The Los Angeles Lakers do not need to banish Russell Westbrook like the Houston Rockets did with John Wall last year. But Lakers head coach Darvin Ham needs to close out games with the players who give his squad the best chance to win.
That isn't Westbrook.
On Sunday against the Portland Trail Blazers, Los Angeles built a 98-90 lead with LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the likes of Troy Brown Jr., who had played precisely zero preseason or regular-season games in a Lakers uniform alongside James and Davis.
Subbing in Westbrook for Brown led to immediate results...for the Blazers.
Once Westbrook re-entered, the Lakers' offense all but ground to a halt. They scored only six points in the final 4:42 while the Blazers went on a game-closing 16-6 run.
Despite those offensive struggles, the Lakers held a one-point lead with 30 seconds left. Instead of James or Davis touching the ball, Westbrook—one of the Lakers' worst shooters—took a cardinal sin of a shot with 18 seconds left on the shot clock.
Kirk Goldsberry @kirkgoldsberry
Russell Westbrook has made 3 of 17 jump shots this season.<br><br>Also, he is the only player that has attempted a jump shot with under 30 seconds to go and 15+ seconds left on the shot clock with their team up by 1 possession in the last 4 seasons. <a href="https://t.co/DrH8UEs2L9">pic.twitter.com/DrH8UEs2L9</a>
James and Davis looked perplexed when Westbrook pulled up for the shot. Ham pulled Westbrook for good after Damian Lillard's three-pointer gave Portland a 104-102 lead.
The Lakers are finishing games with teams barely giving any attention to Westbrook on defense. That makes it harder for James, Davis and the rest of the team to find the space to score.
Last year should have made it clear that Westbrook is a poor fit alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Despite that, general manager Rob Pelinka and the Lakers' front office kept the trio together this offseason, and Ham is a first-year head coach doing his due diligence to evaluate the roster he was given.
Asked after the game how Westbrook will handle being benched, Ham told reporters, "we don't have time for people to be in their feelings."
He needs to live by his word.
Westbrook has had a Hall of Fame career, which Ham spent much of the offseason repeating like a mantra. However, Ham needs to hurry up and reach the obvious conclusion that today's Westbrook on today's Lakers just doesn't work.
Centering In on Westbrook
During the 2020 NBA playoffs, former Lakers head coach Frank Vogel guarded Westbrook with a center to derail the Houston Rockets. The Lakers' front office should have been familiar with that strategy before acquiring Westbrook ahead of the 2021-22 season.
Alas, they're now getting a taste of their own medicine.
The Los Angeles Clippers used that tactic with Ivica Zubac in their recent 103-97 win over the Lakers. The Blazers resorted to it down the stretch of Sunday's game, too.
The Lakers may play a 4-out offense, but defenses are playing with one player on the ball and four with a foot in the paint. There's little to no room for them to operate offensively.
"Just pack it in [on the Lakers]," one executive said. "There's no reason to come out on them with their [lack of] shooters."
ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo
The Lakers are 25-118 from 3-point range through 3 games this season.<br><br>In NBA history, there have been over 6,100 instances of a team taking at least 100 threes over a 3-game span.<br><br>Their 21.2% is the second-lowest of any of them, only ahead of a span from the 2018 Hawks (21.0%). <a href="https://t.co/rYOqTRmWYB">pic.twitter.com/rYOqTRmWYB</a>
Despite shooting an almost-so-bad-it's-impressive 21.2 percent from three-point range (the worst mark in the league by far), the Lakers have competed deep into two of their three defeats. That's because their defense has helped offset the league's worst offensive rating (97.2 points per 100 possessions). So far, they're allowing only 103.4 points per 100 possessions (fourth overall).
The Lakers may not have a solution to their shooting woes, but closing games with Westbrook is not the answer. He's averaging 28.5 minutes per game despite shooting 28.9 percent from the field and 8.3 percent from three-point range.
Why should opponents guard Westbrook honestly? Neither he nor his teammates can make them pay with outside shots.
It's up for debate whether the Lakers would be better off sending Westbrook home altogether, but Ham doesn't need to make that drastic of a decision yet.
Westbrook is giving more effort defensively than he did a year ago. He can still help the Lakers in transition as a playmaker.
For now, Ham needs to better manage his roster down the guts of the fourth quarter. When it's time to win, he needs to surround James and Davis with the Lakers' most productive players. That hasn't been Westbrook, yet he's closing games.
The more significant challenge lies in the hands of Pelinka and the front office. Westbrook is earning $47.1 million this year. That's more than each of James and Davis. The Lakers need to make better use of that cap space with more and shooting via a trade.
Until that happens—if it happens—Ham needs to make difficult choices.
The Lakers are already 0-3 with games against the Denver Nuggets (twice), Minnesota Timberwolves and New Orleans Pelicans on tap. There's no time for "people to be in their feelings."
Until Westbrook proves he's a more viable fit alongside James and Davis, he shouldn't be in the Lakers' closing lineup.