From the moment the Lakers traded for Russell Westbrook — at the urging of LeBron James and Anthony Davis — there were questions about fit and the general wisdom of the move with anyone who had watched Westbrook play in recent years. Westbrook does not work well off the ball — what are you going to do, take the ball out of LeBron’s hands? — and wasn’t efficient when he did have it in Washington and Houston. Plus, Westbrook was part of a shift away from players who could play good defense to get more offensive firepower.
It all went worse than even cynics predicted, and coach Frank Vogel paid the price when the season ended.
Now comes word that firing was partly because Vogel couldn’t make the ill-conceived Westbrook pairing work, reports Sam Amick of The Athletic — who also hints at the idea the Lakers could run it back with Westbrook.
When the decision was made to fire Vogel, sources say his handling of Westbrook and the inability to find a way to make him a more productive part of the program were among the factors that played a big part. There was a strong sense that it was on Vogel to make the Westbrook experiment work, and the fact that it didn’t led to questions about whether Westbrook had been put in a position to succeed. That sure smells like the hope of a Russ revival to me.
And how’s this for a tidbit to tie this thread up: Phil Jackson is known to have been a fan of Westbrook’s throughout his career. Sources say Phil Jackson has no interest in taking on this coaching job (or any other) himself — let’s just stop that rumor right here — but his view of Westbrook is relevant. As we’ve established, Jackson’s voice matters again.
Why would the Lakers start leaking word that it was Vogel’s fault (when everyone knows it wasn’t), why hint they might bring Westbrook back after an unmitigated disaster of a season?
The league’s 29 other GMs know this Lakers’ season was a dumpster fire, and they know LeBron will turn 38 next season — the Lakers are as win now as it gets. Those other teams are not going to take on Westbrook and his $47.1 million contract in a trade without the Lakers throwing in a sweetner. Example No. 1 of what I’m talking about: Houston would not trade John Wall to the Lakers — even though Wall did not play a minute for the Rockets — unless the Lakers threw in a future first-round pick (2027). Every other team will be the same, they will want something of value from the Lakers to take Westbrook off their hands.
What the Lakers need is negotiating leverage. The best way to do that is to suggest they might bring Westbrook back, saying it was Vogel’s fault, not the fact that Westbrook can’t shoot from outside about five feet, and is lazy both working off the ball and on defense. So the Lakers are dropping hints they might run it back.
The problem with that gambit: You have to be willing to run it back. If everyone knows Rob Pelinka is bluffing, there is no leverage. All of which means there is a chance Westbrook is back with the Lakers next season, to the horror of Lakers’ fans and Westbrook himself.
It’s a slim chance, the Lakers will try desperately to trade Westbrook this summer. But if no decent offer materializes, we could see Westbrook back in Lakers’ gold. And the next coach can find out just how hard it is to make things flow with him and LeBron on the floor together.