Long before I was ever anything close to what could be considered an expert on the NBA, I was something of an expert on relationships. I’ve always found human interaction fascinating (and that was even before the years of therapy). Relatedly, one of the many basketball hills I’m prone to die on is that it’s a relationships business. Chemistry, camaraderie and general good vibes are not only important to team success; they’re everything. So, needless to say, living in Los Angeles the last few years has made for intriguing proximity to one of the most interesting case studies on fractured relationships in the league: that between Russell Westbrook and the Los Angeles Lakers.
The present-day Lakers are, to put it in plain English, a mess. Placing the blame for that squarely on the shoulders of the mercurial Westbrook is woefully reductive, and certainly doesn’t tell the full story. For starters, Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka just got a contract extension, which is somewhat puzzling given his less-than-stellar success rate in the years since the team’s 2020 championship (though some have argued that LeBron James’ opinion on the roster weighed heavily in decision making as well). Even dating back to a time before James signed with the Lakers in the summer of 2018, the industry has kibitzed about the front office’s apparent ineptitude. But Westbrook’s $47m salary has certainly encumbered the team and limited any functional ability to build around its top-tier superstars in James and Anthony Davis. To put the $47m in perspective: it’s almost $3m more than James himself will make this season, and, staggeringly, more than everyone else on the team outside James and Davis makes combined. Directly or indirectly, Westbrook finds himself at the crux of the issue.
Like many relationships, the Lakers and Westbrook felt doomed from the start. Sure, when Westbrook arrived in Los Angeles, which happens to be his home town, for training camp in September of last year, the veteran point guard was coming off of an impressive season with the Washington Wizards. But the fit issues with the existing roster, especially James and Davis, were already glaring. Westbrook has never been known for his shooting accuracy, and is notorious for playing best in situations where he can be the ball-dominant scorer and orchestrator of the offense. He’s also never been outstanding defensively. After 20 seasons of watching James in the NBA, one formula has remained battle-tested and proven: surround him with shooters to space the floor, a few enthusiastic and hard-nosed defenders, and he will handle the rest. As talented as the one-time NBA MVP Westbrook may be, he is, realistically, none of the above. It was a recipe for disaster, and a disaster it’s been. As early as last Christmas, fans started clamoring for a trade, and Westbrook’s interactions with those fans, and their proxies in the media, grew more and more tense.
The problem was, of course, that by the time it became apparent that the pairing was never going to result in a winning record, the Lakers would’ve had to incentivize a team to take Westbrook off their hands, namely by including their only two remaining tradeable first-round draft picks this decade (in 2027 and 2029, respectively). And they’ve seemed to remain steadfastly unwilling to do so, especially without an apparent trade available that could catapult them into contention. Rumors circulated about a potential swap with Houston for then-sidelined guard John Wall around the trade deadline last season, but they never bore fruit. And so one of James’ last viable NBA seasons came and went, without so much as an appearance in the play-in tournament. Surely, everyone watching assumed the Lakers wouldn’t punt a second straight season by one of the greatest basketball talents to ever walk the earth. The trade rumors shifted from the whispers that had echoed during the season to downright full-throat shouting in the summer. But the Lakers stood pat on Westbrook throughout the offseason, instead making some mostly lateral tweaks to the supporting cast: trading Talen Horton-Tucker and Stanley Johnson to the Jazz for spotty sparkplug Patrick Beverley, swapping some of the ageing veterans that rounded out the bench last year for younger talent, and replacing Frank Vogel with first-time head coach Darvin Ham.
The Lakers opened the season at 2-10, the team’s worst record through 12 games since the 2015-16 season, when they finished 17-65. Ham, to his credit, appears to have maintained a stubbornly optimistic outlook after a mostly disastrous first month. Following a loss to the Clippers marked by an particularly lifeless second-half effort that dropped the team to 2-9, Ham, while visibly dispirited, doubled down on his gratitude for the position, responding to a question about how he’s handling the stress by saying “I’m good, man. I’m the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. I’m blessed. I wake up every morning, and see the sun in LA. I get to go to work with a bunch of beautiful people. I get disappointed, but I never get down.” If handed a ball of fire to hold on to, he truly does seem like the kind of guy who would profess gratitude for not being cold. But, even with his aggressively sunny attitude and seemingly unshakeable poise, he’s hinted that the roster has its limitations, even going so far as to imply that Lakers ownership has concerns about the luxury tax.
One early coaching move by Ham which was initially promising was the decision to bring Westbrook off the bench. The player came off surprisingly agreeable to the change at first, pretty much immediately giving the Lakers impactful minutes within the first few games in his new role. After losses in their first four games of the season, the team won two in a row with Westbrook running the second unit, and an air of hopefulness was palpable around the locker room. After a particularly heartening overtime win against the New Orleans Pelicans, Ham confirmed that the move to the bench would be permanent, admitting, “One of my goals, selfishly, is to get him in the conversation for Sixth Man of the Year at some point.”
But even in more promising moments, it was clear that the move may not be a solution to the team’s woes. Westbrook had been benched for all of the aforementioned overtime, and he seemed none too pleased about it when he spoke to media after the game, even with the choice resulting in a notch in the win column for the floundering team. Ham seemed to tacitly acknowledge the ego issue plaguing the former MVP by praising him and then adding: “You have to know that, again, the team comes first. The name on the front of the jersey. It sounds a little old school and cliche, but the name on the front of the jersey, that’s what matters the most. Because it’s a long season.”
Insomuch as 13 games can be, it’s been a long season already for Lakers fans. During the last few seconds of a particularly demoralizing loss at home to the Sacramento Kings that sent the team to 2-10, James buried his head in his hands in consternation and a fan behind me bellowed, “Trade the fucking picks!”, as Beverley and Westbrook both missed jump shots in back to back possessions. Even this early in the season, the Lakers have dug themselves such a profound hole that some have argued that trading Westbrook is a moot point, and based on the team’s inaction thus far, it appears as if the Lakers front office might agree.
The bench move seems to be at least sort of working, after all, and the team does only have two precious first-round draft picks in their arsenal. But not moving Westbrook during this past offseason kind of feels like building a house on a haunted ancient burial ground and then being surprised when the cupboards keep opening themselves in the middle of the night. The damage has already been done. Russ clearly feels no affinity for or ownership of the team: all signs point to him being already mentally, emotionally and spiritually moved on.
This phenomenon of almost pathological detachment was perhaps best illustrated by Westbrook’s media availability after the loss to the Clippers. Westbrook entered the press room literally grinning and humming Beyoncé’s Break my Soul. There doesn’t seem to be a correlation whatsoever between Westbrook’s mood and the team’s win-loss record. To the contrary, it seems wholly dependent on how he himself played that night, and whether or not he was awarded the minutes he feels he deserves.
It’s hard to blame Westbrook for feeling ambivalent towards, and even a little rebellious against, the franchise and its fans; chants of “Westbrick” aren’t quickly forgotten, even if they are nowhere to be found this year. But this isn’t about trying to suss out who’s right or wrong, or pointing fingers. The truth is twofold: this is one of the last meaningful seasons of James’ career, and the relationship between Westbrook and the Lakers is fractured beyond repair. Yes, he’s been better off the bench. But if you decide to break the lease on your apartment and break up with your partner because you fundamentally disagree on the idea of monogamy, does it really matter all that much if they start doing the dishes?
The rest of the Lakers’ supporting cast, of course, is lackluster at best. Moves made therein, too, would probably behoove the franchise (a Beverley trade sending him back to Minnesota seems like a potential win for both parties). But giving up on the season by not moving Westbrook and simply waiting until his contract expires is downright irresponsible stewardship of the twilight of James’ career, a responsibility Pelinka assured the press this summer that he doesn’t take lightly. Even beyond that, with their first-round pick next year belonging to the Pelicans, the Lakers and their fanbase don’t stand to gain anything from another painful, underperforming season besides an increased bill to their respective therapists. And as much as planning for the future is an understandable priority for NBA franchises, putting a product this poor in quality on the floor of Crypto.com Arena two years in a row is a lot to ask of even the most loyal supporters.
It’s hard to quantify what makes a relationship worthwhile. Any adult could tell you that finances, convenience, and a warm body to sleep next to have played a role in keeping some partnerships going longer than maybe they ought to have. But life is all too short, and no relationship is worth being miserable for. And it’s pretty apparent that until drastic changes are made to this roster, including but not limited to the moving of Westbrook, then he himself, the rest of his teammates, and the Lakers fanbase will continue to be very miserable indeed.