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2022 Lakers Season in Review: Russell Westbrook

The toxic core of the Lakers’ collapse must be excised if they hope to build a contender again.

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NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to our annual Lakers season in review series, where we’ll be taking a look back at every player on the team’s roster this season, evaluating their play, and deciding if they should be a part of the organization’s future. Today, we take a closer look at Russell Westbrook.

How did he play?

Not only was Westbrook’s return to his hometown an unmitigated on-court disappointment, he personally generated a level of toxicity that has been consistently flagged as unpleasant to be around by nearly everyone who was there.

It has to have been a constant struggle to find joy in cohabiting daily spaces with Westbrook as his coach or teammate, given the ubiquity of his reported and demonstrated unwillingness to listen or cooperate with acquaintances, peers, and ostensible superiors.

According to an early April report from The Los Angeles Times, Westbrook didn’t respect Frank Vogel “from Day 1” and maintained an opinion that the team should always give him the ball as the point guard instead of playing the free-flowing fast-paced style conducive to advantage creation, extension, and capitalization — a modus operandi emblematic of most truly great teams, including the Lakers’ own 2020 vintage.

That attitude would go a long way toward explaining why he never weaponized his (albeit, waning) athleticism as an off-ball player by cutting or screening for teammates. Clearly, that position began to take a toll on his teammates’ opinion of him, which started with Anthony Davis and LeBron James’ insistence on letting “Russ be Russ,” but eventually turned to silence as the rift between them apparently widened.

When Westbrook came over to apologize to LeBron and AD during a game due to being benched down the stretch, they shook their heads and said nothing. When Westbrook decried “Westbrick” jeerers, LeBron and AD refrained from offering their opinions on the matter, despite stars around the league like Stephen Curry sharing words of support. Westbrook’s vocal frustration with the name-calling headed his way in response to poor performances seemed out of touch given the fact that his two superior teammates with derisive nicknames of their own (“Street Clothes” and “Le-InsertInsultHere”) never mentioned their feelings about them.

But some of Russ’ unwillingness to adapt in ways that would have made for a smoother basketball fit between him and his co-stars may have come from his physiological and psychological predispositions as an athlete, not just his personal preference (if those things are even separable).

Away from the ball, Westbrook’s horrendous spot-up shooting was actually the second-worst of his deficiencies, only out-done by his snail’s pace floor-reading. Contrasted with the warp-speed pre-touch decision-making of an Austin Reaves or even Stanley Johnson, Westbrook regularly required possession of the ball to understand the floor’s current geometry and devise an attack plan.

When another Laker would kick him the ball with a collapsed defense, Westbrook often took too long to make up his mind or chose wrong entirely, forfeiting the advantage created and/or extended by a teammate. Only Westbrook can know whether his performance stemmed from a desire to dribble to the tune of his own drum or an inability to perceive basketball geometry without catalyzing the offense himself. For the Lakers and their fans to move forwards, however, these reasons matter little, as long as they can all agree that the idea of bringing him back for the 2022-23 season is a nonstarter.

To be fair to Westbrook, the Lakers’ flawed roster design left him with an imperfect system to operate within. He has proved in the past that when flanked by elite shooting and a rim-runner, he can offset some of his scoring inefficiencies by feeding his teammates a steady diet of great looks to generate decently efficient offense. In 2020-21, the Wizards’ strict adherence to that formula gave them the league’s 17th-best offense.

This year, Westbrook conceded some of his past playmaking duties to LeBron James, recording five fewer assists per 100 possessions than he did in DC, but took nearly as many shots and turned the ball over almost as much, making him one of the league’s least efficient players. The Lakers finished their most recent campaign with the NBA’s 23rd-ranked offense, a meager result, especially considering the level of talent present on the roster.

On defense, Westbrook was as inconsistent and absent-minded as his prior reputation suggested he would be. Even worse than before, the combined lack of shooting between himself, Anthony Davis, and all of the Lakers’ hypothetical bigs and wings not named LeBron forced them to frequently downsize for shooting in order to create some semblance of spacing. Those lineups often left Westbrook as the third-biggest player on the floor and matched up against opposing wings. Instead of maintaining a strength and size advantage over opposing point guards, Westbrook was often physically overmatched by the big wings he was tasked with guarding. Combined with his unpredictable positioning, the already undermanned Lakers’ defense was regularly compromised while trying to cover for Westbrook.

Like a weirdly shaped cog, a functioning team with Westbrook in it must be built around his unusual combination of strengths and weaknesses. And even then, the best-case scenario might just be a sub-.500 team. It seems unlikely that a perfectly tailored roster could be a true contender with this version of Westbrook running the show, but the Lakers’ poorly-built one wasn’t even close.

What is his contract situation moving forward?

Although he hasn’t formally done so — or, as he claimed at exit interviews, even thought about it — he has until June 30 to pick up the final year of his contract, a player option for approximately $47 million that would make him the highest-paid player on not just the Lakers, but in the whole league.

But at this point, Westbrook might not even garner a veteran’s minimum on the open market, so it would be shocking to see him eschew the massive payday he has coming his way.

Should he be back?

In less than a year LeBron will turn 38 during what will be his 20th season in the NBA. And while he’ll likely be honored on the league’s All-NBA Third Team, he proved more than capable of matching the game’s best players in any given single-game scenario. Anthony Davis is still only 29, and was considered an inner-circle championship contributor less than two calendar years ago. They each have questions to answer, mostly regarding their recently balky health, but have factually proven to be capable of co-captaining a championship-level team. Conversely, Russell Westbrook has shown us that he is incapable of cohabiting within that configuration.

With the timer on LeBron’s window of contention running down, the Lakers can’t afford to burn a season with a retread of something they know doesn’t work. And with a lot of ground to make up towards creating something that does, the Lakers simply can’t start next season in a team-building hole. It takes time to build continuity, something they had almost none of this season, so it’d be in the franchise’s best interest to establish a vision of what they want the team to look like around LeBron and AD and build on it as soon as possible.

Whether that means trading Westbrook when his value is at a low-point for role players on longer, arguably worse contracts, sweetening the package with draft picks for better players making more palatable money, or sending him home Luol Deng or John Wall-style, Russell Westbrook can’t be a rostered member of the Lakers if the franchise hopes to have any realistic championship aspirations.

Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley — no, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can hear him on the Lakers Multiverse Podcast and find him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.

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