Monday, May 23, 2022

LeBron James won’t make Russell Westbrook scapegoat for Lakers’ struggles: ‘There’s not one guy you can blame’

With over 65 percent of the regular-season schedule in their rearview mirror, the Lakers are running out of time to get this thing right. Entering play on Monday, they’re the Western Conference’s No. 9 seed at 26-28, four losses back of Denver for a top-six seed. The trade deadline is Thursday. We’ll see what Rob Pelinka has in store. 

One of the moves we know the Lakers have explored, and one that we know most Lakers fans would fully support, is moving Russell Westbrook. That’s not likely to happen, which means, unless the Lakers turn this season around as we move toward the postseason, Westbrook is going to continue to be a central scapegoat for the team’s shortcomings. 

LeBron James, for one, doesn’t think that’s fair. 

“At the end of the day, as [Russ’s] brother, we’re all in this together,” James said on Monday, via ESPN’s Dave McMenamin. “We’re all in the foxhole together. There is not one guy who is doing it by themselves. There’s not one guy you can blame over another guy. There’s not one guy who gets the praise over another guy. When we lose, we all lose. When we win, we all win. It’s really that simple.”

For starters: what else is LeBron going to say? This is about as cookie cutter a quote as you’ll find. We’re a team, no one person wins or loses a game, we’re all brothers. We get it. But we also know that’s not true. If the Lakers somehow win the championship, LeBron and Anthony Davis are absolutely going to get, and deserve, more credit than anyone else. And yes, if the Lakers lose in the play-in tournament or the first round of the playoffs, Westbrook will be largely at fault. 

LeBron is right, a lot of things have gone wrong for the Lakers this season. Pelinka built a weird roster, first and foremost. LeBron and Davis have missed a lot of time. That said, Westbrook is directly connected to the core of this team’s struggles. There’s no credible way to deny that. 

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Frank Vogel certainly can’t deny it anymore. He benched Westbrook in the fourth quarter earlier in the season against the Pacers. He did it again in overtime against the Knicks on Saturday, when Westbrook finished 1-for-10 with five points and four turnovers. Late in the fourth quarter, Lakers fans were collectively begging him not to shoot a 3 from the corner, which he did anyway, a brick. 

I thought our Sam Quinn, who follows the Lakers as closely as anyone, summed up the Westbrook dynamic perfectly

What we’re getting is an unsatisfying middle ground. Westbrook isn’t controlling games physically the way he once did, nor is he excelling within the flow of games the way his team needs him to. The confidence that helped make him special is receding, but it hasn’t been replaced by the humility necessary to age gracefully out of stardom. He wants to take shots he used to be good enough to take. He knows that he shouldn’t take those shots. He hasn’t yet figured out how else to contribute to his team. So he takes the shots anyway and usually misses them. It’s a cycle the coaching staff is growing increasingly disinterested in enabling.

That about says it. Westbrook isn’t the player he used to be, and he’s unwilling to become the player he needs to be. Maybe he’s not even capable of the latter. Until we see differently, Westbrook is just not a guy who is going to help a team with championship hopes. Truth is, he’s going to hurt that team. He has absolutely hurt the Lakers. As LeBron said, he doesn’t deserve all the blame for what has gone wrong, but he deserves plenty of it. At least as much as the GM who traded for him in the first place. 

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