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What the Lakers really mean when they talk about Russell Westbrook coming back

The Lakers are leaving the door open for Russell Westbrook to return, but this time, they’re making sure that it’ll be on their terms.

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When the Lakers traded for Russell Westbrook last June, it was to position him next to LeBron James and Anthony Davis as the third member of a new Big 3. By all accounts, each member of the NBA’s newest wannabe superteam was thrilled with the resulting team-up — with the Lakers’ championship duo reportedly pushing for the transaction themselves.

But in sharp contrast to their collective vision of coasting through the regular season by dint of their collective superstardom, the Lakers’ trio scarcely appeared simultaneously, and when they did, they underwhelmed. After a radically disappointing 33-49 season in which they failed to qualify for even the Western Conference play-in tournament, the Lakers brass admitted that the roster was in need of some serious shakeup.

While most around the league assumed that meant purging the prior offseason’s biggest addition from his now seemingly untenable position — especially given all of the finger-pointing in his exit interview — the Lakers have in actuality responded to their massively disappointing campaign, at least publicly, by expressing nothing but enthusiasm for Russell Westbrook’s retention after he almost certainly picks up his $47 million player option this week.

It must be acknowledged that while not all of the Lakers’ failures in 2020-21 can be blamed on Westbrook’s play, his inability to perform at a superstar level on most nights absolutely hurt them, regardless of his role on the team or the ill-fitting nature of the roster around him. His bottom-of-the-league scoring efficiency and inconsistent effort were not only net negatives in the score column, but were also broadly deflating to a LeBron James-led team that entered the season with championship expectations. Westbrook was unable to regularly replicate the ineffable athletic displays that made him such an unstoppable force during his prime, while also failing to successfully cohabit the floor with LeBron James in a supporting role by cutting, screen-setting, playing staunch team defense, or doing much of anything to make himself useful without the ball in his hands.

Still, the Lakers have maintained a projection of confidence Westbrook’s retention being a boon to the Lakers, which many assumed might only be to fan the embers of his lukewarm trade market. At Darvin Ham’s introductory press conference, which Russ attended, Ham hammered home his faith in Westbrook by repeatedly mentioning the team’s three highest-paid players as their “Big 3,” specifically claiming that Russ would “absolutely” be on the roster next season, and outright stating that he has “a lot left in the tank.” Afterwards, Ham jumped on “NBA Today” to say he wants to turn Westbrook into “a pit bull on defense,” indicating something of a role change for the perennially ball-dominant former All-Star.

The real message here, though, seems to be more and more for Westbrook than for us or other teams, even if the media is the medium.

With Russ’ return looking more and more like an inevitability, the Lakers have made their intention of protecting themselves from having to ride out another lackluster season from their point guard in his 15th season even clearer. The Lakers are no longer asking Westbrook to be the superstar that they thought they traded for, they’re simply requiring that he do those smaller things close followers of the league knew the Lakers would need him to in the first place.

In his post-draft presser, Rob Pelinka expressed some reticence towards signing up for the Russ Show 2.0™ while laying out some pretty clear expectations for Westbrook if he does decide to return to the Lakers (emphasis mine):

“I think Darvin and I have had meetings with Russ and have just been honest about how we think he fits with his team, and what we expect of him next year if he decides to opt in and be here. He’s ready to embrace a philosophy of defense first as well, and he’s made that clear to Darvin and me...”

By making the team’s expectations of hard-nosed defense clear and public, the Lakers will have a much easier time benching or sending home Westbrook if he plays the same way he did last season. By asking him to thrive in a way he hasn’t since he was a teenager — once winning the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year while at UCLA — the Lakers are in some ways setting the 33-year-old Westbrook up to fail. But if and when he does, they won’t have as hard of a time separating themselves from him, since the expectations now are clear as day for anyone who follows the team to see.

If Westbrook does opt into a situation that made him and his family miserable last season, he will do so with none of the leverage that he entered last season with.

Considering Pelinka’s comments, it seems unlikely Russ’ starting role, or continued rostering can survive another film room outburst, rejection of assistant coach Phil Handy’s advances to help his skill game, or demands of being the point guard — especially with Ham’s stated intention to “diversify” Westbrook’s offensive role.

Preventing these behaviors, or at least giving themselves an out if they occur is a very good thing for the Lakers — in terms of both championship chances and general vibes.

If Russ is capable of exerting whatever athleticism remains in his bones on the defensive end, and turning into an elite off-ball mover, then maybe he can finally find a way to fit into Darvin Ham’s new offense built around LeBron and AD. If he can’t, then at least this time the Lakers will have cause to divorce themselves from not a player that they just recently traded for, but one that chose to pick up his player option and re-enter the team on their clearly defined terms.

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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