The Los Angeles Lakers kicked off their 2022-23 campaign on Tuesday night against the defending champion Golden State Warriors. Unfortunately for anyone hopeful about an improved Lakers team, the result was eerily similar to what we saw often last season.
Los Angeles struggled to even play competitively against the defending champs, falling in a 123-109 blowout.
The lopsided loss is concerning because L.A. had its three biggest stars—LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook—in the lineup and playing significant minutes. This is something we didn't see often last season, and there was reason to believe that this core unit could be better under new head coach Darvin Ham.
Now, the loss must be put into context. This was the Lakers' first game under a rookie head coach, and it came against the best team in basketball. A lot of squads are going to look outmatched against Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Co. this season. It also came at Chase Center following Golden State's championship-ring ceremony.
It's safe to say that the Warriors were amped for this one.
The Lakers have time to come together, jell under Ham and figure out the best plan for getting back to the postseason. There's no reason to panic just yet. More discouraging than the loss itself were Westbrook's comments after the game.
It was questionable whether Westbrook would even play because of a hamstring injury he suffered in the preseason finale. After the loss, the 33-year-old told reporters that he "absolutely" believes that Ham's decision to play him off the bench in the preseason finale led to the injury.
"Honestly, I didn't even know what to do pregame," Westbrook said, per ESPN's Dave McMenamin. "Being honest, I was trying to figure out how to stay warm and loose. ... That's something I just wasn't accustomed to."
Westbrook's decision to essentially throw his coach under the bus one game into the season is a big problem. It completely undermines the idea that Westbrook is willing to be more of a team-first player than he was under former head coach Frank Vogel.
Ham wanted to experiment with Westbrook running the second team—a strategy that could allow L.A. to bring significant tempo shifts to its offense.
According to Sam Amick and Jovan Buha of The Athletic, this was a strategy that couldn't have worked under Vogel:
"After evaluating their lineups and rotation in training camp and the preseason, the Lakers determined in recent days, sources say, that it would be best to stagger James and Westbrook. It was something the Lakers considered doing last season, but then-head coach Frank Vogel was reluctant because he feared Westbrook wouldn’t respond well to coming off the bench."
The belief was, however, that Ham and Westbrook had built a solid enough relationship to try different lineup ideas without alienating the much-maligned star point guard.
According to Amick and Buha, the player-coach "connection" made Westbrook open to the idea.
"He totally understood, totally looked me in my eye and told me, said, 'Yeah, coach, whatever you need me to do,'" Ham said, per Amick and Buha.
It's only been a few days, and Westbrook has seemingly reversed course on that concept. That's a real concern because L.A.'s best chance of success this season is going to come from different lineup and schematic decisions than we saw last year.
As a rookie coach, Ham brings a clean slate to the organization. He can build a system and a plan around his players rather than forcing them into a scheme he's run for years, something Vogel tried and failed to do last season. However, if Westbrook is going to push back against Ham's choices—or publicly complain about them after the fact—new ideas could be difficult to implement.
This is something the Lakers' brass will have to consider when evaluating a potential Westbrook trade. And, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, a trade could still come before next February.
"The Lakers, at some point here, will start engaging teams again on possible Russell Westbrook trades," Wojnarowski said on NBA Today. "They paused it, essentially, at the start of training camp."
It has long made sense for Los Angeles to remain patient with Westbrook rather than make a snap decision that might require the trade of future first-round picks.
of Stadium and The Athletic reported last month that the Lakers
discussed a deal with the Indiana Pacers for Buddy Hield and Myles Turner—a deal that would have included multiple future first-rounders.
The Lakers should still give it some time to see what Ham can get out of Westbrook before trading valuable draft capital just to get rid of him. However, any idea that Ham can turn Westbrook into a perfect fit for this roster took a hit with Westbrook's postgame comments.
Just last month, Westbrook committed to doing what's best for L.A.
"I'll do what’s best for the team, and do whatever is asked of me," Westbrook said, per NBA.com's Mark Medina.
The reality, though, is that Westbrook may not truly be all-in on being a team-first player. If that's the case, then things aren't likely to be significantly different than they were under Vogel.
Expect the Lakers' chemistry and Westbrook's demeanor in the coming days and weeks to determine whether he plays out the final year of his contract or finishes the 2022-23 season elsewhere.