Despite a disappointing finish to the 2021-22 season, expectations remain high for the Los Angeles Lakers going into next year. With star players like LeBron James and Anthony Davis on the roster, anything short of title contention is a failure.
However, the Lakers face major questions this offseason, including who will be the team's next head coach. The other significant dilemma that must be addressed is what to do with point guard Russell Westbrook.
The former NBA MVP had a disastrous first season with his hometown team, becoming the scapegoat for much of Los Angeles' struggles throughout the year. Westbrook averaged 18.5 points, 7.4 rebounds and 7.1 assists while shooting 44.4 percent from the field and 29.8 percent from three-point range. It was his first time averaging under 20 points since his second year in the NBA.
While many have speculated that the Lakers parting ways with Westbrook is an inevitability, there are signs that point to the 33-year-old remaining in purple and gold next season.
Dan Woike of the LA Times reported Wednesday that the Lakers "haven’t ruled anything out when it comes to Westbrook’s future." The Athletic's Sam Amick reported on Monday that coaching candidates are being asked how they'd use Westbrook in their systems during their interviews with Los Angeles.
"The takeaway for candidates, it seems, is that maximizing Westbrook’s presence after his disastrous 2021-22 season is considered an important part of this job," Amick wrote.
If Westbrook sticks around next year, can the Lakers be the title contenders they're expected to be?
In a perfect world, the answer is undoubtedly yes. Westbrook, James and Davis are talented enough to carry a team to success. The three All-Stars will be more familiar with one another going into their second year together, which should result in more efficient play when they share the floor.
Westbrook is a polarizing player because his high-octane play and triple-double production have never amounted to winning when it mattered most. It's unlikely that he'll develop a consistent outside shot in his 15th season, but he's still one of the most skilled players at his position. It will be up to the Lakers' next head coach to figure out how to bring the best out of Westbrook while masking his deficiencies.
Perhaps allowing Westbrook to play more with the second unit would allow him to return to the level of production we're used to seeing from him. It would be a bold move for the next coach to switch Westbrook's role to sixth man, but a thunderbolt like him off the bench to torment opposing second units is an intriguing prospect.
Of course, the Lakers have to remain healthy if they hope to contend for a title. James and Davis missed a combined 66 games last season, hurting any chances of developing proper chemistry.
Westbrook is capable of being a secondary option on a title-contending team. But the best way for him to do that is to fully buy into it.