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Roundtable: Russell Westbrook Dilemma, Frank Vogel and Trade Ideas for Lakers

Can the Lakers salvage the season? The Crossover staff answers.
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The drama surrounding the Lakers escalated Wednesday night when coach Frank Vogel reportedly received approval from the team’s management to bench Russell Westbrook in L.A’.s 111–104 loss to the Pacers. So what needs to happen for the team to salvage its season?

The Crossover staff answers questions about Westbrook’s future, the coaching staff and the NBA trade deadline.

Will a coaching change fix the Lakers?

Howard Beck: This is like asking if Elmer’s glue will fix the New York subway system. It’s not even the right question. The Lakers’ problem isn’t coaching; it’s personnel. Damn near the entire league—scouts, coaches, executives—panned the Russell Westbrook trade when it happened. No one outside of the Lakers front office thought Westbrook was a good fit with LeBron. And the Lakers gave up half their rotation (and some of their best defenders) to get him. Phil Jackson, Pat Riley and Gregg Popovich combined wouldn’t fix this.

Chris Mannix: ​​In Frank Vogel’s first season, the Lakers won a title. In his second, they were, perhaps, an Anthony Davis first-round injury away from beating Phoenix and at least advancing to the Finals. In both seasons the Lakers owned a top-three defense. Did Vogel somehow lose his touch? Did he steer away from his defensive principles? No, he got handed a deeply flawed roster, one that was worsened by an extended injury to Davis. Vogel isn’t the Lakers’ problem, and replacing him won’t fix anything. How do I know? Because in the six games Vogel missed last month in COVID-19 protocols, the Lakers, under lead assistant David Fizdale, went 1–5.

Michael Pina: Absolutely not. Anthony Davis is hurt, Russell Westbrook makes little sense in any context playing big minutes on a team with lofty goals, and the rest of the roster is deeply flawed.

Frank Vogel won a championship two seasons ago. He isn’t perfect (it took far too long earlier this season for him to shelve DeAndre Jordan), but this team’s issues go deeper than any scheme or rotation-related decision a head coach can make.

Rohan Nadkarni: A coaching change will not do much for the Lakers. David Fizdale didn’t exactly light the world on fire when he briefly took over for Frank Vogel earlier this season. It’s now been repeated by several people at several different times this season: Frank Vogel is not blameless, but he is very far down the list of reasons this Lakers season has been disappointing. Between the roster construction and the AD injury, Vogel hasn’t exactly been given much to work with.

Robin Lundberg: No, a coaching change will not fix the Lakers. It’s almost disturbing how little equity Frank Vogel earned from winning an NBA championship. The Lakers’ roster is the problem. With Anthony Davis out, LeBron James is the only top-tier player on the team and AD wasn’t even playing to his capabilities prior to the injury. And beyond those two the personnel is abysmal. But alas, the coach is always the easiest scapegoat.

Can the Lakers make it work with Westbrook?

Beck: They should stagger LeBron and Westbrook as much as possible, so Westbrook can do what he does best—handle and create. They should close most games with Westbrook on the bench, as they did Wednesday night, to allow for better spacing and defense. And Westbrook should shoot less, especially from distance and especially in tight fourth quarters. Please, stop laughing.

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Mannix: ​​I don’t see how. Westbrook was livid at being benched during crunch time of Wednesday’s loss to Indiana, but shelving Westbrook in key minutes should have happened sooner. He’s shooting 43% from the floor, 30% from three and is committing more than four turnovers per game. You can’t keep a player like that out there, no matter how high-profile he is. Westbrook may not like it—nay, Westbrook won’t like it—but the Lakers’ best fourth-quarter lineups do not include him.

Pina: Probably not, short of a Hail Mary trade that brings in more sensible pieces and Westbrook being happy with a reduction in his own minutes/touches/responsibilities. The “check engine” light has been flashing since Day 1, and now there’s smoke coming out of the hood.

In a limited sample size, the Lakers have been great when small with LeBron James, Davis and Westbrook on the floor, but 1) those groups can’t play 48 minutes, and 2) Westbrook’s shortcomings on both ends will fester in crunchtime throughout the playoffs—assuming the Lakers make it.

Nadkarni: We’ve been asking this question about Westbrook for five years now. At some point, it’s on him to make it work with his team. After the loss to the Pacers, in which Westbrook didn’t play the final minutes, he walked off the court early and didn’t speak with the media. I commend Vogel for finally closing a game without Russ, which is a lot easier said than done when you have to manage the team dynamics of a decision like that. It’s now on Westbrook to accept a change in his role, even if that role isn’t commensurate with his salary or previous success.

Lundberg: It looks like no team can truly make it work with Russell Westbrook. He will forever have averaging a triple double on his resume. But playing for as many teams as he has, alongside so many superstars, and to continuously be a detriment to winning has to tarnish his legacy. Westbrook's crunch-time decision making, aloof defense and lack of shooting touch are enough to outweigh the positive contributions he makes.

What should the Lakers do at the trade deadline?

Beck: Politely ask the Wizards to send back Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Montrezl Harrell for Westbrook. After the line goes dead, call everyone else and see if anyone will take Talen Horton-Tucker and a 2028 first-round pick for … well, something useful. Never mind. The Lakers are screwed.

Mannix: I don’t see a deal that makes an appreciable difference. The Lakers can make eyes at Jerami Grant all they want, but if the Pistons shop Grant—no sure thing—other teams will have better offers than the Talen Horten-Tucker–Kendrick Nunn package the Lakers can dangle. The Lakers had a chance to make a deal last year, when they refused to include Horton-Tucker in a discussed deal with Toronto that would have brought back Kyle Lowry. And they made the Westbrook trade when Buddy Hield was on the table, for less. Those were the opportunities to meaningfully reshape the roster. Now? It’s too late.

Pina: Short of moving Westbrook, which seems unlikely, try and squeeze as much of a return as they can from Talen Horton-Tucker, whatever picks they’re allowed to trade and any other salary that’s large enough to bring someone talented back. (All of this is much easier said than done.)

Nadkarni: ​​I mean, they should certainly try to upgrade the roster. But what options do the Lakers have? Is anyone clamoring for the package of Talen Horton-Tucker and Kendrick Nunn? Who in their right minds is giving up anyone of value for Westbrook right now? The easy answer is to say they should make a move. The difficult one is figuring out what that move is. Ultimately, this team needs to find players who actually complement LeBron and Davis and can stay on the court late in games. It doesn’t have to be a sexy name—the Lakers already made that mistake a few times over in the offseason—but finding more Stanley Johnson types, maybe even with a little better shooting stroke, would help this team field competent lineups in close games.

Lundberg: I'm not sure there is much for the Lakers to do. Trading Russ would be a duh; I just don't know how there could be any takers at this point. And they don't exactly have much to offer of value otherwise. Their best bet is for Anthony Davis to come back at his best and to see some internal development from the likes of Malik Monk, Stanley Johnson and Austin Reaves. However, it looks like there could be another play-in in the future for L.A. The one reason not to totally count them out remains LeBron James.

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