Three years ago, when he was still this guyRussell Westbrook foreshadowed his current dire situation.
Doubts were beginning to creep in around his game: the 3 misses, the bad decisions, the use of athletics rather than skills. When asked if he’s been affected by the reviews, Westbrook replied, “I was lucky to have the talent not to give—.”
This can be interpreted in two ways: he has the talent not to care what other people say, or he is so talented that he doesn’t need to care. Both were accurate – and they now explain why Westbrook’s career is hurtling towards a cliff with the same momentum it once had attacking the rim.
Back when Los Angeles Lakers guard Westbrook was a sneaker whirlwind on his way to setting the NBA’s all-time triple-double record, his athleticism and hard work made him unique. No one could stop him from finishing at the rim or going down his precise mid-range pull-up. His 3-pointers have always been suspect, at 30% for his career, but he was never afraid to shoot them anyway because of his stubborn belief in himself. Above all, Westbrook never, ever stopped attacking. He emptied his music video every night and lived by the mantra “Why not?”
Now approaching her 34e birthday, Westbrook is no longer able to jump over and through people, but he keeps trying. His midrange is sketchy and his 3 balls even worse, but he keeps hoisting. His story of refusing to change is unchanged. At this point, with criticism raining down amid the Los Angeles Lakers’ 0-4 start, Westbrook is essentially doing this to himself.
The question “Can Russell change his game?” followed Westbrook since the Oklahoma City Thunder politely pushed their MVP point guard out of town in 2019. He briefly seemed to fit in with the Houston Rockets, but didn’t like playing with the ball and asked for a exchange. With the Washington Wizards, he played like the Westbrook of old, averaging a triple-double and nearly five turnovers per game. Since joining the Lakers in 2021, there has been no evidence that he is ready to account for his decline in athletics and the imperative to give voice to teammates LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
When I profiled Westbrook right after he left Oklahoma City, I found a man built and defined by his extremely stubborn nature, and who leaned into a “me against the world” attitude despite the giveaways that got him drafted at 19 and earned him $340 million. during his career. “I’m not going to change who I am,” he told me then. “I feel like my mindset has gotten me to this point. But there are ways to adapt to your mindset and adapt to new teams, adapt to different players, and I’m able to do that.
Now we know: even this adjustment does not occur. Russ will always be Russ.
To make sure I didn’t miss anything, I called Devin Williams, basketball and basketball entrepreneur, who coaches NBA players and watches as many movies as anyone. Yo, Dev, is it just me, or is Westbrook stuck in the past?
“The same thing that made him a great player is what makes him who he is right now,” Williams said. “Being resilient, being a bit stubborn, going against the grain, being that tough player that we know. But it also hurts him in this situation because he won’t adapt.
In fact, I feel for Westbrook. Changing the core of your being is difficult. Losing the powers that made you great is painful. Hearing your audience whisper, sigh and shout, “Don’t shoot! when you have the ball – I wouldn’t wish that humiliation on anyone, even if he makes $47 million this season.
The Lakers’ problems also run much deeper than Westbrook. General manager Rob Pelinka has Frankensteined a roster that doesn’t complete James and Davis. Forget the lasers, the Lakers RPGs are shooting like they’ve lost their flashlights after the lights go out at the park. Yes, in Monday’s loss to Portland, Westbrook missed a pull-up pull-up with 27 seconds left in the game, 18 seconds on the shot clock and the Lakers up one point – the wrong shot in this situation. But shortly before that, James missed an ill-advised sidestep 3 with plenty of time left on the shot clock. Davis rebounded a corner 3 on the side from the rear panel. Although people are begging the Lakers to trade Westbrook immediately or even pay him to stay home, no move would solve the team’s problems.
But stay. Westbrook, being Westbrook, is doing himself no favors.
He started the season with a solid game against Golden State: 19 points on 7-for-12 shooting. Then he went 0-for-11 against the LA Clippers, including 0-for-6-of-3, and described his performance afterwards. like “Solid, played hard, all you can ask for.”
Wait – we can’t ask you to make a basket?
In the Portland debacle, Westbrook shot 4-for-15 and missed all three of his 3-pointers. That last rattle of critical time, which Westbrook threw off balance when no defender was within six feet of him, and Blazers coach Chauncey Billups said after the game they hoped he would take summed up all the criticism of Westbrook’s play. Even if you’re looking for a 2-on-1 shot clock opportunity, why not accept your limitations and pass the ball to James or Davis? The only reason is Westbrook’s stubborn denial of the obvious: he is no longer what he was.
There is precedent for Westbrook’s predicament. “A great player is not great because he is rational,” former Georgetown coach John Thompson told me for his autobiography. “He’s great because he’s irrational.” Thompson was talking about Allen Iverson, whose NBA demise should be a warning sign for Westbrook. When Iverson lost speed and quickness, when his aura faded and he was asked to come off the bench – when Iverson was no more this guy – he couldn’t adapt. Two seasons after starting all 82 games and averaging 26 points, he was gone.
Speaking of coming off the bench: This role was offered for Westbrook, but the first time new Lakers coach Darvin Ham tried it, in a preseason game, Westbrook claimed he was responsible for tweaking his hamstrings. He sat out Wednesday’s game against the Denver Nuggets with “hamstring pain” – and the Lakers got a spanking anyway.
Carmelo Anthony, on the other hand, who was once this guy and is the NBA’s ninth all-time leading scorer, was able to extend his career by taking on a significantly reduced role. Vince Carter is another superstar who has endured two decades embracing his decline instead of fighting it.
But Anthony and Carter had a 3 click. With Westbrook, teams are practically begging him to shoot. Now in his 15e season, Westbrook could be effective on transfers, as a cutter on the ball or keeping his dribble on drives to the hoop instead of going over the edge. But there has been no sign of any of this in Los Angeles.
His collapse was painful to watch, like seeing sprinter Usain Bolt come to a lame stop on his last run or baseball great Willie Mays tripping under flying balls in center field. But unlike those legends, who have won admiration for giving it their all, there’s a feeling that Westbrook’s struggles are avoidable. And he doesn’t seem interested in filling the traditional roles of aging veteran of mentor or locker room chief.
“Obviously you don’t have to be inside the organization to see there’s stubbornness at play,” Williams said. “You don’t have to be inside the organization to understand that there are things going on with the stars of this team. If you just watch, there’s a snippet of frustration from ‘Bron and AD with that shot Westbrook took late in the Portland game.
Williams, a Golden State fan, misses the Westbrook who helped propel the Thunder to the NBA Finals in 2012 and then fought the Warriors early in their dynasty. “Those rivalries between OKC and Golden State, it was fun to watch. What angers me the most is that when you see a decline in a player like that, people assume that player doesn’t was never good. Like, they forget things he used to do. At the end of the day, Russell was super fun to watch. So now obviously you don’t want to see players go out like you just don’t.
Obviously, Westbrook can’t let go of the things he used to do. Why not? Let’s take the man at his word: “I’m not going to change who I am.”