Prior to this season, Russell Westbrook had come off the bench just 17 times in his NBA career. While he started opening night for the Los Angeles Lakers, new head coach Darvin Ham did make him a reserve for the 18th time in the team’s preseason finale against the Sacramento Kings. Westbrook hardly played in that game thanks to a hamstring strain he suffered early on, and after his opening night loss to the Golden State Warriors, he made it known that he believed the benching was responsible for the injury.
“I’ve been doing the same thing for 14 years straight,” Westbrook said Wednesday. “Honestly, I didn’t even know what to do pregame. Being honest, I was trying to figure out how to stay warm and loose. … That’s something I just wasn’t accustomed to.”
Notably, Westbrook offered a similar quote last year. Frank Vogel never actually brought Westbrook off the bench, but he did tweak his substitution pattern and, on occasion, limit Westbrook’s minutes. Westbrook suffered back tightness as a result. “I’m not accustomed to sitting down for long stretches and getting up and then, like, moving quickly,” Westbrook said in February. “It kind of stiffens up a little bit.”
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The overall message contradicts the “whatever the needs me to do” attitude Westbrook has brought to preseason media availability. While Westbrook has said publicly that he is OK with the idea of coming off of the bench, he’s bristled at anything less than a typical starter’s workload whenever presented with anything different. There are 510 players in the NBA with two-way players included. Only 150 of them get to start. The other 360 know how to prepare their bodies for reserve roles. Many of those reserves are former starters. It is a player’s responsibility to be prepared physically to play regardless of their role on the team. Westbrook has twice now suggested that his role was responsible for physical issues.
For the time being, it might all be moot. While Ham experimented with the idea of bringing Westbrook off the bench, he claimed during the preseason that he wants to maintain consistency in his starting lineup. Westbrook started on opening night. For the time being, it therefore appears as though he will remain in the starting five.
But the Lakers lost badly to the Warriors. If the losses continue to pile up, changes could come down the line. Westbrook could eventually be asked to move to the bench, and if he is, he is going to need to figure out how to handle it in such a way that does not lead to injuries.