Russell Westbrook’s Los Angeles Lakers debut was not the magical night he or anyone else envisioned. The first sold-out STAPLES Center crowd in more than a year and a half saw a frustrated Russell Westbrook struggle to find the balance between being the aggressive downhill attacker he is known to be and the more methodical and pragmatic teammate he is striving to be alongside his superstar teammates.
That challenge was exaggerated on a night when Westbrook shot four of 13 from the field, did not get to the free-throw line, and registered four turnovers. But it was not unexpected after a rocky preseason and limited time to find his role next to LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
“Him more than anybody, it’s going to be an adjustment period,” said head coach Frank Vogel. “It’s difficult when you’re used to being the guy that has the ball most nights to be able to play off of others like LeBron and AD, so it’s just a little bit different for him.
“We want him to be aggressive. That part’s easy. He’ll stay aggressive, he’ll stay in attack mode. It’s just figuring out the teammates around him and that will come.”
Vogel’s confidence is not unfounded. Westbrook has notoriously had slow starts to the season throughout his career, especially after changing teams, before finally clicking after the adjustment period.
Part of that adjustment to new teammates came as a result of Westbrook never being the sole initiator on the floor. All of the star guard’s 35 minutes came alongside at least one of James or Rajon Rondo, effectively pushing him to a shooting guard role for large stretches that he never felt quite comfortable in.
Whether that role will change once injuries to guards Kendrick Nunn, Wayne Ellington, and Talen Horton-Tucker are resolved remains to be seen but Westbrook was acquired in part for the ability to bully bench lineups when James is not on the court and never truly got the opportunity to do so on Tuesday.
Regardless of role, however, Westbrook was clearly not at his best. His frustrations leaked into the post game press conference where his short answers did not show much insight into the thought process of the hometown kid playing his first game in front of his new fans.
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Both LeBron and Davis were quick to support their new superstar teammate. James chalked up the poor debut to “first game jitters.”
“It’s just one game,” LeBron continued. “We’ll get better from it, he’ll get better from it. We’ll put him in positions where it benefits him and benefits our team […] I’m not worried about Russ at all. He just needs to be himself.”
That sentiment was echoed by AD who said, “We just want him to be himself. Be Russell Westbrook.”
The show of support from James and Davis is necessary and will surely help Westbrook’s confidence as he continues to adjust to his new surroundings but it’s not entirely true.
The Lakers do need Russ to be Russ in certain moments – in particular when James is on the bench – but they did not put him in a position to do so on opening night. Between having to play off the ball, taking seven jump shots, and being featured in a starting lineup that cramped spacing with a traditional center, Westbrook never really got that opportunity.
Moreover, there are times when the Lakers need Russ to not be Russ. As blasphemous as that may sound, Westbrook is the team’s third-best player and letting James and Davis carry the team at certain points just like they did against the Warriors is part of that role.
That does not mean that Westbrook has to be relegated to role player status but that is the balance that he and the coaching staff have to find and accomplish for the Lakers to hit their presumed ceiling.