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The Lakers Have a Russell Westbrook-Sized Elephant in the Room

Los Angeles still doesn’t have a clear answer about the point guard’s future.

For the first time since the sputtering end to their 2022 season, the Lakers’ principals gathered in a room to discuss why their upcoming campaign will be different. And in the face of question after question about Russell Westbrook’s fit with the current roster, the only thing clear is the Lakers still don’t have an answer.

Nearly everyone of import was asked about Westbrook—in the final year of a contract that will pay him $47.1 million this year—and all of them, including Russ himself, did not sound nearly as excited about the former MVP’s presence as they did a year ago. (Even the customary photo op was subdued.)

When asked if he could commit to Westbrook being on the team at the end of the season, basketball operations head Rob Pelinka demurred, offering platitudes about how the front office would look into all routes to improving the roster, which is not exactly a vote of confidence for Russ’s long-term future. Pelinka even made sure to add that the Lakers would be willing to part with first-round draft picks in a potential trade to bolster the rotation—long believed to be the price to move Westbrook’s contract.

When asked if Westbrook, who has not come off the bench since his rookie year, would start for the team, new head coach Darvin Ham said, “We’re ways away. We have several options.” He went on to add players with a defensive mindset will be given priority when it comes to playing time. (The Lakers had a 113.5 defensive rating with Russ on the floor last season, per Cleaning the Glass.)

LeBron James and Anthony Davis both expressed faith playing with Westbrook could still work, though they didn’t exactly dive into specifics. Davis said Russ needs to continue to be himself, which, when considering Westbrook’s efficiency to usage ratio, doesn’t quite hold up to scrutiny. James said Russ could still be successful in Los Angeles, though again not really outlining how that would function while on the floor.

Meanwhile Patrick Beverley, a long-time Westbrook nemesis, claims Russ has been his best friend since he joined the team. This had to be clarified specifically because of how heated the rivalry has been between the two players for years. It’s also possible if not likely Beverley ends up starting and Westbrook does not, which has the potential to create an awkward dynamic for a player (Russ) who had issues with his playing time at points last season.

And as for Westbrook himself, he summed up the questions surrounding his spot on the team succinctly: “Whether they want me here or not doesn't really matter,” he said. Later adding, rather philosophically, “We all have jobs, and some people at our jobs don't like us or don't want us there.”

Russell Westbrook speaks at Lakers media day

Russell Westbrook talks at Lakers media day. 

It feels mean spirited to pile on Westbrook. In an ideal world, regardless of his contract, someone as talented as him could find a way to tweak his game to better complement the stars on his team. Instead, as long as he’s on the roster, he serves as a constant reminder for how precipitously the Lakers have fallen since their championship run in 2020. Westbrook alone is not responsible for Los Angeles’s current predicament—fighting simply to make the playoffs as opposed to being seen as a contender—but he’s the symbol for a head-scratching roster construction.

Why there are still so many players on this team who can’t quite shoot and can’t quite defend remains a mystery. With or without Westbrook in the rotation, Ham will have his work cut out for him trying to coax championship-level 3-and-D play from the likes of Lonnie Walker IV, Kendrick Nunn, Dennis Schroder, and Austin Reaves. Who on this team is expected to guard Kawhi Leonard? Luka Dončić? Devin Booker?

That’s why the Westbrook questions are relevant. Because trading him for players who are better fits is the Lakers’ only real chance at building a title contender this season. It’s hard to imagine the present-day roster making some kind of miracle run, even with a healthy James and Davis. (Notably, the Lakers were outscored with that duo on the floor last season, with or without Westbrook.)

Ultimately, as Pelinka said himself, the organization must do everything they can to compete in the twilight of LeBron’s career. While media day is a long way away from the playoffs, the Lakers still need to figure out how they’re going to make that happen. 

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