Thu. Nov 24th, 2022

LLong before I became an expert on the NBA, I was kind of an expert on relationships. I’ve always found human interaction fascinating (and that was even in therapy years ago). Correspondingly, one of the many basketball tops I’m prone to dying from is that it’s a relationship business. Chemistry, friendship and general good vibes are not just important for team success; them everything. So, needless to say, living in Los Angeles over the past few years has brought an intriguing closeness to one of the most interesting case studies on fractured relationships in the league: the incident between Russell Westbrook and the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Lakers of today are simply a mess. Blaming it directly on the shifting Westbrook’s shoulders is sadly reductive and certainly doesn’t tell the whole story. For starters, Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka recently received a contract extension, which is a bit confusing given the team’s lower-than-stellar success rate in the years since the 2020 championship (although some argue that LeBron James’ view of the roster outweighs). claims) also in decision making). While it has a history dating back to a time before James signed with the Lakers in the summer of 2018, the industry has been kibited about the front office’s blatant incompetence. But Westbrook’s $47 million salary has certainly been a burden to the team, limiting all its functional abilities to build around top-notch superstars like James and Anthony Davis. To put the $47 million into perspective: almost $3 million more than James will make this season, and surprisingly more than anyone else on the team except James and Davis. combined. Directly or indirectly, Westbrook finds himself at the center of the problem.

Like many relationships, the Lakers and Westbrook felt doomed from the start. Of course, veteran quarterback was finishing an impressive season with the Washington Wizards when Westbrook arrived in his hometown of Los Angeles for training camp in September of last year. But compatibility issues with the current roster, especially James and Davis, were already evident. Westbrook has never been known for his shooting accuracy and is famous for playing best when he can be the dominating scorer and organizer of the attack. He has never been better defensively, either. After watching James 20 seasons in the NBA, one formula is still battle-tested and proven: surround him with shooters, a few enthusiastic and stubborn defenders to put him on the court, and he’ll do the rest. As talented as the one-time NBA MVP Westbrook may be, he’s realistically none of the above. It was a recipe for disaster, and it was a disaster. Just last Christmas, fans began clamoring for the trade, and Westbrook’s interaction with these fans and their media surrogates became increasingly tense.

Russell Westbrook
The lows Russell Westbrook experienced during his time in Los Angeles surpassed the highs. Photo: Cole Burston/Getty Images

The problem was, once it became clear that the match would never end with a win record, the Lakers would have to encourage a team to take Westbrook away, i.e. by including just the two of them. the remaining tradeable first-round draft picks in this decade (in 2027 and 2029, respectively). And they seemed determinedly reluctant to do so, especially when there was no open trade available that could drag them into contention. When the trade deadline expired last season, rumors swirled about a possible trade with Houston for then-side guard John Wall, but these never came to fruition. And so one of James’ last eligible NBA seasons passed without even qualifying for the qualifying tournament. Of course, everyone watching assumed the Lakers wouldn’t be playing a second season in a row by one of the greatest basketball talents the world has ever known. Trade rumors have morphed from whispers that echoed throughout the season to downright yelling in the summer. But the Lakers supported Westbrook throughout the off-season, instead making mostly lateral tweaks to the supporting cast: trading Talen Horton-Tucker and Stanley Johnson to the Jazz for spotty spark plug Patrick Beverley, replacing some of the aging veterans filling the bench. last year for younger talent and replaced by Frank Vogel for the first time head coach Darwin Ham.

The Lakers opened the season 2-10, setting the team’s worst record since the 2015-16 season, when they finished 17-65. To his credit, Ham appears to have maintained a stubbornly optimistic outlook after a mostly disastrous first month. After a loss to the Clippers marked by a particularly lackluster second-half effort that knocked the team down to 2-9, though visibly demoralized, he doubled down on his gratitude for the position, answering a question about how he’s coping with stress: “I’m fine. “Man. I’m the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. I’m blessed. I wake up every morning to see the sun in Los Angeles. I’m going to work with a group of beautiful people. I’m disappointed, but I never give up.” He seems like the kind of guy who would be grateful that he wasn’t really cold if given a fireball to hold on to. But even with his aggressively cheerful demeanor and seemingly unshakable stance, he hinted that the squad had limitations, even going so far as to imply that the Lakers had concerns about the luxury tax on property. gone.

An early coaching move by Ham that was initially promising was the decision to knock Westbrook off the bench. Surprisingly at first, the player agreed to the change and pretty much gave the Lakers some effective moments in the first few games of his new role. After their first four-game defeat of the season, the team took two back-to-back wins as Westbrook led the second team and there was an air of hope in the locker room. After a particularly encouraging overtime win against the New Orleans Pelicans, Ham confirmed that the bench transition would be permanent, conceding: “One of my goals, selfishly, is to include him in the Sixth Man of the Year conversation at some point.”

But even in the more promising moments, it was clear that the move might not be a solution to the team’s woes. Westbrook had been taken to the bench for all the aforementioned overtime hours, and when he spoke to the media after the game he didn’t seem too happy about it, even as the selection ended up with a notch in the faltering team’s victory column. Ham seemed to tacitly acknowledge the ego issue that was plaguing the former MVP, praising him, then adding: “Again, you have to know that the team comes first. The name on the front of the jersey. It may sound a bit outdated and cliché, but the name on the front of the jersey is the most important thing. it’s because it’s a long season.”

Russell Westbrook and LeBron James
The Lakers’ dysfunction with Russell Westbrook jeopardizes one of the last meaningful seasons of LeBron James’ career. Photo: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Even with 13 games, it’s already been a long season for Lakers fans. In the last few seconds of a particularly frustrating defeat at home to the Sacramento Kings that sent the team 2-10, James put his head in his hands in surprise, and a fan behind me shouted, “Trade the goddamn pickaxes!” yell. Beverley and Westbrook missed shots in back-to-back positions. Even this early in the season, the Lakers have dug themselves so deep that some have argued trading Westbrook is a controversial issue, and given the team’s inaction so far, it looks like the Lakers front office might agree.

Bench movement looks at least sort After all, it works, and the team has only two valuable first-round picks in its arsenal. But not moving Westbrook out of the past season is like building a house on a haunted old cemetery and then being surprised when in the middle of the night the closets just pop up on their own. The damage has already been done. Russ clearly doesn’t feel affinity or ownership for the team: all signs show that he’s already on his way mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

This almost pathological phenomenon of disconnection was perhaps best illustrated by the media presence after Westbrook’s loss to the Clippers. Westbrook entered the press room literally grinning and humming Beyoncé’s Break my Soul. There doesn’t seem to be any correlation between Westbrook’s mood and the team’s win-lose record. Rather, it seems to depend entirely on how he played that night and whether he got the minutes he thought he deserved.

It’s hard to blame Westbrook for feeling ambivalent and even a little rebellious towards the series and its fans; The “Westbrick” hymns are not easily forgotten, even if they are nowhere to be found this year. But it’s not about pointing fingers or trying to figure out who’s right or wrong. The truth is twofold: this is one of the last meaningful seasons of James’ career, and the relationship between Westbrook and the Lakers has shattered beyond repair. Yeah, it was better on the bench. But if you decide to terminate the lease on your apartment and break up with your spouse because you fundamentally disagree with the idea of ​​monogamy, is it really that important that they start doing the dishes?

The rest of the Lakers’ supporting roster are of course lackluster at best. Moves made here will likely also belong to the franchise (a Beverley swap that sends him back to Minnesota seems like a potential win for both sides). But giving up the season by not signing Westbrook and just waiting for his contract to expire, completely irresponsible management of the twilight of James’ career, is a responsibility Pelinka reassured the press this summer not take it lightly. On top of that, with the first-round picks that will belong to the Pelicans next year, the Lakers and their fanbase will earn nothing but an increased bill from another painful, underperforming season to their respective therapists. And while planning for the future is an understandable priority for NBA franchises, putting a shoddy product on the Arena floor two years in a row is asking too much from even the most devoted fans.

It’s hard to gauge what makes a relationship worthwhile. Any adult can tell you that finances, comfort, and a warm body to sleep next to play a role in making some partnerships last longer than they should. But life is too short and no relationship is worth being unhappy about. And until there are radical changes to this roster, including but not limited to the move of Westbrook, he, the rest of his teammates and the Lakers fan base will continue to be truly miserable.