There might be no player in basketball who wants a do-over more than Russell Westbrook.
Westbrook, who joined the Los Angeles Lakers in a trade from the Washington Wizards last season, has been nothing like the All-Star LA expected. The 2016-17 MVP has failed to replicate his past success and, as a result, has brought the Lakers down from potential championship contender to borderline playoff team.
But what if that’s not entirely true?
While Westbrook has underperformed, his numbers bear a closer resemblance to his first 13 seasons than you might expect. The only thing that has changed are the expectations, proving that sometimes, playing for a popular team in a big city isn’t always the best situation.
Russell Westbrook reveals how Lakers fans have treated him and his family
Westbrook’s reception from Lakers fans has quickly gone from welcoming to hostile. The guard has become the face of LA’s struggles, averaging 18.1 points for the 28-36 Lakers.
Monday night, LA fell 117-110 to the San Antonio Spurs in a game where LeBron James sat out due to knee soreness. Westbrook, who went just 1-of-6 in the fourth quarter, explained what he and his family have gone through over the last several months in Hollywood.
“Right now, [my wife Nina] reached a point, and my family has reached a point, where it’s really weighing on them,” said Westbrook via The Athletic. “And it’s very unfortunate, just for me personally, because this is just a game. This is just a game. This is not end all, be all.”
“It’s gotten so bad where my family don’t even want to go to home games.”
Last week, Westbrook’s wife Nina went at it with FS1’s Skip Bayless over his criticisms of her husband. He, and other fans, have coined the nickname “Westbrick” for the poor-shooting point guard.
“It’s shaming my name, my legacy for my kids,” Westbrook added in regards to the moniker. “It’s a name that means (something). Not just to me, but to my wife, to my mom, my dad, the ones that kind of paved the way for me.”
Westbrook is showing how hard it can be to play in a big market
Last summer, LA envisioned Westbrook teaming up with James and Anthony Davis for a successful season and subsequent playoff run. Now, it’s looking forward to moving on from the maligned star.
Clearly, Westbrook’s fit with his hometown team has been off since day one. But this season has led to a harsh reality: Sometimes, playing for the big-market team with high expectations isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
In 2021-22, Westbrook is scoring just 18.1 points per game, his lowest average since his second professional season. The former UCLA Bruin is also shooting 43.3% from the field, 28.2% from three, and registering 4.0 turnovers a game.
Those numbers, while nowhere near MVP-level, are actually right in line with some of Russ’ best seasons with the small-market Oklahoma City Thunder.
For the 2018-19 campaign, Westbrook’s last in OKC, the guard shot 42.8% from the field. That number is even higher than the 42.5% he shot in 2016-17, the year he took home league MVP. He also hit 29.0% of his threes but took over two more attempts than what he’s been doing with the Lakers. Additionally, he was averaging 4.5 turnovers per game.
In total, Westbrook has had five seasons with a worse field-goal percentage, three with a worse three-point percentage, and seven with more turnovers than his current season. Many of the flaws that plague him now are the exact same ones Thunder fans gladly overlooked.
The reality is the nine-time All-Star Westbrook isn’t that different from the Purple and Gold Westbrook. It was just easier to mask his faults while playing for a small-market team with a fan base that adored him. Now, under the spotlight of playing with LeBron James and the mega-popular Los Angeles Lakers, everything Russ does wrong is amplified 10 times over.
Are there things Westbrook could be doing better? Absolutely. But the Lakers and their fans should realize that this was always going to be Russ, for better or worse.
Other small-market stars can learn from the Russell Westbrook-Lakers experiment
As NBA fans, we’re taught that big stars eventually find their way to big markets. If they’re stuck in New Orleans, they need to force their way to LA. If they’re in Portland, it’s best to demand a move to New York City.
But the grass isn’t always greener. While the lifestyle and endorsement opportunities are tempting, players must also realize how failing in a big city can destroy your reputation for years.
The LA-born Westbrook ran Oklahoma City. Three years after his final game with the franchise, he’s now a $44.2 million burden no team wants to touch with a 10-foot pole.
Today, Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal, Zion Williamson, and Karl-Anthony Towns are a few small-market All-Stars who could one day move to a larger city. But as Westbrook has proven, that’s not always the best thing to do so. Can you imagine Williamson’s current situation with the New Orleans Pelicans playing out in New York with the Knicks instead?
Sometimes, it’s worth it to stay in a place where there is far less pressure and lower expectations. If you miss 10 shots in a row, you won’t get booed. If you have eight turnovers, your family won’t get harassed. And if you win, you’ll be immortalized in that city for life, as Giannis Antetokounmpo has just proven with the Milwaukee Bucks.
Obviously, players are always going to have a natural draw toward big markets and prestigious franchises. But they should be prepared to handle all the expectations that come with it.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.