Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Why the Lakers have to start reconsidering Russell Westbrook’s role if this season is going to be salvaged

The Los Angeles Lakers had a real shot at overcoming a 13-point deficit on the road to defeat the Sacramento Kings Wednesday. They’d managed to trim the lead down to four points with a little more than a minute to go. The game ultimately hinged on a two-possession swing. Kings forward Chimezie Metu made a 3-pointer to boost the lead to seven, but only after rebounding the miss of a player earning 30 times as much this season as he is.

The precise nature of Russell Westbrook’s loss-clinching miss hardly needs to be described because it’s been such a common feature of his career. Westbrook dribbled out the bulk of the shot-clock before hoisting an ill-fated pull-up 3-pointer. Clank.

It wasn’t even the only such shot Westbrook missed in crunch time. Catch-and-shoot looks from the corner are slightly easier to swallow, but there’s a reason the Kings left him so open. This is a shot every defender in the NBA wants Westbrook to take.

There’s an audacity that comes with taking shots like this when you’ve started the game 2-of-12 from the field, but then, such outings are becoming increasingly frequent for Westbrook. After a miserable two-week stretch in which he averaged nearly six turnovers per game, Westbrook has exchanged one form of handing the ball to the other team for another. While he’s turned the ball over just four times in his past four games, he’s shot 15-of-59 from the field in the process. It’s too early to speculate on whether or not that correlation equates to causation, but those ugly 3’s don’t exactly support the idea that Westbrook is going through some sort of identity crisis. If anything, it’s quite the contrary. Westbrook is playing as if he’s still a superstar, and perhaps more importantly, the Lakers are treating him as if he’s still a superstar… but he’s not still a superstar.

Only a superstar gets to start a game 2-of-12 from the field and still gets to take the sort of shots that Westbrook was taking down the stretch. Generally speaking, only superstars can even stay on the floor when they’re struggling that badly. Talen Horton-Tucker has played just seven clutch minutes all season, for instance. He is the fourth-highest-paid Laker, but he’s generally abided by the standard that most NBA players are held to. Though he’ll see the floor whenever he is healthy, extended playing time is earned on merit, and Horton-Tucker has struggled mightily for large stretches of this season. So has Westbrook. But Westbrook has made nine more All-Star Games than Horton-Tucker.

That’s a metric Frank Vogel tends to value, and that hasn’t always been a negative trait. Vogel never wavered on Rajon Rondo‘s place in the 2020 rotation despite every number suggesting that he should. Rondo was a key part of the Lakers’ championship run in the Orlando bubble. That same approach backfired last season when Andre Drummond held on to a role he didn’t earn until finally being benched in the very last game of the season. For better or worse and without knowing how much locker room politics play into it, Vogel trusts his veterans. It’s just become clear that Westbrook isn’t a particularly trustworthy player at this stage of his career.

That’s not to say he’s been entirely bad. For stretches he’s actually been quite good. But that’s true of quite a few Lakers. Malik Monk was in and out of the rotation early in the season, but he’s now averaging over 20 points per game since Christmas. Carmelo Anthony has been great at home and far worse on the road. This is what non-superstars tend to do. They play well some of the time and poorly the rest of it. That is where Westbrook is at this stage of his career, but his role doesn’t reflect that. He hasn’t played fewer than 30 minutes in any competitive game this season. He leads the NBA in clutch minutes and ranks fifth in clutch shot attempts.

And with more than half of the season in the books, it’s fair to start asking if that should be the case. None of this is necessarily meant to be taken to the extreme. Westbrook shouldn’t be benched entirely. Whether he should even be demoted to a sixth man role is debatable, though given his easier fit with the shooters on the Laker bench, it’s a reasonable position. No, the simple solution here is to treat Westbrook like any other player. Rather than handing him minutes based on his reputation, he should earn them with his play.

Westbrook didn’t play well in Sacramento on Wednesday. Perhaps the outcome would have been different if the Lakers had closed with someone else in his place. We’ll never know, but it should be a learning experience for the team. The next time Westbrook starts a game 2-of-12 from the field, it would probably be best not to let him miss shots No. 13 and 14.

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