LeBron James Praises Russell Westbrook amid Lakers Rumors: 'I Loved Being Teammates'

Timothy Rapp@@TRappaRTFeatured Columnist IVApril 11, 2022

CLEVELAND, OHIO - MARCH 21: Russell Westbrook #0 celebrates with LeBron James #6 of the Los Angeles Lakers during the fourth quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse on March 21, 2022 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Lakers defeated the Cavaliers 131-120. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Jason Miller/Getty Images

If the 2021-22 season was Russell Westbrook's only one with the Los Angeles Lakers, LeBron James will be sorry to see him go. 

"I'm not here to make decisions for the front office and that nature," he told reporters when asked if he could see himself playing with Westbrook again. "But I loved being teammates with Russ."

"One thing about Russ that I love, that I'll always love, is his competitive spirit that he brings every single night," James added. "... To have a guy that's reliable and can put on the uniform every single night, you have to respect that."

Mike Trudell @LakersReporter

LeBron said it’s natural to start thinking about the group for next season, how the pieces can best fit, looking for a “roster that can bring more wins,” no matter where he’s on the court most: “My personal goal is to be able to play any position on the floor."

What James says in public compared to what he actually feels in private about Westbrook's game is harder to parse. 

On the court, Westbrook's addition was borderline disastrous for the Lakers, as he proved to be a poor fit next to James and Anthony Davis when they were healthy and unable to keep the Lakers afloat when that pair dealt with injuries. 

Westbrook, 33, averaged 18.5 points per game, his lowest mark since the 2009-10 season, 7.4 rebounds and 7.1 assists, shooting 44.4 percent from the field, 29.8 percent from three and 66.7 percent from the free-throw line. 

The Lakers were outscored by four points per 100 possessions when Westbrook was on the court, compared to being outscored by 1.6 points per 100 possessions when he sat, per NBA.com

"I think they lost faith in Russ as a ball handler after the first few weeks," a team source told ESPN's Ramona Shelburne about Westbrook, who had 30 turnovers after his first five games in a Lakers uniform. "And he knew it because they took him off the ball and started asking him to stand in the corner or set screens."

Given Westbrook's shooting issues and his history as a lead guard, playing him off the ball didn't work. It also appeared to erode his confidence, leading to some truly ugly shots throughout the season and some combative exchanges with reporters.

Off the court, there reportedly was a personality clash as well. 

Shelburne reported that Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka "had a few meetings with Westbrook during the season, to keep the lines of communication open. Veterans like Carmelo Anthony, James and Davis tried to reach out. But nobody seemed to get through."

"Why is he going to listen if he feels like you've been letting him get crucified all year?" a source close to Westbrook countered. 

It was a mess. And a divorce seems like a logical conclusion to the matter. But his massive contract—he has a $47 million player option for next season he'll almost assuredly exercise—will make him difficult to trade, and even if the Lakers choose to release him using the waive and stretch provision, they'll be eating a cap hit of around $15 million over the next three seasons. 

That's the sort of money that could be better spent on a pair of solid role players to round out the roster, a leverage point teams in trade talks with the Lakers will surely keep in mind. But it's clear that change needs to come in Los Angeles, and it's hard to see that happening with Westbrook around for another year.