No relationship is worth misery. Russell Westbrook and the Lakers is no different | Los Angeles Lakers

LLong before I was even remotely an NBA expert, I was something of a relationship expert. I’ve always found human interaction fascinating (and that was before the years of therapy). Accordingly, one of the many basketball hills I tend to die on is that it’s a relationship business. Chemistry, camaraderie, and general good vibes aren’t just important to team success; They are all. Needless to say, living in Los Angeles in recent years has made for an intriguing closeness to one of the most interesting case studies of broken relationships in the league: that between Russell Westbrook and the Los Angeles Lakers.

Today’s Lakers are, to put it plainly, a mess. Pinning the blame squarely on the shoulders of the spirited Westbrook is woefully reductive and certainly doesn’t tell the whole story. For starters, Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka just got a contract extension, which is a bit confusing given his less-than-stellar track record in the team’s 2020 championship years (though some have argued that LeBron James’ opinion of the roster weighed heavily, too in decision-making). Even from a time before James signed with the Lakers in the summer of 2018, the industry has grumbled about the front office’s apparent incompetence. But Westbrook’s $47 million salary has certainly strained the team and limited any functional ability to build around its top-flight superstars in James and Anthony Davis. To put the $47 million in perspective, it’s almost $3 million more than James himself will make this season, and amazingly more than anyone else on the team outside of James and Davis combined. Directly or indirectly, Westbrook finds himself at the heart of the problem.

How many relationships did the Lakers and Westbrook feel like doomed to fail from the start. Sure, when Westbrook arrived for training camp in Los Angeles, which happens to be his hometown, last September, the veteran point guard was having an impressive season with the Washington Wizards. But fit issues with the existing squad, particularly James and Davis, were already glaring. Never known for his shooting accuracy, Westbrook is notorious for playing best in situations where he can be the ball-dominant goalscorer and orchestrator of offense. He was also never outstanding defensively. After 20 seasons of watching James in the NBA, one formula has remained battle-tested and proven: surround him with shooters to blast the floor, a few enthusiastic and hard-nosed defenders, and he’ll do the rest. As talented as former NBA MVP Westbrook might be, he’s realistically none of the above. It was a recipe for disaster, and disaster has been. As early as last Christmas, fans began clamoring for a swap, and Westbrook’s interactions with those fans and their media proxies grew increasingly strained.

Russell Westbrook
Russell Westbrook’s lows have outstripped the highs during his time in Los Angeles. Photo: Cole Burston/Getty Images

The problem, of course, was that by the time it became apparent the pairing would never result in a winning record, the Lakers should have given a team an incentive to take Westbrook out of their hands by trapping their only two remaining tradables First-round draft picks this decade (2027 and 2029, respectively). And they seem steadfast in doing so, especially without an obvious trade that could catapult them into competition. Rumors of a potential trade with Houston for then-paused guard John Wall circulated around last season’s trade deadline, but never came to fruition. And so, one of James’ last viable NBA seasons came and went without making it an appearance in the play-in tournament. Surely all viewers assumed the Lakers wouldn’t have a second straight season from one of basketball’s greatest talents of all time. Trade rumors shifted from the whispers that had echoed throughout the season to an outright shout in the summer. But the Lakers stuck with Westbrook throughout the offseason, instead making some mostly lateral changes to the supporting cast: They traded in Talen Horton-Tucker and Stanley Johnson for the stained spark Patrick Beverley for the Jazz, and traded in some of the aging veterans who the bench rounded out for younger talent last year, replacing Frank Vogel with first-time head coach Darvin Ham.

The Lakers opened the season 2-10, the team’s worst 12-game record since the 2015-16 season when they finished 17-65. To Ham’s credit, he’s maintained a stubbornly optimistic outlook after a largely disastrous first month. After a loss to the Clippers marked by a particularly lifeless second-half performance that dropped the team to 2-9, Ham, although visibly discouraged, doubled down on his gratitude for the position, responding to a question like him dealing with the stress saying, “I’m fine, man. I’m the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. I am blessed. I wake up every morning and see the sun in LA. I go to work with some nice people. I’m disappointed, but I never get down.” If he’s handed a fireball to hold on to, he really seems like the type of guy who would profess not to freeze. But despite his aggressively sunny demeanor and seemingly unwavering demeanor, he has hinted that the roster has its limits, going so far as to imply Lakers ownership has concerns about the luxury tax.

An early managerial change from Ham that initially showed promise was the decision to bring Westbrook off the bench. The player initially reacted surprisingly positively to the move and pretty much immediately gave the Lakers impressive minutes in the first few games in his new role. After losses in the first four games of the season, the team won two in a row, with Westbrook officiating the second session, and there was a glimmer of hope in the dressing room. After a particularly encouraging overtime win against the New Orleans Pelicans, Ham confirmed the bench move would be permanent, admitting: “One of my selfish goals 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 couldn’t be a solution to the team’s problems. Westbrook had been benched for all of the above overtime and he didn’t seem too happy about it when he spoke to the media after the game, even if the choice results in a notch in the win column for the stalled team. Ham appeared to tacitly acknowledge the ego issue plaguing the former MVP, praising him and then adding, “You have to know that the team comes first. The name on the front of the jersey. It sounds a bit dated and cliche, but the name on the front of the shirt, that’s the most important thing. Because it’s a long season.”

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

As far as 13 games is possible, it’s already been a long season for Lakers fans. In the final seconds of a particularly demoralizing home loss to the Sacramento Kings that sent the team 2-10, James buried his head in his hands in consternation and a fan behind me yelled, “Trade the fucking picks!” as Beverley and Westbrook missed both jump shots in consecutive possessions. Even so early in the season, the Lakers have dug themselves such a deep hole that some have argued the Westbrook trade is a moot point, and based on the team’s past inaction, it appears the Lakers’ front office agrees could.

The bank withdrawal seems to be at least somehow eventually works, and the team has only two valuable first-round draft picks in its arsenal. But not moving Westbrook this past offseason feels like building a house in a haunted old graveyard and then being surprised when the closets keep opening in the middle of the night. The damage is already done. Russ clearly feels no affinity or belonging to the team: all indications are that he’s already moved on mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

This phenomenon of almost pathological detachment was perhaps best illustrated by Westbrook’s availability to the media following 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 any correlation between Westbrook’s mood and the team’s win-loss record. On the contrary, it seems to depend entirely on how he himself played that night and whether he got the minutes he felt he deserved.

It’s hard to blame Westbrook for feeling ambivalent and even a little rebellious about the franchise and its fans; Songs from “Westbrick” will not soon be forgotten, even if they are nowhere to be found this year. But this isn’t about figuring out who’s right or wrong, or pointing fingers at others. The truth is twofold: this is one of the last meaningful seasons of James’ career, and Westbrook’s relationship with the Lakers has broken beyond repair. Yes, he was better off the bench. But if you decide to give up the lease on your apartment and separate from your partner because you fundamentally disagree with the idea of ​​monogamy, does it really matter if they start doing the dishes?

Of course, the rest of the Lakers’ supporting cast is lackluster at best. Also, moves made in it would likely benefit the franchise (a Beverley trade sending it back to Minnesota seems like a potential win for both parties). But abandoning the season by not moving Westbrook and simply waiting for his contract to expire is downright irresponsible conduct of the twilight of James’ career, a responsibility Pelinka bears assured the press this summer which he does not take lightly. Additionally, with their first-round pick owned by the Pelicans next year, the Lakers and their fanbase have naught from another painful underperforming season other than an increased bill for their respective therapists. And as much as planning for the future is an understandable priority for NBA franchises, putting such a poor quality product on the floor of the Arena for two years in a row is a lot to ask of even the most staunch supporters.

It’s hard to quantify what makes a relationship worthwhile. Any adult could tell you that finances, comfort, and a warm body to sleep in have played a role in keeping some partnerships longer than perhaps they should have. But life is way too short and no relationship is worth being unhappy with. And it’s pretty obvious that until drastic changes are made to this roster, including but not limited to Westbrook’s move, himself, the rest of his teammates, and the Lakers fan base will indeed continue to be very unhappy.

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