When the Los Angeles Lakers were defeated in the first round of the NBA playoffs last season, the messaging from the franchise to its fans and the rest of the league was consistent — they would have had a chance to repeat as NBA champions had they only remained healthy. A few months later, much of that supposed championship-level core was traded for Russell Westbrook while others were not brought back for various reasons, as the team stripped down its roster for the second straight offseason, sending mixed messages along the way of what they thought those teams could accomplish.
It has been a bumpy ride for Westbrook in Los Angeles. A trade that was met with equal parts skepticism and optimism over the hometown kid coming to help LeBron James and Anthony Davis reverse a disappointing season has seemingly reached its breaking point. Even the most patient of Lakers fans must now be thinking, after a blowout loss to the Milwaukee Bucks that preceded some post-game fireworks from the starting point guard, that Westbrook’s tenure in Los Angeles is no longer tenable.
Westbrook has at times been unfairly scrutinized and blamed for what has been a failed experiment in Laker-Land stemming from decisions made by players, coaches, and front office personnel alike. The former MVP is not the sole source of the team’s struggles nor would sending him away or benching him magically transform the purple and gold into a championship contender. In essence, he is a symbol of all of the failures that have coincided in making this nightmarish Lakers season haunt us – a symbol of poor front office management, of star players meddling in those affairs, of coaches not adapting to their personnel, of players up and down the roster not commiting to the championship level sacrifices that we saw in the 2020 title team.
But Russ has been a culprit in the poisoning of the season as well and it came to a head during the Bucks game. Laughing on the bench after a fourth quarter comeback — the second in a row in which he was not a participant — fell short. Telling reporters that he told his star teammates he wished he could be out there to help them but was not allowed by head coach Frank Vogel. Claiming that his career accomplishments had “earned” him the right to close games.
major group project energy pic.twitter.com/JcedW6ea40
— Lakers Outsiders (@LakersOutsiders) February 9, 2022
None of that is indicative of a player that is willing to sacrifice to raise the team’s ceiling. It is instead a disruptive force in a locker room that is surely expecting major shake ups in the next couple of days as the trade deadline approaches. And it’s a slap in the face to not only the fans who tried to support him despite years of evidence that you simply cannot win an NBA championship with Russell Westbrook but also to the Lakers personnel whose “I can fix him” attitude has once again wasted a year of the James and Davis duo.
Publicly taking shots at the head coach — even one on the hot seat as Vogel is — should be the final straw. Vogel won a championship in his first season with the organization, a season in which he had the buy-in of his players from the top to the bottom of the roster and had personnel that fit his philosophy. Championships are hard to win by in the NBA and it seems increasingly unlikely that Westbrook will ever be a key cog in a machine that reaches those heights. If Westbrook’s individual accolades demand the respect and benefit of the doubt to close games, what does Vogel’s team accolades earn him in those same eyes?
I am sympathetic to Westbrook because it cannot be easy to adapt to a new reality in which he is no longer the superstar player achieving unheard of stats and accomplishments that he once was. Getting booed by the crowd in his home town in back-to-back games wouldn’t be easy for anyone to deal with, especially someone as prideful as him, even if he called those murmurs during home games a “sign of respect.” But Westbrook is just as guilty — and arguably moreso — of placing himself in that situation as anyone else in the Lakers organization and a divorce between the two sides seems like the only corrective course that can be taken for the benefit of both parties.
Does that come as soon as Thursday’s deadline? It’s hard to say. The Lakers have to operate on a more logical scale than fans do; holding onto Westbrook (and the first round pick they likely have to give up to dump his salary) until the summer when he becomes an expiring contract and the 2029 first round pick becomes available to trade is probably a smarter path towards getting the most beneficial trade possible. Teams across the NBA surely know the Lakers are desperate to move the former MVP at this point and it will not be cheap to do so.
But waiting until the summer almost certainly means another year without competing for a championship. It means wasting another season of the LeBron James and Anthony Davis duo despite their heroics in trying to carry this team forward.
The path forward is convoluted and treacherous. But it’s also as clear as it has ever been. With Russell Westbrook in tow, the Lakers are not winning a championship.