How Russell Westbrook’s Lakers tenure changed his career trajectory

How Russell Westbrook’s Lakers tenure changed his career trajectory

The Russell Westbrook experiment with the Los Angeles Lakers was ill-fated from the start.

The former league MVP went from being atop the league’s point-guard hierarchy to becoming one of the NBA’s most criticized players over the past two seasons, experiencing one of the most dramatic slides in recent memory. But this season, he accepted a role coming off the bench and was even recently favored to win Sixth Man of the Year.

After being traded to Utah on Wednesday in part of a three-team deal, the question is simple: What is his current value? 

It’s a key query considering Westbrook will likely be waived by the Jazz, which could mean he’d enter the market. According to Bleacher Report, the Los Angeles Clippers and Chicago Bulls have interest in acquiring him should he become a free agent. 

While Westbrook’s future remains uncertain, let’s take a step back and analyze how the 2017 MVP and future Hall of Famer — who is making $47.1 million this season — arrived at this moment and where he can go from here. 

The Lakers traded for Westbrook in July 2021, giving up multiple key pieces from their 2020 championship squad. They thought they were building a super team by putting the league’s triple-double king alongside “The King” LeBron James and Anthony Davis. The move made the Lakers instant favorites to win a championship.  

But things went downhill quickly. 

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Westbrook’s debut with the Lakers was supposed to be a grand homecoming, but it ended up being an utter disappointment. Born in Long Beach, Westbrook grew up a big Lakers fan. He used to ditch school at Leuzinger High in Lawndale to attend Lakers championship parades. But in front of his family and friends, he bombed, finishing with eight points on 4-for-13 shooting, five rebounds, four assists and the worst plus-minus (-23) of anyone on the court.  

He continued to struggle over the next few months, unable to find his fit alongside James and Davis. He often looked out of rhythm. He struggled from the perimeter. He couldn’t figure out how to share playmaking duties with James. It didn’t take long before his name was on the trading block. 

Former Lakers coach Frank Vogel, whose own job was hanging by a thread for much of last season, made a pivotal decision in a game against Indiana on Jan. 19 to bench Westbrook for the final 3:52 after he blew a defensive assignment and shot 5-for-17 from the field. Westbrook left the court seconds before the game ended and didn’t speak to reporters. That move set a new precedent: The Lakers were not afraid of alienating Westbrook. 

Vogel continued to bench Westbrook down the stretch when he thought it was necessary, a mortifying development for the longtime superstar. After he missed a game because of back tightness on Feb. 9, Westbrook attributed the injury to too much time on the bench, saying, “I’m not accustomed to, like, sitting down in long stretches and, like, getting up and then, like, moving quickly.”

Things only got worse for Westbrook. 

At times, he was booed by his home crowd. Some TV personalities started calling him “Westbrick.” He averaged 18.5 points, 7.4 rebounds and 7.1 assists last season, his fewest points average since his second season in the league. And he had just 10 triple-doubles, compared to the 38 he had the season prior with Washington. 

The Lakers went on to miss the playoffs, failing to even make the play-in tournament after finishing with a record of 33-49. 

Many blamed Westbrook for the team’s collapse. Others thought he was being scapegoated. 

During his exit interview in April, Westbrook talked about his poor rapport with Vogel and how he felt attacked by the media.

“I never felt I had a fair chance on the basketball front or on any front,” he said at the time. 

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The Lakers went on to fire Vogel and hire Darvin Ham in May. Ham said he was excited to coach Westbrook, who, as expected, opted into his $47.1 million option in June after his market value had plummeted.

Over the summer, things remained rocky for Westbrook. At Summer League in Las Vegas in July, he and James attended a Lakers game, but they reportedly didn’t speak to each other in public. Soon after, Westbrook parted ways with his longtime agent, Thad Foucher, who said in a statement that he believed “Westbrook’s best option is to stay with the Lakers,” which clearly implied Westbrook thought differently. 

However, at Media Day in September, Westbrook said he was “very excited” for the upcoming season. When asked about the potential of him not starting, he said, “Whatever I’m told, I’m told.” 

During the Lakers’ opener on Oct. 18, Westbrook had 19 points and 11 rebounds in the team’s loss to Golden State, but he stirred up a bit of controversy again by saying he “absolutely” believed a hamstring strain he suffered during the preseason finale could’ve been caused by him coming off the bench that night, a comment which clearly frustrated Ham.   

He went on to be embroiled in controversy the first few games of the season. He took some poor shots down the stretch. He made some unwise decisions. And many in the basketball world believed he was the reason for their 0-3 start. 

But some thought the blame he was receiving was unfair. 

Said TNT commentator Charles Barkley: “It’s time for the Lakers to move him. They have taken all of his joy out of life and basketball.” Added Davis: “I can’t imagine how tough it is for him.” Said Clippers star Paul George: “Quite frankly, it’s not the team that’s geared for him with the roster they have. … He was very easily a 30-10-10 guy when he had the keys to the team.”

After three games, Ham made the decision to start bringing Westbrook off the bench. 

Westbrook, who had been a starter his entire career, actually looked much more comfortable in his new role. He had the ball in his hands more. He was more confident, more free, more at ease. 

Most importantly, he finally fully bought-in to his new reality. 

Things started to shift. Westbrook started to get cheers from the crowd when he’d enter the game. He’d infuse the team with a jolt of energy, showing glimmers of the player who was a nine-time All-Star. He started to look like himself again. He became a front-runner for Sixth Man of the Year. 

Eventually, the trade rumors around Westbrook started to dim. Did Ham finally figure out how to make the experiment work? But even though he found a much, much better situation for Westbrook, things clearly weren’t working.

The Lakers have struggled all season near the bottom of the Western Conference (they’re currently in 13th place).

Westbrook’s play was inconsistent, his shot selection continued to be questionable at times, and there were games when he’d be benched down the stretch, most recently in the team’s loss to New Orleans on Saturday. He sat the last 11 minutes and finished with 15 points, four rebounds and four assists in 23 minutes. 

“Whatever decision they make, that’s up to them,” Westbrook said that night. “I can only speak to what I’ve been doing: being professional, coming to work, doing my job the best way I know how to.”

But that night, the nail might’ve been put in the coffin for Westbrook with the Lakers. 

Following Kyrie Irving requesting a trade from the Brooklyn Nets on Friday, James was asked Saturday if Irving is the type of player who could help the Lakers cross the finish line. 

James called that a “duh” question. Then, after Irving was dealt to Dallas on Sunday, James told ESPN on Monday that he was “disappointed” that he wasn’t going to be reunited with his former teammate on the Cleveland Cavaliers, with whom he won a title in 2016. 

The thing is, Westbrook would have almost certainly been involved in any deal to acquire Irving. So, after James made those comments, the Lakers’ already tricky locker room dynamics were potentially harmed beyond repair. 

Westbrook didn’t speak to the media Monday or Tuesday. And during Tuesday’s game against Oklahoma City, during which James became the league’s all-time leading scorer, Westbrook got into a heated discussion with Ham in the locker room at halftime, per an ESPN report. 

It was clear that Westbrook had to go. 

This season, Westbrook averaged 15.9 points on 41.7% shooting, 6.2 rebounds and 7.5 assists in a career-low 28.7 minutes per game. He showed a willingness to come off the bench and do whatever the team needed. And he showed glimmers of greatness. 

But he also maintained his worst shooting percentage since his rookie year, and he showed a mercurialness that could make many franchises wary. 

Now, the question becomes what happens to him next? How will his tumultuous 19 month-stint with the Lakers impact his value? 

Currently, there are two teams that reportedly have interest in him, and perhaps more will join. 

What it will boil down to is this: Do teams believe Westbrook can still be great, and the Lakers were just the wrong fit? 

Or did his time with the Lakers sour his reputation beyond repair?

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