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Russell Westbrook and the L.A. Lakers Are Turning into the NBA's Punching Bag

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistMarch 17, 2022

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - MARCH 16: Russell Westbrook #0 of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts after getting called for a foul against the Minnesota Timberwolves in the fourth quarter at Target Center on March 16, 2022 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Timberwolves defeated the Lakers 124-104. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)
David Berding/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Lakers are a mess. A laugh-inducing, timeline-crumbling mess.

During Wednesday's 124-104 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, NBA Twitter couldn't roast them enough. And the brash, young Wolves weren't afraid to help on that front.

Late in the second quarter, Malik Beasley nearly airballed a desperation jumper at the end of the shot clock. Malik Monk and Carmelo Anthony were the only bodies in position for a rebound, and they still let Patrick Beverley sneak in behind them, snag the board, lay it in for two and flex on them immediately afterward.

On the very next possession, Beverley gave the advancing Russell Westbrook 15-20 feet of space. It's the kind of disrespect typically reserved for pickup runs against the guy you know can't or won't shoot. And Westbrook responded by throwing a lazy pass to LeBron James that was picked off by, you guessed it, Beverley.

Rob Perez @WorldWideWob

this Pat Bev/Westbrook sequence. yikes. https://t.co/U3xETxd2KQ

Then, with less than four minutes to go in the game, Russ loaded up for a wide-open three from the corner. With no one contesting, he launched the ball a good two or three feet beyond the rim. He failed to draw iron, and Karl-Anthony Towns did everything he could to draw attention to it.

Just watch this from the floor angle. Absolutely brutal trolling from KAT.

pickuphoop @pickuphoop

https://t.co/h0M5rZjsgM

In a season that seemingly delivers a new low every other week, Wednesday gave us another one. On the heels of back-to-back double-digit losses, and during a post-All-Star stretch in which the team's only two wins came in games in which LeBron James scored 50, the Lakers were getting straight-up clowned.

How is it possible for a team with LeBron averaging 29.5 points, 6.2 assists and 2.8 threes to be this bad? How is it possible for a team that just won the title in 2020 to be a laughingstock for another club that didn't even make the playoffs that year?

How did the Lakers go from being the team with the second shortest title odds prior to this season to one that inspires this level of disinterest by March?

MJ @MJ2KALLDAY

LeBron isn’t even on screen for offense, man is done with the team https://t.co/gh2Gsx7DZ1

As is the case with most meltdowns, there isn't one answer.

Injuries to both LeBron and Anthony Davis have to be acknowledged. L.A. is 6-12 in the 18 games LeBron has missed. After Wednesday's blowout, it's 12-20 without AD. But even if Davis is back and at full strength before the play-in tournament (which the Lakers should still probably back into), it's hard to buy them as anything more than a first-round exit. Actually, would anyone be all that surprised if they didn't even get past the play-in?

L.A. is minus-2.8 points per 100 possessions (37th percentile) with LeBron and AD on the floor this season. That number improves, but only slightly, when you add Westbrook to the mix. And this is a case in which the eye test probably looks even worse than the stats.

Everything the skeptics worried about when Russ was acquired has happened, though maybe to a more extreme degree.

AD and Westbrook are shooting a combined 25.5 percent from three. When both are in the game, defenses are happy to sag into the paint and clog things up inside. And in 19 games, coach Frank Vogel exacerbated the problem by starting DeAndre Jordan.

In an era that has prioritized shooting and skill in general, Westbrook's lack of the former and carelessness with the latter (he has the 11th worst turnover percentage in the league) has doomed lineups he's in.

And the numbers he's producing have put him in pretty interesting company for a former MVP.

Bill Simmons @BillSimmons

Tried to figure out if Russ is having one of the 10 worst offensive seasons ever. Wanted people who played 50+ games for bad teams + struggled w/ real minutes/usage. Went with Usage Rate (at least 27%), MPG (33+), WS/48 (under 0.03), True Shooting (under 50%), TO’s (2+). Well… https://t.co/EhglRHhnYY

Why yes, that is Michael Carter-Williams' rookie season you see in that table. And if I'd told you LeBron would spend more time with a higher-volume version of that campaign than any of his other teammates in 2021-22, you probably would've predicted an outcome like this.

So what now?

With 13 games to go, does it really help anyone to keep playing Westbrook? We have enough of a sample to know that he's not making the Lakers better (their net rating is 2.7 points worse when he's on the floor). And every night like this opens him up for the kind of electronic onslaught that few other players ever deal with.

Nate Jones @JonesOnTheNBA

I can’t recall a former MVP that had more people go at his throat during his decline than Russ. People smell blood and the volume on the disrespect has been turned all the way up.

Last week, Westbrook's wife, Nina, opened up about the "shaming, name-calling, and public scrutiny" her husband faces.

That night, Westbrook told reporters, "...it's reached a point where it's really weighing on my family."

For everyone's sake, it might be time for an arrangement like the one John Wall has with the Houston Rockets (in case you missed the last few months, Wall, who's healthy, hasn't played a minute this season).

This isn't really Westbrook's fault. At least not entirely. Sure, he probably could've made a little more of an effort to adjust his game. He could've watched more film of Bruce Brown operating like a rim-running 5 with the Brooklyn Nets over the last couple years. But Vogel, at least based on surface observations, never really tried to steer him in that direction. And the front office surrounded him with players who don't really fit his game (just like it didn't surround LeBron with the right players either).

Russ needs to be surrounded by shooters, like he was in the second half of his campaign with the Rockets, when they essentially played him as a point center on offense. Same goes for LeBron. Putting them together was just asking for trouble. And then adding perhaps the worst jump shooting season of AD's career to the equation all but guaranteed that trouble.

The 33-year-old Westbrook is clearly on the wrong side of his prime, but this situation almost certainly overstated his demise.

On a different team, one tailored to fit his strengths, Russ could still be a positive player. Over the course of 2019-20 and 2020-21, he averaged 24.6 points, 9.8 rebounds and 9.5 assists, while boosting his teams' net rating.

It would be a major commitment, but another team in need of a reset might be willing to make it. Take, for example, the New York Knicks, who went from fourth in the East in 2020-21 to almost certainly a lottery team this season.

Trading Derrick Rose, Evan Fournier and Alec Burks for Westbrook works under the collective bargaining agreement.

They'd need to do more tinkering and look for shooters, but that would give New York someone to electrify the Garden. And he's on an expiring deal. If it doesn't work out, you get a fresh start in 2023.

L.A., meanwhile, gets two guys who are reliable from three and a solid veteran who's been a plus for the Knicks in each of his past two seasons. It would instantly push the Lakers closer to the kind of makeup that won the title in 2020.

Two stars and depth was enough to go all the way then (we'll reserve discussion of the oddities of the bubble for another time). And the front office followed that up with two years of tearing it down.

What Rob Pelinka and company built in the old team's place didn't work. In fact, it's failed in pretty spectacular fashion.

But, even with all the highly publicized losses, drama and lack of effort, LeBron has proven there's still something left in his tank. His 29.5 points is over six points better than the next highest average in an age-37 (or older) season.

If the Lakers can get something, anything, for Westbrook this offseason, and AD can stay healthy (two massive "ifs," I know), there may be time for one last hurrah in L.A.'s LeBron era.

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