Wednesday night was the perfect summary of this year’s Los Angeles Lakers. The Purple and Gold blew a 15-point lead in a 111-104 home loss to the struggling Indiana Pacers. But the biggest takeaway, once again, was Russell Westbrook.
Westbrook has been the honorary punching bag throughout his first season in LA. After another poor shooting night, head coach Frank Vogel benched the former All-Star in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter. Now, Vogel has been given authority to bench Westbrook as he pleases, a move many would consider long overdue.
Limiting Russ’ minutes might sound like the solution to LA’s problems. But unfortunately, the controversial guard is not the biggest reason why the 22-23 Lakers have failed to meet expectations.
Russell Westbrook has had a difficult time gelling with the Los Angeles Lakers
When the Lakers acquired Westbrook from the Washington Wizards last offseason, there was cautious optimism. After all, the nine-time All-Star would be joining LeBron James and Anthony Davis to create one of the more-decorated trios in league history. What could go wrong?
As it turns out, a lot.
As the starting point guard in all 45 games, Westbrook has failed to be the star LA thought it was getting. The 33-year-old is averaging 18.5 points on 43.3% shooting, his lowest point total since his second season in the league with the Oklahoma City Thunder. While his turnovers are less of an issue now than earlier in the year, Westbrook also has more giveaways (188) than every other player in the league.
As a whole, Russ’s offensive rating of 100.0 is the lowest since his rookie season, while his 110.0 defensive rating ties his career-worst from last season. It all culminated to Wednesday, when after scoring just 14 points on 5-of-17 shooting and registering a -18, Westbrook sat all but 4:23 of the fourth quarter against Indiana, including the final four minutes or so in regulation.
Defense and injuries are larger issues than Westbrook’s poor play
Is Westbrook’s fit with the Lakers an issue? At this point, you’d be lying if you said it wasn’t. But through 45 games, the former MVP has been targeted as the main reason LA is just 22-23 and barely grasping onto a playoff spot.
In actuality, LA’s problems go far deeper than a single player. Even one as polarizing as Westbrook.
For starters, the Lakers’ defense has spiraled downward since Davis sprained his MCL on December 17. Before LA lost AD, it ranked 10th in the NBA with a 107.1 defensive rating. But over the last month, its 116.2 defensive rating is the fifth-worst in the league. While Westbrook does bear some of the defensive responsibility, the Lakers have simply fallen short when it comes to playing passable defense.
Injuries have also served a major role in LA’s down year. Over halfway through the season, the Lakers have yet to see Kendrick Nunn, their fifth-highest paid player, on the court. All but four players (Westbrook, Malik Monk, Carmelo Anthony, and Avery Bradley) have missed 10 or more games. And the trio of LeBron, AD, and Russ has appeared in only 15 contests, or exactly one-third of LA’s games.
But above deficient defense and poor injury luck, there is one overwhelming reason why the Lakers are in the midst of a nightmare season.
The Lakers’ roster construction was a problem from the start
Even when the defense was better, LA was losing games. When guys were healthy and available, LA was losing games. And even on Wednesday, when Westbrook sat out the final minutes of a close game, LA lost.
The reality is clear and painful if you’re a Lakers fan: The roster is simply not good enough to win.
Westbrook’s arrival and subsequent $44 million salary undoubtedly limited LA’s roster options. As a result, general manager Rob Pelinka scoured the market for veterans willing to play on one-year, minimum-salary deals. That meant a roster of veteran retreads, including but not limited to DeAndre Jordan, Dwight Howard, Rajon Rondo, Kent Bazemore, Wayne Ellington, and Bradley.
Aside from Monk and Anthony, nearly all of LA’s veteran-minimum fliers have backfired. As a result, the Lakers’ depth is nonexistent. All in a year where injuries and COVID-19 make a strong bench more important than ever.
With the trade deadline just three weeks away, the Lakers have already moved on from Rondo and are shopping both Jordan and Bazemore. In a perfect world, they would re-tool their entire bench in order to give their stars more support. But it might be too little, too late for the Purple and Gold to flip a roster that was doomed to fail from the start.
Say what you want about Westbrook. But his numbers and play ultimately remain in line with the majority of his 14-year career. After acquiring him, it was Pelinka’s job to construct a roster best-equipped to work with him, not in spite of him. And the GM’s failure to do so has the Lakers far away from being the contenders they were supposed to be.