Lakers must bench or part with Russell Westbrook ASAP

russell westbrook lakers darvin ham lebron james anthony davis

Buoyed by another impressive defensive effort, the Los Angeles Lakers made an energizing run to take a 98-90 lead over the Portland Trail Blazers with 4:42 remaining in the fourth quarter. Then, Darvin Ham put Russell Westbrook back in the game.

The move played right into the Blazers' hands.

Chauncey Billups put his hulking center, Jusuf Nurkic, on Westbrook. Instead of actually trying to check him, Nurkic sagged off Westbrook, allowing the guard all the space in the arena, with the hopes that he might want to shoot. Nurkic clogged the lane and limited the Lakers' dominant paint presence. It resembled the strategy the Los Angeles Clippers deployed with Ivica Zubac on Thursday.

“Putting him on Russ, we were just going to kind of play off of Russ in that moment,” Billups said.

Westbrook, who finished with 10 points on 4-of-15 shooting, six boards, six assists and zero turnovers, accepted the invitation and clanked a wide-open 3-point attempt from the wing with 3:17 to go. The Blazers embarked on a +7 run to come within a point. (Westbrook shot 0-of-11 vs. the Clips).

“If you’re gonna take it, you have to step up and make it,” Ham said, indirectly referencing the Westbrook shot.

Then, with just under 30 seconds remaining and the Lakers leading by one, Westbrook pushed the pace and attempted a transition pull-up — symbolically, the shot that was once his signature but has become a brick manufacturer in recent years — with 18 seconds on the shot clock. The Portland bench couldn't contain their giddiness as it happened. Westbrook missed. LeBron James and Anthony Davis were perplexed.

Ham subbed Russ out for the final three possessions. Dame Time was activated. LeBron missed a potential buzzer-beater. The Lakers were stunned at home, 104-102, to drop to 0-3.

Afterward, a frustrated LeBron (31/8/8) — who acknowledged he was in a “shitty mood” — refused to discuss Russ when asked about his general stance on seeking a 2-for-1 with the lead and the ball (obviously, it makes no sense). However, he did bring up shot selection and time management.

“Shot selection is always a part of the game, no matter if it’s the last couple minutes of the game or the first few minutes of the game, you want to play the right way. Always. No matter what the time and the score is. And you should always be understanding of what’s the best shot you can get throughout the course of a possession … I always have time and score and what's going on and how the defense has been playing me throughout the course of the game, it's always in my head. I'm not out there just running around, that's for sure.”

A deeply dejected Anthony Davis — who was a beast again, putting up 22 points, 10 rebounds, and six blocks — cited “shot selection and execution” when asked about what went wrong in crunch time.

“There's no way we're supposed to lose this game,” lamented AD. “That's where my frustration comes from.”


Ham — who told ClutchPoints pregame that he liked Westbrook's shot selection thus far — said he was generally supportive of the 2-for-1 concept, though he would have liked to see Russ take a different approach.

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“I just wish we would've attacked the rim directly. That's the one shot that teams want you to take and want to give up — long 2s, contested 2s … And with his ability to explode and get to the basket still being at a high level, I wish he would've did that. Especially with Nurkic standing back there with five fouls … Shot selection is something we have to work on.”

Ham gave a telling answer when asked if he was concerned Westbrook would react negatively to being benched, yet again, in the closing moments.

“We don't have time for feelings or people being in their feelings,” Ham retorted. “Like, we're trying to turn this thing around. For one person to be in their feelings about when and where and how they should be in the game, I don't have any time for that.”

Concurrently, Westbrook spoke to reporters from the locker room. As per usual, it was a terse few minutes, in which he avoided addressing anything that just happened.

“I’m not really sure what to do,” he said about how to counteract centers defending him.

Nobody employed by or rooting for the Lakers is enjoying any of this. Like last season, the vibes are bad. You can feel it in Crypto.com Arena, in media sessions, and behind the scenes. Simply put: something has to change. Spoiler alert: Russ voluntarily becoming the role player Ham envisions isn't going to be the change.

The front office or the head coach has to act now if they want to salvage LeBron's age-38 season. There's no waiting until Thanksgiving. By that point, the Lakers, facing a brutal upcoming schedule, could be toast.

There are three paths. One is to pull the trigger on a trade, stat, instead of stalling until the market softens. In theory, patience is logical. In reality, the toxicity is suffocating this team.

They could also send Russ home. The Lakers have considered this option. They are a better team without him. It would increase his trade value, as opposed to the dreck we've seen since the beginning of last season (by the way, Russ may prefer a change of scenery). But, considering Jeanie Buss' everlasting mandate to brand the Lakers as a star-friendly home, that scenario seems unlikely.

Therefore, it's time for Ham to do what he has been hinting at since, well, he was hired: Demote — ahem, realign — Westbrook to the bench, sit him in crunch time, and stick to those guns. Yes, the locker room politics are complicated. He won't like it. On the other hand, Ham is the coach. He can literally make it happen. By his own admission, feelings are irrelevant.

Ham has cleverly planted the seeds. He brought Russ off the bench in the final preseason game. He sat Westbrook for much of the fourth quarter against the Clippers and pulled him Sunday. The Lakers' plethora of guards and the promising debut of Troy Brown Jr., combined with Westbrook's poor production, gives Ham cover. (The fan base, FWIW, will not protest.)

Westbrook is averaging 10.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 2.0 steals, and 1.7 turnovers. He's shooting 28.9 percent. Per The Athletic, the Lakers have been outscored by 16 points in his 86 total minutes — the worst mark among their seven players who have played significant minutes.

Yet, he hasn't done everything wrong, and it's not all his fault. He didn't construct a roster that has shot 25-of-118 (!!) on 3-pointers (Portland deployed a 2-3 zone for much of the afternoon). He has dished it well, kept his turnovers down, and had encouraging moments on defense. Patrick Beverley and LeBron both took ill-advised contested triples in the final two minutes. The Lakers have been consistently outrebounded. Damian Lillard was cold-blooded.

But, come on, we all know this is not going to work. The Westbrook drama is daily, detrimental, and dominating. And as long Westbrook is playing basketball games in a purple-and-gold uniform, he's going to draw outsized — and often justified — scrutiny.

Delaying the inevitable only wastes everybody's time. Most importantly, it wastes LeBron's as he hits the twilight of his career.

Tags: Los Angeles Lakers, Russell Westbrook