Why the Lakers must start reconsidering Russell Westbrook’s role if this season is to be saved

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The Los Angeles Lakers had a real shot at overcoming a 13-point road deficit to defeat the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday. They had managed to reduce the lead to four points with just over a minute to go. The game ultimately hinged on a two-possession swing. Kings forward Chimezie Metu scored 3 points to increase the lead to seven, but only after bouncing off the failure of a player who has won 30 times more this season than him.

The precise nature of Russell Westbrook’s decisive defeat hardly needs to be described as it has been such a common feature of his career. Westbrook dribbled most of the clock before hoisting an ill-fated 3-point shooter. Clicking.

It wasn’t even the only such stunt Westbrook missed in a time of crisis. The catch-and-shoot looks from the corner are slightly easier to swallow, but there’s a reason the Kings left it so open. It’s a hit every NBA defender wants Westbrook to take.

There is a daring to take shots like this when you started Game 2 of 12 from the field, but then such exits become more and more frequent for Westbrook. After a miserable two-week spell in which he averaged nearly six turnovers per game, Westbrook traded one form of handoff to the other team for another. While he’s only returned the ball four times in his last four games, he’s shot 15 of 59 from the field in the process. It’s too early to speculate whether or not this correlation equates to causation, but these Ugly 3 don’t exactly support the idea that Westbrook is going through some sort of identity crisis. If anything, it’s quite the opposite. Westbrook plays like he’s still a superstar, and perhaps more importantly, the Lakers treat him like he’s still a superstar … but he’s not always a superstar.

Only a superstar can start a 2 of 12 game on the field and can still take the kind of shots Westbrook used to take down the stretch. Generally speaking, only superstars can even stay on the ground when they are struggling so badly. Talen Horton-Tucker has only played a decisive seven minutes all season, for example. He’s the fourth-highest-paid Laker, but he generally lives up to the standard most NBA players are held to. While he’ll see the ground whenever he’s healthy, extended playing time is earned on merit, and Horton-Tucker has struggled mightily for long stretches of this season. So is Westbrook. But Westbrook has made nine more All-Star Games than Horton-Tucker.

It’s a metric that Frank Vogel tends to value, and it hasn’t always been a negative trait. Vogel has never wavered about Rajon Rondo’s place in the 2020 rotation despite all the numbers suggesting he should. Rondo was a key part of the Lakers’ championship race in the Orlando bubble. That same approach backfired last season when Andre Drummond retained a role he didn’t deserve before being finally put on the bench in the very last game of the season. For better or for worse and without knowing how much locker room policy plays into it, Vogel trusts his veterans. It has become clear that Westbrook is not a particularly trustworthy player at this point in his career.

That doesn’t mean he was entirely bad. During the stretches he was pretty good. But that’s true for a lot of Lakers. Malik Monk was in and out of the rotation at the start of the season, but he’s now averaging over 20 points per game since Christmas. Carmelo Anthony has been great at home and much worse on the road. This is what non-superstars tend to do. They play well part of the time and badly the rest. This is where Westbrook is at this point in his career, but his role doesn’t reflect that. He hasn’t played less than 30 minutes in a competitive game this season. He leads the NBA in clutch minutes and ranks fifth in clutch shot attempts.

And with more than half of the season on the books, it’s just starting to wonder if it should be. None of this is necessarily meant to be taken to extremes. Westbrook shouldn’t be fully benched. Whether he should even be demoted to a sixth man role is debatable, although given his easier adjustment with the shooters on the Laker bench, it’s a reasonable position. No, the simple solution here is to treat Westbrook like any other player. Rather than giving him minutes based on his reputation, he should earn them with his game.

Westbrook didn’t play well in Sacramento on Wednesday. Perhaps the outcome would have been different if the Lakers had closed with someone else in their place. We’ll never know, but it should be a learning experience for the team. The next time Westbrook starts a 2 of 12 game from the field, it would probably be best not to let him miss shots 13 and 14.

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