The return of Russell Westbrook to a bench role for the Los Angeles Lakers’ preseason finale against the Sacramento Kings was one of the most discussed developments this past week.
Westbrook had a difficult time meshing with LeBron James and Anthony Davis in his maiden stint with Los Angeles last year and the move to the second unit is intended to give him more opportunities to handle the ball. He has not come off the bench since his rookie campaign in 2008 and the transition is expected to be a rough one, at least in its initial stages, considering how much the 2017 NBA Most Valuable Player has struggled to adapt to different situations in recent years.
The Lakers’ head coach Darvin Ham intended to use their Sacramento game as a dry run for their season opener versus the Golden State Warriors on October 19 (Manila time), but Westbrook only lasted five minutes before exiting with a hamstring injury.
Los Angeles went on to lose by 47 points, 133-86, to the Kings and they wrapped up their preseason with a 1-5 win-loss record. It was not an ideal build-up to the season for the Lakers and could be an omen of another difficult year for one of the NBA’s most storied franchises.
While the outlook is grim, Ham’s decision–and courage–to shift Westbrook to a bench role should be applauded. There are not many options available for this poorly constructed team and anything with a remote chance of success must be given a try.
James and Davis proved to be a lethal tandem in their run to the NBA title in 2020, yet it is often overlooked that they did this while surrounded by decent perimeter shooters such as Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Alex Caruso. While these three are no longer on the roster, Kendrick Nunn, Patrick Beverley, Lonnie Walker IV, and Austin Reaves can provide a decent approximation of their roles alongside the Lakers’ two superstars.
The fit of Westbrook’s poor three-point shooting and ball-dominant playing style with James and Davis was doubted by even the most casual fans prior to his acquisition last year. The hypothesis proved to be correct based on last season’s sample size and his shift to a reserve role is a quick fix for this upcoming season.
It is likely that Westbrook will be much more effective as the primary option of Los Angeles’ second unit and it could actually work. He played the best basketball of his career during the last few years of his Oklahoma City Thunder stint where he was the first, second, and third option on those teams. This will be the case for him yet again with the Lakers’ reserves and it might just kick off a triumphant redemption arc for the nine-time NBA All-Star.
However, the biggest obstacle to success for Ham’s experiment is Westbrook himself. The overwhelming self-confidence that allowed the 33-year-old to become a member of the NBA 75th Anniversary team is now a hindrance as he transitions to the twilight of his career. The two-time NBA scoring champion will have to set aside his ego and accept the diminished role that he has been given for this team to succeed.
The trade market for Westbrook has dried up and the only option for both him and the Lakers is to figure this out. An early run of success could pique another team’s interest in him or, even better, propel Los Angeles to a strong start and put them in the title conversation. This situation has devolved so much that it has reached a point where there is (almost) no way to go but up for the two parties.
It will be fascinating to see how things play out over the coming weeks as Westbrook decides whether he is willing to become a sixth man or if he better off finding his fifth NBA team.