The Lakers — whose only goal is to win a title — got trounced, 131-116, by the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks at Crypto.com Arena. It was never a remotely competitive affair unless you count a minor surge in the fourth quarter that momentarily closed the gap to 10. Russell Westbrook was on the bench for that run.
For the second straight game, Westbrook brought few positives to the table, heard boos from his hometown crowd, and was sidelined by Frank Vogel down the stretch. Over his past two games, the team's highest-paid player has shot a combined 4-of-21 for 15 points. Unlike what Anthony Davis implored him to do, he did contribute in “intangible” ways by focusing on “the little things.”
Against the New York Knicks, the Lakers won in overtime — allowing Westbrook to cloak his frustration in team-first pablum. Three days later, in a nationally-televised matchup against a true contender, Westbrook was unable to hold back the ire that has been building. He blasted Vogel.
This is where we've been heading.
On Jan. 19, while coaching for his job, Vogel — with the blessing of management — crossed a crucial threshold, though he didn't necessarily think he stepped on a third rail. He subbed the nine-time All-Star out for crunch-time against the Indiana Pacers. The Lakers lost. Westbrook exited the sideline and stadium early without talking to reporters or the team.
That moment sent off a firestorm as they hit the road for a pivotal East Coast trip. How would Russ respond?
When the team landed in Floria two days later, Westbrook said all the right things about how, while he was upset, he was mostly displeased about the loss, and that he had done everything the coaches had asked of him (veiled shade at Vogel). Following a win over the Orlando Magic, an upbeat Russ repeated those sentiments, though there was an eyebrow-raising disconnect between his and Vogel's recounting of their communication post-Pacers game.
Worth bringing this up again after Russ' criticism of Vogel on Tuesday, which included him saying there has been "no communication" with the Lakers coach about his role.
In Orlando, Russ & Vogel had utterly contrasting accounts of their dialogue post-Pacers benching (see thread) https://t.co/vTUjn1vhMP
— Michael Corvo (@michaelcorvoNBA) February 9, 2022
Despite a 2-4 trip, tensions seemed to ease as Westbrook played well, highlighted by a 35-point explosion vs. the Charlotte Hornets — notably, his only game this season without Davis and LeBron James. Davis praised Russ for being in “kill mode”. AD's return and LeBron's injury overshadowed any drama.
The return home has not been sweet. The Knicks game, frankly, was a dark, and, at times, a sad scene at Crypto. Westbrook was rattled by the jeering of the home crowd. He stumbled around. He looked like one of the NBA players in Space Jam who has his talent stolen by the Monstars and forgets how to play basketball.
Westbrook shanks another banker, now getting booed by home crowd. pic.twitter.com/4XishaS3c9
— Rob Perez (@WorldWideWob) February 6, 2022
Vogel played him for the final five minutes of regulation, in which the Lakers blew a seven-point lead. His benching in overtime was not controversial — it was necessary. Westbrook was not ecstatic about it.
After Russell Westbrook didn't move from the end of the bench to join the Lakers in the huddle, both DeAndre Jordan and Avery Bradley came over to check in on him. DJ is now sitting next to him.
— Michael Corvo (@michaelcorvoNBA) February 6, 2022
During the Knicks win and after, Davis and LeBron tried — for the umpteenth time, including opening night — to offer Russ support and encourage him to be aggressive; be the guy they thought they were getting when they pushed the front office to sacrifice championship-proven depth for a third “star.” They hoped Westbrook would take a few days at home to regroup and would bounce back in a big way, in a big game.
Instead, it was more of the same. Westbrook was an abject negative on the court — his indecision and shooting yips sputtered the offense. His defensive lapses and subtle mistakes stand out when he's not pushing the pace and creating buckets. He sat for the final 14 minutes.
Postgame, any simmering tensions boiled over and out into the open. Repeating a sentiment he's articulated multiple times, he called out the coaching staff for vacillating on his role.
“You never know when you’re coming in, you never know when you’re coming out. You never know when you’re playing, you never know… a bunch of things…It's a difficult process to be able to figure out and create some rhythm and some consistency where we can actually see what we’re able to do as a team, but those decisions are made by him and his coaching staff.”
A reporter then asked if Vogel has communicated with Russ about when he might pull him in and out.
“No. He hasn’t. But I don’t need him to be clear. He makes whatever decision he makes, and that’s up to him.”
Tellingly, Russ argued that he's “earned the right” to close due to his resume. Evidently, he did care, all along.
“I’ve put a lot of work in. I’ve got a lot of respect in this game. I don’t have to hit a benchmark. Or I shouldn’t have to. I earned the right to be in closing lineups. Numbers will tell you. I don’t have to explain that. But once again, that ain’t my decision. That’s the decision that (Vogel) and the staff think is best for the game, and, unfortunately, I’ve kind of just got to go with it and figure it out the best way I can, and be there for my teammates as best as I can, and make sure I come to work and do my job as a professional.”
Russell Westbrook’s answer when asked what benchmarks he has to hit to be in the closing lineup: pic.twitter.com/Nobrx2ov8K
— Rob Perez (@WorldWideWob) February 9, 2022
When asked about a seemingly-positive clip of him consoling LeBron and Davis in the final seconds, Westbrook revealed that he was actually sub-tweeting Vogel.
“Just giving them some encouragement, just telling them ‘keep playing. Tough night.' And I told them I wished I could help them. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in the game to be able to help them, and that’s why I came here: To help them out. So unfortunately I haven’t been able to do that for them, but that’s not my call. I can be there as a leader and as a voice and whatever is needed for the team and that’s what I’ll do until, you know, my number or whatever is called during that time.”
Here's what an exasperated LeBron said about that interaction:
“Listen, I want to help AD, I want to help Russ. AD wants to help me, help Russ, and Russ wants to help us. Obviously, lately, Russ hasn't felt like he had an opportunity or with the opportunities he's been given he hasn't helped us as much as he would like. We haven't done a great job of helping him.”
The on-court fit with Westbrook has never clicked. It's been worse than hardcore Lakers-doubters could have imagined. No progress has been made. Russ has not improved as the season has worn on. He hasn't been an “innings-eater” who can lift the team at times. The collateral damage of the trade — a flawed roster of minimum contracts, limited trade/fiscal flexibility, and a 26-29 record — is arguably more damaging.
That was all already true. Now, the relationship between Westbrook and the Lakers may be irrevocable. It's hard to imagine this experiment going any worse. The trade deadline is 24 hours away. Changes could be afoot.
“We got a lot of basketball left. We can turn this around, but it's going to take a lot of work,” AD said. “To do it, it's going to take us as a team, collectively to do so. We got to buy-in. Everyone go out there and play for each other. Play hard. Play selfless. And try to turn this around before it gets really bad.”