Among the numerous problems the Lakers faced last season was Russell Westbrook and his feud with Frank Vogel. The two sides never gelled, pushing back against one another for much of the season — sometimes privately, and sometimes publicly.
It all seemed to reach its boiling point with Westbrook’s postgame press conference in which he called out Vogel and how he was using Westbrook during the season. Even Austin Reaves acknowledged Westbrook and Vogel didn’t always see eye-to-eye during the season, though he argued it didn’t impact the team.
Given all of the noise surrounding his season, it’d be hard to imagine that the coaching staff found Westbrook to be amenable to their asks. However, former Lakers assistant coach Mike Penberthy had a very different take on Westbrook’s approach last season in an interview with Seerat Sohi of The Ringer (emphasis mine).
“I just feel like he accepted a role he had probably never played in before, not knowing how hard it would be,” said Mike Penberthy, a former Lakers assistant coach. “It probably just felt like he was in quicksand the whole time.” Penberthy remembers Westbrook as a player who was “very coachable.” He “listened, he wasn’t stubborn” and wanted to “have the truth told to him.”
“He’d come into practice, and he would be frustrated with how he was playing,” Penberthy said. “It’s hard, though, when you’re answering questions after a game and you haven’t played as well as you want to, to give that type of response. He feels like he’s being attacked, so he’s going to put his defenses up. And by the end of the year he just …” Penberthy pauses. “I mean, it just, when it rained it poured, you know?”
Reading between the lines of the quote a bit, it seems like Westbrook may have started the year especially willing to cooperate, but as things turned sour for the Lakers, Westbrook began to feel like he was under siege.
This description of Westbrook’s season stands in opposition to most of what’s come out about him from behind the scenes so far. By most accounts, he scarcely showed a willingness to change his style of play when asked to do so. And if you watched even a handful of the 78 Lakers games he played in last season, you would certainly have seen Westbrook doing many of the frustrating things that drove Lakers fans and coaches crazy last season.
To be clear, this isn’t to say Penberthy is being untruthful about his experience with the team’s highest-paid player last season. Perhaps Westbrook was more coachable than it seemed publicly, or was especially receptive to Penberthy’s voice in particular.
Based on the quotes coming out of camp so far, Westbrook does seem like he’s bought into Darvin Ham’s new defense-first vision for the Lakers, something that would stand in stark contrast with how Westbrook comported himself on the court last season.
We’ll just have to wait and see if that purported attitude can uphold the inevitable ups and downs of the upcoming campaign.