The Los Angeles Lakers still technically have one more game to play on Sunday, but from the moment they were eliminated from the postseason earlier this week, everyone involved with the team has been content to begin the most important part of their offseason. No, not fixing this mess. They’re focused on something much more critical to their own individual survival than that: Making sure that other people besides themselves get blamed for how poorly all of this went through anonymous finger-pointing in the media.
My colleague Jacob Rude touched on some of this yesterday, but today I want to dig in and further analyze one of the main themes of this mess: The front office throwing everyone under the bus(s).
Lakers front office content to blame LeBron and AD for trade they made
It’s not just the soon-to-be-fired Frank Vogel and Russell Westbrook that a front office brain trust who probably wouldn’t ever be given this much power anywhere else is desperate to blame for this debacle in order to save their own skins. They’re also very openly pointing the finger at their two stars through the media.
This has been a theme all season, with Davis and James getting blamed for making the Westbrook deal that the front office willingly signed off on since January. It’s also been a trend in much of the reporting this week, as Eric Pincus of Bleacher Report wrote that “the blame internally appears to be focused on injuries, Russell Westbrook and LeBron James for pressuring the team to trade for Westbrook.” Ramona Shelburne of ESPN added in her own story that “while timing factored into the choice of Westbrook or Hield (both available via trade before free agency) over DeRozan, sources close to the situation insist that James and Davis’ enthusiasm for Westbrook were what moved the process in that direction.”
Now, do James and Davis deserve some share of the blame here for pushing hard for a player who was such a bad fit and hamstrung the rest of the roster? Of course. But you know who else does? The front office who called in the deal to the league office. Somehow I don’t think AD was sending the official fax in to New York.
And, as my friend Andy Kamenetzky correctly points out, these leaks don’t make the front office look as good as they might think.
Whoever keeps pushing this narrative doesn't seem to get that knowingly making a bad blockbuster deal because of pressure from stars (both under contract, no exit leverage) is WAY WORSE than making a bad blockbuster deal where they miscalculated, but at least believed in it. AK https://t.co/wDoK0YA56C— Kamenetzky Brothers (@KamBrothers) April 8, 2022
But being able to shift blame like this is likely part of the motivation for why Rob Pelinka, often unprompted, constantly brings up in media sessions how much he consults James and Davis on personnel moves — sometimes to their chagrin. Still, he does it because it is smart communication and self-preservation strategy that allows him to have more plausible deniability when things go poorly, and to have easier, more famous targets for fans and the media to aim their ire towards.
Leaks like this, though, are not only not a great advertisement for how the Lakers treat their stars in bad times, they are also intellectually dishonest and a little insulting. We know for a fact that Pelinka wanted Westbrook, too, for one. This wasn’t some move the team wasn’t considering before, that James and Davis forced on the poor, hapless Rambii and Co., even if they were clearly working on a deal for Buddy Hield and other contingency plans simultaneously.
And the reality is this: Even if James and Davis did push incredibly hard for the Westbrook deal, if the front office thought it was such a bad call, there was nothing to force them to do it. A good, qualified group of executives would push back on their stars who were both under contract long-term if they thought they were agitating for a damaging move that wouldn’t work and would hurt the franchise both short and long-term. With these leaks that assume they had to go along with it while offering absolutely no resistance, the front office either proved that they’re dumb, weak, think we’re all stupid, or all of the above.
Everyone involved with this season deserves blame. Everyone. And the front office should start acting like it, or ownership should empower some people who will. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like that is in the cards, especially because James and Davis haven’t even received the lion’s share of anonymous finger-pointing.
That honor has gone to Russell Westbrook.
Westbrook ‘never respected’ Frank Vogel
Now that the season is over, everyone within the team is letting reporters know how miserable the Westbrook era was, and apparently the first signs came all the way back during training camp.
According to Brad Turner and Dan Woike of The Los Angeles Times, Westbrook’s patently obvious disdain for Vogel was on full display right at the start of the season:
“Russ [Westbrook) never respected Frank [Vogel] from Day 1,” said one Lakers staff member with knowledge of the situation. “The moment Frank said anybody who gets the rebound can bring it up the court, which is just how the NBA is played these days, Russ was like, ‘Naw, I’m the point guard. Give the ball to me. Everybody run. Frank was like, ‘No, we have Talen [Horton-Tucker)] We have Austin [Reaves]. We have Malik. We have LeBron. We have AD. They can all bring the ball up.’ He was like, ‘Nope, I’m the point guard. Give me that s—. Everybody get out the way.’
“From that point on, in training camp, it was a wrap, ‘cause now Russ is a fish out of water. He doesn’t know what to do. That’s how that started.”
Now, was Frank Vogel arguing for Austin Reaves to bring the ball up over Westbrook during training camp? Probably not. But the sentiment of this anecdote is accurate to what Vogel was espousing early on, that every player on the floor should be empowered to get rebounds and run.
Plus, the larger idea that Westbrook didn’t respect Vogel isn’t exactly new. I mean, the whole team pretty blatantly appeared to quit on him around midseason, and no player was more public in their critiques of the coach than Westbrook, who blamed Vogel benching him for a back injury and blasted him for his inconsistent rotations. Vogel, meanwhile, hardly hid that the feeling was pretty mutual, explaining his benching of his highest-paid and potentially most-prideful player simply as “playing the guys I thought were going to win the game.”
Making matters worse for the team during a completely dysfunctional year from top-to-bottom was that Westbrook and Vogel’s icy relationship was hardly the only one between Russ and members of the Lakers.
Russ didn’t feel like he had allies within the team
According to Shelburne’s story for ESPN, it sounds like the Lakers essentially gave up on trying to ally with Westbrook, which isn’t shocking when factoring in how many reports there have been throughout the year about how difficult he could be to work with and how nonreceptive he was to any critiques of his own game.
But still, it doesn’t paint a picture of an aligned and functional organization that was committed to fixing for the whole season and trusted that each other had good intentions:
Westbrook didn’t make things any easier on himself either. “I think the problem with Russ has been Russ’s response to all of it,” a team source said. “He doesn’t leave a window for people to have empathy for him.”
Westbrook grew defiant and stubborn in the face of criticism... The coaching staff was direct with him in film sessions and private discussions. His teammates weren’t always the same way.
“The reality of the season was that Russ has been in a dark corner, and he doesn’t know who to trust or who to believe,” a team source said. “Then, if something doesn’t go well for him, he backs up a little more.
“There’s also guys in the locker room who were so disgruntled about their position that every time something goes bad for Russ, they just find a way to feed the beast.
“Telling him the coaches hate you or the front office is trying to get rid of you. Anything to fuel that monster, and give him an enemy.”
That’s not great, but the Lakers’ organizational response to it (emphasis mine) may have been even worse:
There were those in the organization who felt only humiliation would spur Westbrook to change his style of play to fit better within the team structure. Vogel, for his part, believed they should stand by him and give him the space to figure it out, just as he had in other situations over the years, team sources said. While Vogel did eventually bench Westbrook at the end of games when he was not effective, he continued to start him, give him chances and praise him when he played well.
Pelinka had a few meetings with Westbrook during the season, to keep the lines of communication open. Veterans like Carmelo Anthony, James and Davis tried to reach out. But nobody seemed to get through.
“He’s got to be receptive,” one team source said.
But as someone close to Westbrook said, “Why is he going to listen if he feels like you’ve been letting him get crucified all year?”
Look... Every leak, from every media outlet, all season, has made it seem like Westbrook was not the easiest guy to work with. Like he was resistant to change, and that his unwillingness to budge in any meaningful way contributed to how poorly this year went.
But stuff like this doesn’t make anyone involved look good. In the wake of this, though, it’s now no surprise that teammate Kent Bazemore — and, ironically, Vogel — were the only members of the organization to speak out publicly against the level of hate Westbrook and his family were receiving from Laker fans. LeBron, meanwhile — in what were almost assuredly not accidentally timed comments — said after the next game that “the Laker faithful know when bad basketball is being played, and they know when good basketball is being played. They have the right to have any response they want.” And if there were really those in the organization that were so resigned to this experiment being a failure that they would rather Westbrook be humiliated into changing than try to draw him back in with support, then we shouldn’t be shocked that this dumpster fire of a season went up in flames in such spectacularly fashion.
Still — again — all of this is a bad look for everyone involved, demonstrating an extreme lack of self-awareness and/or empathy. Everyone within the team played a role in how poorly this season went. This was not just Westbrook’s fault. Even if he played his own role in how badly this campaign went, he didn’t trade for himself. He didn’t build this roster. Lakers fans will just have to hope there is more recognition of those realities internally than is being leaked publicly while everyone tries to point the finger at everyone else.
But given the tone, tenor and frequency of the leaks so far, that seems unlikely. This is going to get uglier and worse before it gets better... if it ever does.