The idea still contains truth: The Lakers needed a third star and ball handler to take on the load when 37-year-old LeBron James and running mate Anthony Davis were injured or resting.
The Lakers also have long been an organization driven by star power. The Lakers have lived by the adage that talent matters most and star players will figure out how to make it work.
Not this year.
Any postmortem on the Lakers’ 32-49 season — one that doesn’t even have them in the play-in — has to start with the trade for Russell Westbrook last offseason. Westbrook told LeBron and Anthony Davis he would do what it would take to fit in, and in turn LeBron and Davis lobbied hard for Westbrook to be the Lakers’ bold offseason move. Star power wins out for the Lakers and they made the trade, sending out quality role players and picks in the process.
Los Angeles figured out quickly this was not going to work. Dan Woike and Broderick Turner at the Los Angeles Times shared one telling story.
“Russell Westbrook never respected Frank [Vogel] from Day 1,” said one Lakers staff member with knowledge of the situation. “The moment Frank said anybody who gets the rebound can bring it up the court, which is just how the NBA is played these days, Russ was like, ‘Naw, I’m the point guard. Give the ball to me. Everybody run.’
Frank was like, ‘No, we have Talen [Horton-Tucker)] We have Austin [Reaves]. We have Malik [Monk]. We have LeBron. We have AD. They can all bring the ball up.’ He was like, ‘Nope, I’m the point guard. Give me that s***. Everybody get out the way.’ “From that point on, in training camp, it was a wrap, ‘cause now Russ is a fish out of water. He doesn’t know what to do. That’s how that started.”
Beyond the basketball fit where Westbrook was not the creator the Lakers hoped for, Westbrook did not fit as a personality in the locker room, reports Ramona Shelburne at ESPN.
“I think they lost faith in Russ as a ball handler after the first few weeks,” one team source said. “And he knew it because they took him off the ball and started asking him to stand in the corner or set screens.”…
Westbrook didn’t make things any easier on himself either. “I think the problem with Russ has been Russ’s response to all of it,” a team source said. “He doesn’t leave a window for people to have empathy for him.”
Westbrook grew defiant and stubborn in the face of criticism. His nightly sessions with the local media were often combative and terse.
Westbrook often said this season the move to Los Angeles was good for him personally and he was happy — he was playing in his home city and close to his family. That mattered to him more than basketball itself.
While Westbrook will pick up his $47 million player option, it’s hard to imagine him back with the Lakers next season. However, moving on from Westbrook would cost the Lakers no matter what path they choose. Trading Westbrook — regardless of where — will mean giving up future draft picks and/or taking on other team’s unwanted longer-term contracts that run longer than Westbrook’s one remaining season. A buyout would put nearly $15.7 million in dead money on the Lakers’ books for three years, and Shelburne reports Westbrook himself would not welcome the idea.
There are other problems to fix and plenty of changes coming to the Lakers this offseason. Nobody around the league expects Frank Vogel to be back as coach, plus the Lakers need to get younger, more athletic, and bring in some defensive role players. All of which is easier said than done for a team headed into the luxury tax again.
But the core change will be around Westbrook, one way or another.