Russell Westbrook had hinted at the dysfunction at various points earlier in the season, but there was no holding back this time.
There was no uncertainty in his phrasing, no need to read into his comments in order to extrapolate any hidden meaning this time. No, as Westbrook sat in front of assembled media for the final time of the 2021-22 season for his exit interview, he left little doubt about, well... much of anything (beyond him picking up his $47 million player option, which, honestly, we all knew would happen too).
Among the talking points in a Q&A that laid bare the sad state of affairs between him and his hometown Lakers, Russ laid blame in almost every direction but his own. Among a host of causes for his season-long struggles, he cited his rocky day-one relationship with Frank Vogel, “having to prove myself and my capabilities and what I’ve been able to do for this game,” and, most shockingly, implied LeBron James and Anthony Davis were not being truthful when they said they wanted to “Let Russ be Russ,” a common refrain of theirs from early on in the season.
The general consensus after Westbrook wrapped up was that he not only lacked accountability for his own role in his (and his team’s) underwhelming performance that season, but that there was really no way to spin any this positively. Russ, it seemed, had gone scorched earth on the Lakers. The only question was, what would their response be?
Fast forward several months and the Lakers’ response has been two-fold. First, they’ve unabashedly tried to trade him. Whether it’s been their very loud pursuit of Kyrie Irving to the recent reports of rekindled discussions with the Pacers for a deal centered around Buddy Hield and Myles Turner, Westbrook has been presented to opposing teams as the salary ballast to find better fitting players who can help the Lakers resuscitate their championship hopes.
Beyond those reports that highlight specific players, the Athletic’s Shams Charania reports that there have been more general discussions with the Jazz and the Knicks around those teams absorbing Westbrook’s salary in exchange for undisclosed “draft capital.” Presumably, the Lakers would then recoup players who would theoretically help them more on the court than Russ can this upcoming season, from either of those teams or a third one.
In contrast with those reports of the Lakers on the prowl to purge Westbrook from their roster, the team has publicly endorsed a return of their mercurial point guard via the declarations of newly-hired head coach Darvin Ham.
Ham, starting with his opening press conference and continuing throughout his media tour in the weeks that have followed, has professed a vision for Westbrook that involves him not only returning, but retaining his position as starting point guard. Ham, in what I believe is an honest presentation of what he’d like to see, has Russ coming back, and in the process, adapting his game to play a style that is more in line with what a third option on a team should be doing.
Ham doesn’t want to neuter Russ’ instincts as a playmaker or shot creator, but he does want a healthy dose of defense and offensive sacrifice mixed into his approach. Ham has openly envisioned a Westbrook that not only runs the offense and attacks with the ball in his hands in order to create good shots for himself or teammates, but also someone who competes at a high level defensively by pressuring the ball, is a willing lane-filler in transition and off-ball cutter in the half court, sets ball screens, plays in the dunker’s spot as a release valve during actions that don’t involve him, and will spot up in the corner when needed.
Ham, surely aware of the disparity between his ask and what we’ve all seen of Westbrook over much of the last half dozen years, is coaching Russ before they’ve ever been on the court together. He’s being forthright, honest, and laying the groundwork early for what he expects from Russ and how he’ll need to play if he’s going to be a productive member of the team next season. This is exactly what you’d want out of your head coach who is walking into a rough situation that he had no part in making rough. So I applaud Ham’s efforts here.
Here’s the thing, though. If Ham is actually coaching Russell Westbrook next season, the Lakers would have done him a disservice. That’s not because Ham can’t get through to Russ or because Russ can no longer be a productive NBA player. It’s not even because we know for certain things won’t work (yes, we have evidence it won’t, but I’m still hesitant to speak in certainties). This isn’t an indictment of Ham or, again, a proclamation that Russ cannot help a team next year.
No, we’re at the point the Lakers have to trade Russ because they’ve gone too far in actively trying to trade him to bring him back to this team. Shopping him the way they have removes any doubt they actually want him back now. Don’t mistake this as stating Ham is being disingenuous in his praise or spelling out of a role for Russ. I believe Ham is both sincere and genuine in his support of Russ. But, organizationally, from the leadership in the front office, it’s clear where they stand.
And, when that is the case, things are now too far gone. There’s no going to the player and making it seem as though they weren’t doing what they were doing. There’s no selling it as “exploring (our) options” or some other coded language for actively looking to upgrade him. The front office’s intentions are clear. They want to replace him and it’s not just for a star like Kyrie, but, if reports are true, for role players like Hield and Turner.
I don’t see a way, then, that this is salvageable. There’s not enough shared history between Russ and anyone in the franchise for hatchets to be buried and for everyone to come back and embrace each other under the guise of familiarity and past connections. There’s no “last dance” for this group who has gone through battles together to form one final bond against a shared enemy in order to accomplish something great. There’s simply not enough togetherness in this group to do anything other than follow through what’s already been started, and make a deal that presents itself, sooner or later.
Now, I do understand the argument that the Lakers don’t necessarily have to trade Russ. That they could just send him home and try to go the route of addition by subtraction while also avoiding making the type of negative asset swap that doesn’t actually improve the team enough for the types of future draft assets and/or current players that it would cost. And, for the most part, I’d agree that I don’t want the Lakers to give up all their (minimal) assets in a single deal just to get out of the Russell Westbrook business entirely.
That said, I’d be weary of simply biting the bullet and sending Russ home if the goals of this team are to still compete at a high level. Remember, there are implications moving forward about LeBron’s future on the team as he enters his final season under contract. It’s also never too early to consider what a non-competitive season does to the organization’s relationship with Anthony Davis. As we’re seeing in Brooklyn, multiple years left on a contract doesn’t mean much when a star player decides his best chance to win is with another team.
So, the Lakers had better tread carefully when considering a path that isn’t exchanging Westbrook for a player (or players) who can help them get closer to being a title team this season because — as a franchise which has built dynasties upon a reputation for taking care of its superstars — managing the fallout of their divorce from Russell Westbrook could make all the difference in the franchise’s near and distant futures.