully encapsulating and spectacular nature of the Lakers’ failure this season will be remembered for quite a long time. One of the preseason favorites to win the title being eliminated from even making the play-in tournament a week before the season ended demands as much.
In the race to eulogize the disastrous campaign, then, the blame game has been adopted quickly and with vigor from all directions. It was the coach. No, it was the front office. Actually, it was the star players. However, the nearly universally accepted target for the majority of the blame — as has seemingly been destined from the moment he was traded for — is Russell Westbrook.
The arguments are right there on the tip of everyone’s tongue...
Because, you know, even if it’s Frank Vogel’s fault, that’s only because he didn’t play the right lineups around a player who needs as much accommodating as Russ. And when it’s Rob Pelinka’s fault, it’s because he dared trade for Russ in the first place. And, yep, when it’s Lebron James’ and Anthony Davis’ fault, it’s because they’re the ones who pressured Pelinka to trade for him at all, choosing him over other options.
You see, to read most assessments of this Lakers season is to understand that Russ is at the root of it all, and all you need to do is dig a little bit under the surface to understand why.
This can be presented this way because Westbrook is an easy target. Not only is he the (main) new variable on a team that performed much better before he arrived, he’s the player who, in the trade that brought him on board, cost the Lakers most of their best role players and the depth that helped them not only the win the championship, but better survive injuries last season.
Add in the up and (too often) down nature of his season and his general struggles to find the rhythm that could truly impact winning — to say nothing of his team-high, $44.2 million salary — it’s easy to see why Russ has been placed in the center of the bull’s eye, the guy who is so entrenched as the most blamable person that other people are being blamed simply because of how they couldn’t get more out of him or for bringing him to the team in the first place.
While all this follows a reasonable enough progression of thought, it’s not exactly reasonable to carry it out to the level it has been. When a team is this bad, it’s on every level of the organization for reasons that go beyond the acquisition and play of a single player. There’s simply too much that goes into team building to think that one player, regardless of how important he is or what went into his acquisition carries all the weight.
So, it’s worth examining what is and isn’t exactly fair when it comes to parceling out Westbrook’s part of the blame-pie.
First, it goes without saying that the injuries to Anthony Davis and LeBron James throughout the season were the chief reason the team was this bad. To be clear, this isn’t the same thing as saying that if the team was healthy, they’d have been the contenders they were presented as during the offseason. I think we saw enough to know that their general competitive spirit was not high enough and that lack of a defensive identity from the majority of their role players to know that better health wouldn’t have solved all their woes.
That said, it’s irresponsible to simply jump past the injuries and point to the individual flaws of the players and the coaches as the main culprits here, Russ included.
Further, there’s a strong argument to be made that the expectations placed onto Russ as being a true third star who could step in as a viable second option who’d help the team win games (or at least stay afloat) even in the face of injuries shaped the perception of how effective he’d be this season. I’m guilty of promoting this trope, too, so I don’t absolve myself here. But we all should have put greater stock into how much Russ’ peak value as a floor raiser was tied to teams that actually weren’t all that good in the big picture, and certainly not ones who’d hang in matchups where teams put their best foot forward vs. a team like the Lakers (who not only have name brand value, but also that perceived contender status, both of which inspire strong opponent efforts).
Instead, properly calibrated expectations would have placed Russ as someone who could absorb usage and (potentially) put up gaudy numbers, but would still need a very specific environment to help produce wins. And those ingredients — high-level shooting and hustling, athletic role players who could defend and play with him in the open court — are things that simply did not exist on this team. Instead, these Lakers were built almost entirely with offense in mind, doubling down on ball handlers and shot creators, while flanking them with shooters who not only aren’t good enough defensively, but also not particularly athletic either.
These are team-building failures that are certainly related to Russ and the acquisition of his gargantuan salary, but not necessarily enhanced or inspired by him. And any idea that Russ would paper over them simply because he’s Russell Westbrook misunderstands his abilities at this stage of his career and puts him into a position to fall short of expectations and disappoint in the process.
Of course, just as we should properly position Westbrook in the hierarchy of stardom and better understand how much his current abilities can translate to wins and losses on this specific roster, we must also reiterate that even if those expectations were more realistic, he’d have not met them this season.
Even when the Lakers did field lineups that included players who spaced the floor or defended with more attentiveness and vigor, or put him in positions where he had more advantageous matchups, he did not consistently perform to the level that was needed. On too many nights there were too many three-for-nine’s or four-for-fourteen’s, too many games with 5 turnovers paired and lackadaisical defense, too many forced possessions that ended with a scowl at the referee or a teammate, or just a resigned shoulder shrug at the circumstances of it all.
And on too many of those nights the general disappointment of it all was palpable, not only by fans, but I’d imagine, from those within the organization too. The feeling of being dispirited that the player who was billed as the guy he’d been over the course of a Hall of Fame career no longer was, and the reality of how that shifted the team’s chances on any given night just seemed to hang over the team. And when you combine that with the defiance and widely reported lack of accountability for how much those performances contributed to the state of the team, the dissonance of it all was ultimately too much.
That, more than anything else, is where the entire Westbrook experience felt most damaging. It’s one thing to play poorly or to not win a game, but it’s another to know the player you thought you’d traded for was more far-fetched, unachievable fantasy than reality. And then, when the struggles mounted, it seemed as if the player himself was simply going to push back on how much it all mattered in the first place, as if the championship aspirations of the group slipping away right in front of everyone’s face wasn’t that important.
And even in the aftermath of it all, during his final media availability, there Westbrook was, explaining away his poor play with accusations against the coaching staff, displaying an alarming lack of understanding about how it was his own play and struggles that may have led to his diminished role, and how it was his lack of commitment to doing the types of little things that help win at the rate the team was supposedly built to do that forced decisions to not highlight him in the ways he was accustomed.
Those comments served as a reminder that the bridge between a player of Westbrook’s wonderful, but narrowly accessed talent base and that talent showing itself on the court can often be more difficult to construct than imagined. And if it doesn’t get built at all, the path downward can be swift. The Lakers saw that firsthand this season, and it surely contributed to why the coach Westbrook intimated had it out for him is no longer employed by the team at all.
Again, not all of this is on Russ. This specific roster was brought together with lofty aspirations in mind, and as it started to become more and more clear they would not reach those goals, the team’s collective belief chipped away bit by bit. And without belief, they ultimately became just a group of guys playing out the string. Russ didn’t create that atmosphere, but he did help it along, and never was able to contribute to turning it around or, ultimately, fix it.
Big picture then, Russell Westbrook failed the Lakers, but the Lakers also failed Westbrook. They partnered together in the downfall that was their 2021-22 season. They both built each other up into things they were destined to fall short of, and then both sides pointed the finger when they got let down. And in the end, that’s how a season goes this bad in so many ways. And, if we’re being honest with ourselves, it’s how we should remember this tire-fire when we look back on it.