A surreal moment occurred at the end of the Lakers-Bucks game at Crypto.com Arena. Russell Westbrook was seen giving words of encouragement to teammates Anthony Davis and LeBron James, who were both seated and looking dejected.
During his postgame news conference on Spectrum SportsNet, Westbrook said he told Davis and James to shake off the tough night and wished he could have helped them. “Unfortunately, I wasn’t in the game to be able to help them,” said the 33-year-old NBA veteran and 2017 MVP.
“That’s why I came here. To help them out,” he added. “So unfortunately I haven’t been able to do that for them, but that’s not my call. I can be there as a leader and as a voice and whatever is needed for the team and that’s what I’ll do until, you know, my number or whatever is called during that time.”
It was a strange scene because if anyone should be sitting on the bench looking dejected, it would be Westbrook. He was benched late in the game for a second consecutive game after another dismal performance. Westbrook shot 3-for-11 from the field in only 26 minutes of court time. He was lifted in favor of Talen Horton-Tucker and sat the entire fourth quarter.
Lakers head coach Frank Vogel explained to Lakers Nation that sitting Westbrook was a decision based on team needs and that the team always comes first: “Russ has accomplished a lot in this league and he’s had some great games and sequences for us here,” Vogel said. “But my job is to win games and when you get in those situations, you have a script of who you believe is gonna be in there and the game will tell you otherwise if a change is needed. We have to be willing to do whatever it takes to get the Lakers a win. Sometimes he’s gonna be in there for that, sometimes he’s not.”
To say that Westbrook’s much-hyped Los Angeles homecoming hasn’t gone according to plan would be an incredible understatement. It has gotten so bad that every Westbrook missed shot or turnover draws boos from Lakers fans. Westbrook has done an admirable job of dismissing the boos, even calling it “a sign of respect.”
“My mindset and how I think about this game and what I’m able to do for this game is not predicated on boos,” said the Hawthorne, Calif., native. He attended Leuzinger High School and was a member of two Final Four teams at UCLA.
“I have a platform that I’m able to use to do other things that God has blessed me to be able to do, and I will continue to do those things, regardless of if people boo for me, cheer for me, cuss me out, call me names. It doesn’t really matter.”
Westbrook’s struggles encapsulate what is happening with the 2021-22 Lakers squad, and head coach Frank Vogel is having a hell of a time finding answers. Vogel can’t seem to settle on a starting lineup or regular rotation, juggling the starting lineup at least 28 times. The inconsistency has put a dense fog in front of the team — especially Westbrook.
“You never know when you’re coming in, you never know when you’re coming out. You never know when you’re playing, you never know… a bunch of things. And I’m speaking for me personally, so it’s a difficult process to be able to figure out and create some rhythm and some consistency where we can actually see what we’re able to do as a team, but those decisions are made by him and his coaching staff, and you’ve got to live with it and move on,” Westbrook said.
Brodie firmly believes he doesn’t need to prove his worthiness by hitting benchmarks during a game in order to play in the closing moments of a game.
“I put a lot of work in. I got a lot of respect in this game. I earned the right to be in closing lineups,” he said. “Numbers would say, I don’t have to explain that. Like I said, once again, it ain’t my decision … Unfortunately, just gotta go with it and figure it out the best I can and be there for my teammates as much as I can and make sure I come into work and do my job.”
Has Westbrook earned the right to finish games? Here’s what the numbers say.
Westbrook is averaging 18.3 points per for the Lakers, which is third-best on the team behind only James (29) and Davis (24). Westbrook is second on the team in rebounds (7.8), first in assists (7.6), fourth in steals (1.1). Critics will point to missed assignments on defense and his abysmal shooting from the 3-point line (29%) and the free-throw line (66%) as major anchors to his game, which are legit reasons. But his 43.5% shooting percentage from the field is nearly the same as teammate Carmelo Anthony (43.7%), and Anthony is beloved by the home fans and almost begs him to shoot each time he touches the ball. Steph Curry – widely regarded as the greatest long-range shooter in basketball – is shooting 42% from the field.
How about the turnovers? OK, Westbrook is among the league leaders in turnovers per game (4.1) but so are other All-Stars who handle the ball a ton: James Harden (4.8), Luka Doncic (4.3), Trae Young (4.1). If there’s a major blocker in Westbrook getting crunch-time minutes, it’s his penchant for being loose with the ball. A point guard’s top priority is ball security.
In terms of team offense and defense, the Lakers are among the league leaders in points per game (110), so the offense is not the biggest problem. The big problem lies on the defensive end, where the Lakers rank near the bottom (112). Only three teams are giving up more points per game in the entire NBA: Charlotte, Sacramento, Houston.
Even though Westbrook is publicly saying he’s “comfortable” being booed by L.A. fans, he is human. It has to be eating him up. As a lifelong Lakers fan who attended the championship parades in the early 2000s and idolized Kobe Bryant, this season has been one giant downer for Brodie. And the fan outrage is having a negative impact on him.
Lakers fans have unfairly put much of the blame on the team’s disappointing season on Westbrook. It’s easy to point a finger at Westbrook because his miscues are highlighted and magnified in the media. The memes are relentless and the trolling are downright vicious.
But Westbrook isn’t the only reason why the Lakers are closer to being a lottery team. LeBron and Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka bear a lot of the responsibility, too. The roster was poorly constructed from the beginning, mixing and matching old veterans with a bunch of journeyman JAGs. There are only four forwards on the roster (LeBron, Stanley Johnson, Trevor Ariza, Carmelo Anthony) and too many average guards. The mere fact that Stanley Johnson – who signed three 10-day contracts before earning a full deal – is part of the regular rotation speaks volumes on how thin the Lakers are on the wings.
“The most important part is that I continue to use my gift to play basketball, and use that platform to help people around the world. That’s all I can do. That’s it,” Westbrook said.
He continued: “As it pertains to the team, the team is not getting booed. So you’re asking about me. That’s all I can respond about is myself, and what I’m able to do to be able to mentally stay in the right place and enjoy being at home, enjoy having the opportunity to be able to see my kids, take them to school every morning. See my family, my mom, my dad, and my close friends every day, and I don’t take that part for granted. Basketball is a short time of your life. I enjoy it, have fun, and want to compete at the highest level, but it’s not the end-all-be-all. There’s something bigger than basketball that we can do as people, and I understand that, so that’s why I’m comfortable with whatever comes. Cheers, boos, it doesn’t really matter.”