Eyebrows furrowed, eyes focused, Russell Westbrook looks like he’s listening when a Lakers reporter asks how he worked out his problems with Anthony Davis. “First of all, I was very lucky that I never got the chance to play another season, that’s something I really honed. The details of what happened don’t really matter to me,” he says.
He filtered out the cons, emphasizing the pros. On the floor, that narrow vision was a double-edged sword that won him nine All-Stars and MVP, but also overlooked his flaws.
“I think the most important thing is to be healthy,” he continues, “looking forward to the start of the season and looking forward to great things.” At 33, none of these things are guaranteed.
After the worst season of Westbrook’s career, the Lakers were unable to find a trading partner for him. The opposing teams seem to value his expiring contract more than his services on the court. He has resisted change for most of his career, but as he enters his 15th season, a repeat of last season could end his career.
He seems to know this, telling ESPN he’s all-in for whatever role the Lakers ask him to play, but knowing is only half the battle. Westbrook talked about the casualties throughout last season. But the Lakers got off to a bad start, with LeBron James and Davis getting injured, and Westbrook’s role constantly shifting from third fiddle to LeBron’s doppelgänger. Westbrook, the consistency and control trader, struggled. He tried to attack, but due to his overly aggressive drive, his layups on the rim were short. His patented mid-range bridge regularly clanged against the shield.
“I just feel like he’s taken on a role that he’s probably never played before without knowing how tough it would be,” Mike Penberty, a former Lakers assistant coach, said. “He probably just felt like he was in quicksand all the time.” Penberty recalls Westbrook as a player who was “very easy to coach”. He “listened, was not stubborn” and wanted “to be told the truth.”
“He came to practice and was disappointed with his performance,” Penberty said. “However, when you’re answering questions after a game and you didn’t play as well as you would like, it’s hard to give that answer. He feels like he’s been attacked, so he’s going to beef up his defenses. And by the end of the year, he’s just…” Penberty pauses. “I mean, it’s just that when it rained, it poured, you know?
Ironically, being more approachable than Davis or James meant taking a disproportionate share of the blame. Lakers fans booed him and harassed his family during games. In a match against the Spurs, a fan called him “Westbrick”, to which he fold“Do not disregard my name.” The fan responded by saying it even louder. In his final interview after last season, he admitted that he was focusing his energies on fighting stories he didn’t believe were true.
The more attention the public drew, the more defensive he became. Under pressure, Westbrook returned to his worst habits. In February, after several extreme bench presses, his declared willingness to do whatever he thought was best for the team clashed with his pride. “Honestly, I didn’t have to reach any milestones,” he said of finishing the games. “I worked hard and got a lot of respect in this game. I don’t need to reach the benchmark, or I shouldn’t. I have earned the right to be in the closing squads.”
Now, when asked about how it might not start, he sounds relatively free. “I think I’m just excited to be on the court, excited to start the season,” he says. “Everything that is revealed is revealed.”
If you doubt, I don’t blame you. Me too. Recent history suggests that he will eventually refuse – if it’s not just posturing – but circumstances always play a role. Maybe the optimism in training camp is starting to wear me down, but I’m still thinking about the tiny blip in his career that suggests adaptation isn’t as impossible as it sounds.
Let’s go back to February 22, 2020, to what was then called the Vivint Smart Home Arena. Westbrook, seen in the left corner, is doing what he loves: chatting with a Utah Jazz fan.
“I know a good hairdresser,” says a fan. “I can give you his number. He can help you. This extraordinarily helpful fan also advised Westbrook to roll 3 because Rudy Gobert, who wanders the paint, is the best defensive player in the league.
Westbrook flashes his famous side eye, and answers quickly: “No, it’s not.” It then pivots and explodes for a baseline, perfectly timed to drive James Harden tossing Westbrook into an alleyway.
For the Lakers, this version of Russ would be a fever dream: playing off the ball, easily taking advantage of the attention given to his creative teammate dominating with the ball. That wasn’t the only thing he changed about the Houston Rockets. In the previous three seasons, Westbrook averaged 5.6 three-pointers per game on a groan-inducing 31.5 percent of the clip. As the season progressed, he improved his shot selection.: In 19 games just before COVID-19 interrupted the season, he focused his offense inside the arc and scored fewer than two triples per game.
According to a former teammate, Westbrook made adjustments even though no one asked him to. In November of that season, then-Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said Sat nation“We’re not trying to change Russ. We bring him here as MVP and what he did, he did. Now he can just… we play a certain way, is he moving towards that a bit? It’s on it. I hope he does. He has. If you need to change your boyfriend, you may not want to invite him at all. So he adapted and we adapted to him too.”
Westbrook initially struggled to adjust to playing alongside Harden, but the Rockets opened the season 11–3. The victory lessened the urgency of his struggles and curbed negative attention. Westbrook’s time in Houston was easy as he freed himself from having to carry the team on his back. He said to reporters, he didn’t feel the need to prove he could pull off a triple-double.
He organized the summer workout at the University of California, Los Angeles. According to a former teammate, he attended charity events and treated everyone the same whether they were stars or equipment managers. He was an active voice at film sessions and team meetings. Austin Rivers called him the best teammate he has ever seen. It was. When Westbrook said in an interview on his way out of the Lakers that he was “never given the chance to just be who I had to be to help this team” on or off the court, he was referring to this guy. .
When Harden’s tardiness delayed the team bus, Westbrook got frustrated. “You have to be on time,” a former teammate recalled Westbrook’s words. “What the hell is this? This not normal”. Moments like this drew him to role-playing, but strained his relationship with Harden. Westbrook requested a trade and was sent to the Wizards during the off-season, ending their experiment.
Westbrook’s reasons were noble, but they also exemplify an unwillingness to adapt to the harsh reality of the NBA: the best player runs the show, and it’s not him anymore. That won’t change for the Lakers.
Maybe there are other ways to make him feel comfortable.
It seems like Westbrook has done all they can this offseason by rallying the team in the summer league (albeit ignoring lebron), showing up at the facility when new head coach Darwin Ham asks him to mentor young players. The two are apparently already connected on a level that he never did with Frank Vogel. “It was all about being selfless, team oriented, having a defensive mindset, keeping him that – words that came from his own mouth – that he would be at a high, high level defensively like the rest of our roster. Ham said.
The Rockets went so far as to trade center Clint Capella for Robert Covington on a very small lineup to create space for Harden and Westbrook to thrive. The Lakers, on the other hand, remain at a low distance from each other. Over the past month, they have acquired Dennis Schroeder and Patrick Beverley to help out, but the veteran quarterbacks will also be competing against Westbrook in minutes.
During the offseason, Lakers owner Jeanie Buss tripped over her words to make Westbrook feel valued. call his best player for the Lakers, and then changing the approval to “permanent”.
I don’t know how convincing it was. Rob Pelinka, the Lakers’ vice president of basketball operations, showered Westbrook with compliments on Monday, but when asked if Westbrook would be on the roster this season, he replied: “If we have to keep renewing our roster, throughout the season , we will “.
The truth is that Westbrook will either be traded or will have his name in the buzz all season long. While expectations have never been lower, the pressure has never been higher. Whatever Westbrook does this season, he will do it under the microscope.