Can (and Should) Russell Westbrook Put Aside His Ego with the LA Lakers?

A. Sherrod BlakelyContributor IAugust 11, 2021

Los Angeles Lakers guard Russell Westbrook smiles during an introductory NBA basketball news conference in Los Angeles, Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Kyusung Gong)
Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

Whenever we see NBA teams form the latest and presumably greatest Big Three triumvirate, the goals and the pathway to achieve them are always the same. 

They want to win a championship, which is the biggest reason Russell Westbrook wanted out of Washington and why he's now a member of the Los Angeles Lakers

The 32-year-old Westbrook has accomplished all that you would want in the league from an individual standpoint. 

But the ultimate achievement, an NBA title, has remained out of reach. 

He reached the NBA Finals in 2012 with Oklahoma City and came close to getting back in 2016 before the Thunder squandered a 3-1 series lead in the Western Conference Finals to the eventual NBA champion Golden State Warriors.

Playing for the Lakers represents the best chance Westbrook has had since then to hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

Westbrook joins a veteran cast that will include some of the biggest stars of the 2010s in LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, Marc Gasol, plus battle-tested veterans such as Trevor Ariza and Kent Bazemore.

All that talent.

All those egos.

How will Westbrook fit in?

It's a fair question for the players heavily invested in making this work—James, Davis and Westbrook. The three reportedly discussed keeping egos in check as a prerequisite for Westbrook coming to L.A. 

"They talked about putting their egos aside and playing as one in their quest to bring the Lakers another NBA championship," the Los Angeles Times' Broderick Turner wrote. "Westbrook talked about how his only intention was winning and coming back home to Los Angeles to become a champion."

Westbrook's ego has often been associated with his team's struggles, but some former teammates are quick to come to his defense when conversations center around Westbrook's ego.

Shortly after Paul George worked out a trade from Oklahoma City to the Los Angeles Clippers in 2019, Westbrook asked out of Oklahoma City as well and was dealt to Houston, where he joined James Harden

"My time playing with him, Russ doesn't really have an ego," George told reporters before he played his first game against Westbrook's Rockets during the 2019-20 campaign. "He puts his ego to the side. He allowed me to be myself, he allowed me to be comfortable. And I had one of the best career [years] I had while playing alongside him. Russ is a heckuva teammate."

Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press

George averaged a career-high 28 points along with a career-best 8.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 2.2 steals (also a career high). He finished third in the league MVP voting in 2018-19, his best finish ever. 

One Eastern Conference executive believes Westbrook's intense desire to win is often mistaken for him being a selfish, ego-driven, stat-craving superstar.

"He's as driven to win as anyone you come across in this league," said the second East executive. "He wants to be great. And when you look at the greats—Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, you name them—they all had a huge ego, which was part of what made them such great players. Russ isn't all that different in that sense."

But Bird and Magic never played with a duo like LeBron and Davis. Still, there's a good argument to be made that Westbrook can fit into a team dynamic better than we might assume.

"Russ is going to adapt to whatever he has to do to win," the executive said. "I really believe the more talent he has around him, the better he will be as a player."

Much has been made of how Westbrook teams have failed to go deep into the playoffs or finish with a top-tier record, but we have seen the perennial All-Star very recently push a team toward unexpected success.

After the Wizards got off to a rough 17-32 start to an injury-riddled 2020-21 season, Westbrook helped lead an unexpected resurgence. Washington closed out the season with an impressive 17-6 record, good enough to catapult them from the NBA lottery to the play-in tournament.

Of course, the playoffs again exposed Westbrook's dicey late-game shot selection, something that has been part of the ego-driven narrative surrounding him. But what doesn't get much attention is his end-of-game playmaking, among the best in the league last season. Last season, Westbrook led the NBA in fourth quarter assists per game (2.7), more than Chris Paul (2.3), James Harden (2.2) and Luka Doncic (2.1). 

Nick Wass/Associated Press

That only adds to the argument that Westbrook's game might be a better fit with James, Davis and company. One Eastern Conference scout believes Westbrook will do whatever is necessary to best position the Lakers to win it all. 

"He's thirsty to win a championship," the scout said. "That motivation, plus this is the best team he's been a part of, ever. I don't see his ego being an issue, not with the talent around him and again, him being super thirsty to get that first championship."

ESPN analyst Kendrick Perkins, who played with both Westbrook in Oklahoma City (2011-15) and James in Cleveland (2015), said Westbrook will make the necessary adjustments to help the Lakers win what would be the franchise's 18th NBA title.

"When you have a guy like Russell Westbrook and LeBron James on the same team, they weigh heavy on you," Perkins said. "Russell Westbrook has never played with a big like Anthony Davis. Good luck to try and stop that pick-and-roll with Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis."

For Westbrook, being able to score out of pick-and-roll, isolation sets or any set for that matter has never been much of an issue. In 943 games, Westbrook has averaged 23.2 points, 7.4 rebounds and 8.5 assists. 

But scoring efficiently? That's another story. 

He's a career 43.7 percent shooter from the field while connecting on less than 30 percent of his three-point attempts in seven of his 13 NBA seasons. 

Isolation and pick-and-roll sets will likely make up a sizable amount of his offensive contributions for the Lakers.  Last season, Westbrook appeared in 63 games and averaged 6.4 isolation possessions per game, tops among all NBA players who appeared in at least as many contests as he did. 

However, he averaged just 0.78 PPP (points per possession) in isolation sets, which ranked 52nd in the league among the 69 players who appeared in 63 or more games last season.  

When Westbrook was the primary ball-handler in pick-and-rolls last year, the results weren't great. He averaged 5.3 possessions per game as the primary ball-handler on pick-and-rolls, tied for 15th among players to appear in at least 63 games. His points-per-possession numbers (0.71) ranked 66 among 79 players who saw action in 63 or more games.

The numbers speak to Westbrook's confidence, or ego, or whatever you want to call it. Taking shot after shot after shot, regardless of whether they are going down, is problematic at best.

"Russell has to change; not LeBron or A.D.," an Eastern Conference executive told Bleacher Report. "Because [James and Davis have] already proven they can win it all together. I love how hard Russ plays; we all do. But his shot selection, his passing, the turnovers, making teammates better … he has to figure out how to make his game fit into what they're doing and not the other way around."

So as the context around him changes, as in-game situations change, as LeBron ages, as he ages, as the Lakers scouting reports change, the question remains: Should Westbrook change? 

Why not?