Criticizing Russell Westbrook is en vogue right now. Turn to nearly any national sports show and at some point and listeners will be subjected to Westbrook slander of varying degrees. The problem is not with the critical light shone upon Westbrook, per so, but the issue is the false narrative that the spets media is attempting to spin that Russell Westbrook is the anchor that is dragging the Lakers to the bottom of the Western Conference. Any and every Westbrook miscue is magnified to the highest degree, while the gaffes of any other players, especially those of a self royal monikered superstar, glossed over minimized or outright ignored.
It needs to be stated while Westbrook’s play, for the most part, during his tumultuous season in Lakerland has warranted a fair amount of criticism, the point has long since passed of righteous critique and devolved into the realm of targeted juvenile derision. Shows on FS-1 and ESPN have done their damnedest to push a narrative that no. 0 is the source of every ail plaguing the Lakers and Westbrook is the anchor that is pulling this team into the nether realm of the Western Conference.
Neither of which are true.
The trade that was made to bring Westbrook to Southern California should have never been made. Anyone with basketball brain one could see that at best the fit with Westbrook would be clunky and at worse the wheels would fall off. None to the surprise of any honest accessor of basketball, the Lakers season has much closer resembled the later.
Why has this been the case? Has Russell Westbrook suddenly forgotten how to play basketball? Hardly. He’s averaging 18.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 7.1 assists per game this season, being the third guy on a LeBron James team, his scoring was expected to come down. However his rebounding and assists numbers are in the realm of his career numbers of 7.4 and 8.4 respectively.
Is he turning the ball over at an unprecedented clip for his career? He’s averaging 3.8 turnovers per game this season and 4.1 for his career. His turnover average this season is his lowest since the 2013-14 season.
When taking a level-headed look at why the Russell Westbrook experience has been less than optimally successful, there are a few blatantly obvious issues that are elucidated. It was never a good fit to begin due to Westbrook’s style of play and his limitations. A ball-dominant no.2 on a Lebron James featured team has proven to be able to function, as seen in Miami and his second run in Cleveland. Having that type of player as the third option will not work, because history has shown that the third guy on Lebron teams has to be a guy who can spread the floor ( often to that player’s detriment and for the betterment of Lebron) and quite simply, Russell Westbrook is not that guy. For his career, Westbrook is 30.4% three-point shooter and this season 29.6%, including just 25.3% in catch-and-shoot situations. What this means is those driving and passing lanes that comes from the floor spacing that has been provided by guys like Chris Bosh and Kevin Love in the Lebron James system is no longer there. When those Lebron kick-outs inevitably come, they are done so to a player in Westbrook who shoots that shot at a clip far-below league average.
Frank Vogel has been on the longest simmering hot seat in recent memory. The criticism of Vogel has been non-stop and while firing him would not be the panacea for this poorly constructed roster. He’s been maligned, for many reasons, rotations and lineups but what cannot be debated is the atrocious job done in implementing Russell Westbrook. The job of a coach is to put his or her players in a position to succeed and to that end, Vogel and his staff have failed spectacularly. The staff did not take notes of what was done in Houston with Westbrook, particularly pre-COVID or Washington. Something as simple as setting the ball screens lower would get him in the paint to attack closer for himself or a teammate. There are too many possessions where he is just camped out in the corner and does not Westbrook or the Lakers offense any good.
The Lakers season, to this point, has fallen far short of expectations and there is plenty of blame to go around. While Russell Westbrook has his share of culpability in the Lakers misfortunes, but to cast him as the prime driver, as the sports media continues to do, is inaccurate and intellectually dishonest.