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If Russell Westbrook Can't Carry Lakers Without LeBron, What Is He Doing There?

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterNovember 17, 2021

Los Angeles Lakers guard Russell Westbrook during a timeout in action in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the San Antonio Spurs Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)
Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

After losing to the Phoenix Suns in the first round of last year's playoffs, the Los Angeles Lakers sought another star to ease the burden on LeBron James and Anthony Davis. 

Unfortunately, Russell Westbrook has not been the cure-all that they had hoped.

The Lakers have won four of their six games with James in the lineup, but they've won only four of nine with their best player out. 

In James' absence, the Lakers haven't shown any consistency with the two-star combination of Westbrook and Davis. That may fall on head coach Frank Vogel, who is struggling to get his team to compete at a high level in the second halves of games.

Vogel is widely respected in NBA circles as one of the league's best defensive coaches, but he doesn't have the same reputation as a creative offensive mind. The Lakers have been one of the most defensively dominant teams in the NBA over the past two seasons, but points were often hard to come by, especially when Davis was sidelined with a groin injury in last year's playoffs. James couldn't carry the offensive load without Davis, which led the Lakers to acquire Westbrook this offseason.

Westbrook, one of the league's highest-paid players this season at $44.2 million, is averaging fewer than 20 points per game (19.4) for the first time since his sophomore year in 2009-10. His three-point shooting (29.2 percent) is around his career average (30.5), which has almost always been poor. His 5.3 turnovers per game are near a career-worst.

Individual numbers aside, the Lakers brought Westbrook in to make them less reliant on James. So far, that isn't working.

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After Friday's 107-83 loss to the now 4-9 Minnesota Timberwolves, Davis issued some blunt criticism of his team. 

"We suck," he told reporters. "No defense, can't score. That's not just this third quarter. Every third quarter that we've played this season, we come out slow, lackadaisical offensively and defensively. ... Championship team? That's not us right now."

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

So, is the season over for the Lakers? Is it time to tank? Of course not. 

James could return Friday against the Boston Celtics, per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski. The Lakers just got Talen Horton-Tucker, their fourth-highest-paid player, back from a thumb injury. Both Kendrick Nunn (knee) and Trevor Ariza (ankle) have yet to play this season. They could each return in December, and rookie Austin Reaves (hamstring) is projected to be back after Thanksgiving.

Once whole, the Lakers may find their footing. But since Westbrook doesn’t appear to be the answer when James is out—and if that was the primary motivation to bring him on—was he the right third star for them to invest in?

DeMar DeRozan, who has been fantastic for the Chicago Bulls, believed "going to the Lakers was a done deal" this past offseason, per Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports. And before the Washington Wizards made Westbrook available via trade, Los Angeles was reportedly on the verge of acquiring Buddy Hield from the Sacramento Kings for Kyle Kuzma and Montrezl Harrell, according to Wojnarowski.

A sign-and-trade with the San Antonio Spurs for DeRozan would have hard-capped the Lakers at $143 million. They likely wouldn't have been able to get two of Hield, Westbrook and DeRozan.

Hield is the best fit of the three as an outside shooter. Although the Lakers would have sent out Kuzma and Harrell for him, they could have kept Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and their No. 22 overall pick. The smaller investment in Hield (between $23.1 and 27.6 million this season, depending on incentives) might have enabled the Lakers to re-sign Alex Caruso, a vital role player whom they miss defensively.

DeRozan, who historically hasn't been a great three-point shooter, is hitting a career-best 37.1 percent of his long-range attempts in Chicago. While Hield is more of a one-note offensive player, DeRozan is one of the most lethal mid-range scorers in the league. His $26 million salary this season is also more economical than Westbrook's $44.2 million, which also would have limited the team’s tax bill.

Randall Benton/Associated Press

If the argument for Westbrook over Hield or DeRozan is his ability to drive the offense better when James sits, that hasn't proved accurate so far. And acquiring him wound up costing the Lakers defensive depth in Caldwell-Pope and Caruso. 

The early returns say the Lakers made the incorrect choice. They've struggled to get stops, even against teams projected to miss the playoffs like the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets.

Pelinka and the Lakers can't undo their offseason moves, and James will undoubtedly change the Lakers for the better when he returns. If Westbrook is a bit of a square peg, they'll have to find a way to get him to fit in a round hole. 

Between Nunn, Ariza and Reaves, the Lakers still have a lot of talent to add to the mix. Rival executives have told Bleacher Report that they expect Nunn to make the biggest impact of that trio upon his return.

And while the Lakers will improve, the bigger question of Westbrook's decision-making remains. He's still the same player who would look off Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City to take a jump shot or a difficult drive to the basket with a playoff series on the line. He's also the same player who won the NBA's Most Valuable Player award in 2016-17. He’s both talented and maddening.

His lack of ball security could prove to be the team's Achilles' heel in the playoffs. But the Lakers still have several months to sort out their issues.

Will that be enough to keep Vogel employed? He could end up the scapegoat for a situation well beyond his control. The team recently re-signed him to a one-year extension that didn’t necessarily come with long-term job security.

While Vogel hasn't solved the Westbrook riddle, he didn't choose to deplete the team's depth to overinvest in a player who doesn't seem to fit well.

If the Lakers continue to slump, especially upon James' return, assistant David Fizdale could end up taking over as the interim head coach for the rest of the season.

     

Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.

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