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The Lakers set Russell Westbrook — and themselves — up to fail

In hindsight, the Russell Westbrook experiment flamed out before it even started, when Rob Pelinka and the Lakers front office misunderstood what would be necessary to make such a drastic move work.

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Los Angeles Lakers Introduce Russell Westbrook Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

Editor’s Note: Today, we welcome back former Silver Screen and Roll contributor Daman Rangoola to write about what he covered best in his former Lakers blogging tenure: The failures from the team’s executive suite, and how Rob Pelinka and this front office set Russell Westbrook (and the team) up for failure.

It is not an exaggeration to call the 2021-22 Los Angeles Lakers one of the worst Lakers seasons of all time, and as it comes to a merciful end, the focus immediately shifts to thinking about how to rebound from this mess.

On Friday night, I tweeted something in the heat of the moment that I certainly stand by, but wished I would’ve spent more time fleshing out — why exactly has this season bothered me and other fans so much? Yes, the Lakers have been an on-court disappointment, and there are much smarter people than I who can explain the X’s and O’s behind what’s been going wrong there, but for me, it’s the wholesale failure and smiting of the basketball gods that’s occurred off the court in building this team that I’ve found so distasteful, not to mention the complete waste of another year of one of the most versatile and dominant duos the game has seen in LeBron James and Anthony Davis (when healthy!).

Many will point to the offseason acquisition of Russell Westbrook as the reason that this season was doomed, and I have come to agree with that — just not for the reasons that are immediately obvious. It won’t require a lot of deep investigative work to find some lowlight reels of Russ shooting airballs and committing turnovers to see where the experiment has failed on the court this year, but the complete implosion has also shined a flashlight on the glaring shortcomings of this front office, led by Rob Pelinka.

To acquire Russell Westbrook is to commit to a style of play, and a very specific type of roster. As stated above, LeBron and Anthony Davis are one of the most versatile duos ever, and Westbrook taking away from the lineup and play style versatility that should naturally serve as a benefit of employing them remains my biggest issue with the decision to acquire him.

That being said, if you choose to make the move, your job as a front office is to put your team in the best possible position to succeed. The Lakers haven’t done that. Does this sound like a front office that understood that when you trade for Russell Westbrook you have to spread the floor out and give him space to attack the paint?

“One was adding a primary playmaker,” Pelinka explained of the Lakers’ goals with their offseason additions back in September. “Two was shooting. And three was shifting back to, especially defensively, a model of two rebounding, defensive centers like we had when we won the championship in 2020. Those were the goals we had in mind, and I think if you look at the complexion of the roster, we feel like we addressed each of those three goals. We feel good about that.”

It’s inevitable that Frank Vogel will be let go at the end of this season, and I don’t disagree with that. Frank has not done a good enough job to warrant retention. But here’s my question: if you are moving in a direction to shift your entire basketball philosophy from a defense-first team to an offense-first one — why would you let Alex Caruso walk otherwise, after all — does it not make sense then that you factor in your own head coach’s abilities and weigh that in your decision-making process?

And then when, after a month or so, it became clear this would not work with Vogel — I would argue that assessment should’ve been made in the preseason, but I understand why that’s difficult — is it not your job to recognize that, and make a change to a coach better suited for the play style that this new roster needs? Or to do so before it gets to that point? If you were not willing to let Vogel go, then why did you as an organization willingly squander another year of LeBron James and Anthony Davis’ prime by moving in a direction that does not fit your head coach’s strengths and weaknesses?

Again, this is not another tired argument that the Lakers “didn’t do right by Frank Vogel.” Coaches are the most commonly replaced position in the NBA. And if the organization had a direction they wanted to go, they should have went and gotten a coach who could accomplish it. Instead, they wasted another year of their two stars’ primes, seemingly out of a combination of spite, thriftiness, and a need to have an easy (and somewhat deserving) scapegoat for their own failings at the end of the season.

Much of this can sound like crying over spilled milk, but it’s not, because it’s important to recognize just how wholesale of a disaster last offseason was before making moves this upcoming offseason. Do Rob Pelinka and the rest of the front office have a coherent basketball philosophy that they can organize their entire organization around? Or are they the team that will continue to chase big names over what they actually need (gulp, Doc Rivers?), continue to undervalue role players, and just hope that the sheer star power will result in wins and losses?

Only time will tell, and this summer will certainly be the biggest test of Rob Pelinka’s young career as an executive, because time is running out for him to right the ship.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Daman on Twitter at @damanr.