Whether you root for Russell Westbrook or not, or whether he’s even played on your favorite team before, there is a very strong likelihood that you have clearly defined opinions on him as a player. Westbrook, as much as any other player in the league, brings a knowing of him and his game to every discussion about him.
This is a burden that many great players have had over the course of their careers, but it’s a burden — at least when as intense as it is with Westbrook — that is often specific to a type of great player whose strengths and weaknesses overlap in ways that create a certain divisiveness in the nature of how that player is evaluated in the first place.
Said another way, Westbrook is the type of superstar whose gaudy production too often comes with a lack of commitment to doing the little things, and the even rarer superstar whose ability to put up those gaudy stats undermines his playoff success exactly because it seems to make him believe he’s exempt from doing those things at all. It is the type of conundrum only faced by a player who is simultaneously dynamic and self-destructive; someone who puts up winning numbers while not exhibiting winning habits.
Russ, then, brings this baggage with him wherever he goes. He’s either revered or reviled, sometimes by the same people in the same game. I’d be lying, however, if I tried to make believe as if the majority of fans invested in the Lakers' success next season haven’t already taken sides and decided how they actually feel about Westbrook. They see that aforementioned baggage, have put it on a bellman’s dolly, and are ready to load it onto the next vessel that takes Russ away to another team so their fans can deal with it all.
Of course, recent signals imply those people will not get their way. Whether it’s reports stating the Lakers do not want to attach future draft picks to unload Russ in a trade, the fact that head coaching candidates were asked how they’d use Russ should they be hired, or Darvin Ham, in his introductory presser, positively framing Russ as both a historically great talent and hall of fame player who has plenty left in his tank; both on-record and anonymous soundbites strongly imply a Westbrook return has real legs.
Which brings me back the idea of the baggage Russ brings with him, and an attempt at reexamining the difference between what last season taught us, how much that plays into what we know — or think we do — and how much is still open to interpretation with a player who generates such strong feelings that quickly morph into facts.
It’s important, then, to understand that the context of the season we all saw from Westbrook last season was the byproduct of circumstances that were about as negatively impactful as they could have been, considering the role he was actually brought into play.
We’ve covered this ground often, so I’ll spare you the full deep dive, but whether the injuries to LeBron and Anthony Davis that forced Russ into carrying a bigger load than he was capable, the lack of viable frontcourt replacements for his injured stars leading to Frank Vogel seeking out lineup solutions that exacerbated Russ’ own offensive weaknesses, or the cascading effect the struggling offense had on the team’s defense and vice versa, Russ faced a personal situation that asked him to play to his weaknesses while inhibiting his strengths more than any season of his in recent memory (if ever).
Taking all that into consideration, it’s difficult for me to look at last season as the baseline level of play we should expect from Westbrook. Fit concerns with LeBron and AD remain to be sure, and I think it’d be silly to expect Russ to play to, say, the level he did in his lone season with the Wizards or even in the second half of the regular season of his one year in Houston. Russ is not only older and less explosive, but the general roster construction, his iffy fit with the team’s two stars — and how much less he has the ball alongside them — will all tamp down his production moving forward, even in a best-case scenario.
That said, it’s reasonable to say there were times that the playing circumstances Russ experienced last season were hostile to his strengths as a player. And when you consider how sensitive Russ’ game is to being thrown off, and the general inability he has to play his top game under circumstances that don’t line up in very specific ways, I simply can’t look at last season as the most likely outcome for this year. Not when you also throw in what was a clearly a deteriorated relationship with Vogel by the time the season ended (and, probably, much earlier than that) and the visible decline in reception from Lakers fans as the season progressed, and how both those things almost certainly impacted his general mood and day-to-day investment in the face of a season on the ropes.
That said, providing context for how Russ played and offering reasons for how his production suffered cannot and should not excuse Russ for the things he did control regarding his own performance. It would also be disingenuous to act as though all those circumstances above are the sole inspiration for how Russ committed to — or, more accurately didn’t commit to — competing defensively or making better decisions with the ball both as a passer and in some of his shot selection.
No, those things can’t be passed off as a product of last season’s circumstances because those are longstanding issues with Westbrook as a player. They are the same types of issues many hoped would reform when he played in his hometown Los Angeles, for the Lakers, with LeBron and AD, and with a chance to win a championship; the same types of issues that have informed the ideas that Russ simply isn’t a winning player — or at least not the type of winner who can be the focal point of a championship-winning team.
And therein lies the rub with Russ. At the root of things, at the time many hoped Russ would show a commitment to the little things that are understood to impact winning at the highest level (aka deep in the playoffs), he simply didn’t show he wanted to. And want to isn’t a thing someone else has control over. That’s something he needs to show he will do, not just for the team, but because he believes that it actually helps him be the best version of himself.
During those first remarks as Lakers head coach, when Darvin Ham went beyond the superlatives and compliments towards his current point guard, he pointed to the need for Russ to re-commit defensively and to a larger idea of sacrifice. Ham, without getting into a bunch of specifics, spoke to what we all saw last season and, honestly, what we’ve seen for many years now. It seems Ham, too, knows of the baggage that Russ brings with him.
The goal now, however, is determining if Russ also knows and, if he does, if he wants to actually change. The skeptics will tell you they already know the answer to that, too. Others might be more optimistic, citing what they know of Russ from his past performance.
Ultimately, though, this is a situation where only Westbrook truly knows what will happen next, and what he’ll do.
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