Russell Westbrook sits on the bench next to Anthony Davis and Patrick Beverley during the Los Angeles Lakers’ game against the Los Angeles Clippers on Oct. 20, 2022 in Los Angeles.
LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers are in uncharted territory, with no answers and no path to contention.
It hasn’t been the case for James in nearly two decades, it’s a hard adjustment and certainly not the way he envisioned his golden years playing for the golden franchise in Los Angeles. The Lakers’ organizational ethos has been simple, effective and almost impossible to duplicate: acquire stars and contend. It’s hard to recall a period in modern NBA history where the Lakers had two bona fide stars, not just in name but impact, and yet not have at least a realistic vision of being a threat.
James had years of carrying teams that first stint in Cleveland that turned out to not fill expectations, but his excellence validated those expectations. Shaquille O’Neal came to Los Angeles as a grown star, but it took a few years for Kobe Bryant to be a consistent one, thus resulting in the Lakers reaching potential.
These Lakers are nothing like either of those situations, and while three games can appear hasty, nothing with the current roster or anything on the horizon would lead one to believe the Lakers can make their way through a crowded Western Conference.
It’s not just being winless in the interim, but it doesn’t feel like even the positive moments are sustainable and the flaws are loud.
Russell Westbrook is everybody’s villain and at this point, his play makes it easy to pile on. He’s a culprit, but not the only one. The roster construction is porous, the performances have been underwhelming and all that’s left is accountability.
James has refused to criticize Westbrook publicly, particularly after Westbrook’s boneheaded decision to try to go two-for-one late against Portland with the Lakers nursing a one-point lead. That approach from James would be admirable if he didn’t play such a huge role in Westbrook becoming a Laker to begin with, as the Lakers changed course on draft night in 2021. It’s easy to see why James wanted Westbrook as a running mate, considering Westbrook was still productive and James battled injuries the year before.
But regardless of the logic of the moment, it hasn’t worked and James has to wear it, along with Rob Pelinka and everyone else in the Lakers’ brain trust.
In a way, expecting him to be anything but the Russell Westbrook he’s been, expecting him to play a mature game rather than one of unvarnished fury, is the Lakers’ fault.
Haven’t they seen his movies?
But Westbrook has to own not being a better shooter, defender or decision-maker, or judging his play by the useless triple-double accumulation. The day was going to come where his gifts would wane. Perhaps it wasn’t suggested he evolve, or maybe if it was, he didn’t listen.
The Lakers could do Westbrook a favor and trade him, rather than continue this uncomfortable relationship that seems to benefit no one while pushing a proud and historic player further into the abyss.
Trading Westbrook wouldn’t change the Lakers’ outlook, even if they acquired a shooter and big man in return. At best, it looks like a play-in team or one on the fringes.
It doesn’t look like a squad worthy of James’ greatness or one worthy of recapturing magic from the Orlando bubble years ago, to validate a title that appears harder to define the further we get from it.