For the better part of the last two seasons, the Lakers have, in many ways, been forced to attempt to integrate Russell Westbrook into the lineup despite him being the proverbial round block and the Lakers being the square hole. The frustrations that came from the lack of success the team found in that season-and-a-half poured over into the locker room and away from the court.
There was no clearer sign of that than this week when Russ, head coach Darvin Ham and assistant coach Phil Handy had heated exchanges on and off the court during Tuesday’s game against the Thunder. It felt like a culmination moment as rumors swirled around Westbrook and his play continued to drop.
Obviously, the end result was Westbrook being dealt in a 3-team deal that landed the Lakers D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley and Jarred Vanderbilt. It was a move that had felt inevitable for over a year, but Westbrook has finally played his final game in purple and gold.
However, his days may have been numbered regardless if he was traded on Wednesday. On Thursday morning, Brian Windhorst appeared on ESPN’s First Take and revealed some interesting things about Westbrook (h/t Hoops Central/Twitter).
“I would almost say that if Russell Westbrook was not traded yesterday that there was a decent chance the Lakers would have sent him home. I don’t even think it’s a personality thing. I don’t think LeBron personally dislikes him. I just think that the effect on each other on the court is a negative.”
Perhaps Tuesday’s altercation was the straw that broke the camel’s back for the Lakers. After so much time attempting to placate Russ in so many ways, Tuesday very well could have been the last straw.
For as much as Westbrook accepted his role as a sixth man and embraced it early on, he slowly became less and less effective and more and more of a problem. It led to the point that it simply became addition by subtraction with Westbrook.
Later on Thursday, Dave McMenamin appeared on ESPN’s NBA Today and revealed that a source told him that getting rid of Westbrook was removing “a vampire from the locker room,” which paints a grim picture.
McMenamin on ESPN saying a source told him trading Russ removes "a vampire from the locker room." pic.twitter.com/3Yoy8hEdJO— Jacob Rude (@JacobRude) February 9, 2023
After the trade deadline passed, Jovan Buha and Sam Amick of The Athletic added much of the same sentiment in a lengthy piece describing how things went wrong in Los Angeles. There were plenty of details describing how Russ’ attitude wore on the coaching staff until Tuesday’s breaking point.
The Lakers believe there is an addition-by-subtraction element to dealing the nine-time All-Star. The situation had become untenable over the past week or so, multiple team and league sources close to the situation told The Athletic, all of whom were granted anonymity so that they could speak freely. Two sources described the situation as “toxic.” And while Lakers owner Jeanie Buss was known to be against the idea of waiving Westbrook, sources say there was a strong sense from the coaching staff that it might be necessary if no trade was forthcoming.
Lakers coaches had grown frustrated with Westbrook’s recent behavior, and he was known to be upset with being openly mentioned in trade discussions. Both sides were ready to move on from an imperfect partnership.
The result of all that is that the Lakers may see a bump and improvement simply by no longer having Westbrook around, regardless of who they added. That was a point made by Windhorst as well on Thursday (emphasis mine).
“This is a two-pronged thing. In these last two trades, they’ve got four new players in here that are legitimately rotation players and some of them front-line players. Russell and Malik Beasley are going to help them instantaneously spread the floor. They’re going to be a much-improved team. But the second prong is, Russell Westbrook was sent away. I don’t know if it’s going to be enough for the Lakers to make a run, especially in such a star-studded Western Conference. I do think that by talent now, they have a team that’s a playoff talent team with AD and LeBron leading it but I also think that you will see a bounce from this team once Russell Westbrook is gone. I don’t mean to be insulting but I’m just telling you the way I see it.”
There was only ever one way this Westbrook thing was going to play out, and that became abundantly clear pretty early on in his tenure in Los Angeles. Westbrook playing in Los Angeles was supposed to be a fun pairing of a LA native and his hometown team.
Instead, it was a headache for everyone involved from multiple head coaches to players to the front office to fans. No one enjoyed this, and it’s a shame that it played out in literally the worst imaginable way.
You can follow Jacob on Twitter at @JacobRude.