Still aggressive, Russell Westbrook has the Lakers in disarray.
It was scheduled as a day filled with opulent optimism, the Lakers supposedly beginning training camp by regaling reporters with a new coach, new focus, new energy.
It was, instead, another day in Russell Westbrook Hell.
He’s still a Laker. He’s still combative. He’s still Russ.
“Whether they want me here or not doesn’t really matter, honestly,” he said.
The Lakers are still hassled. They’re still hopeful. They’re still torn.
“For any player on our team, you have to always be evaluating the roster … if we have to continue to upgrade our roster throughout the season, we will,” said Rob Pelinka, but later added, “Russell Westbrook is a great part of our team.”
For now. Maybe for this month. Maybe until midseason. Maybe not for another second. Maybe this is not the way they want to start a season already filled with angst and bereft of championship hopes.
The two parties have had all summer to figure out a path forward from last season’s nightmare, yet they showed up for Monday’s media day at their El Segundo facility still stuck in a bitter, baffling place.
Westbrook rolled his eyes. Pelinka sighed. Westbrook looked bored. Pelinka seemed weary.
It’s completely nonsensical. It’s beyond a distraction. It’s a total mess.
Westbrook doesn’t seem to want to be here, and the Lakers certainly would like to trade him, but it’s not that easy. He’s making $47 million this season, and he might not even be a starter anymore, so the Lakers would surely have to part with two future first-round draft picks to convince someone to take him. They don’t want to give up such an important part of their future unless they can bring back a star who can help them win now. And that star has yet to materialize.
So Westbrook is here, but sort of, kind of, but not really. And the Lakers are trying to be complimentary — “He’s been awesome, everything I’ve asked of him, he’s done,” said new coach Darvin Ham — but how long is that going to last? Maybe until the final seconds of the season opener when he clanks one?
For the sake of Westbrook and the team, he needs to be gone. But for now, he’s not going anywhere. So even on this supposedly brightest of days, the festive practice facility was beset with a lingering darkness.
When Westbrook met with reporters, his answers were short, his eyes roamed elsewhere, his patience was paper thin, the following exchange was typical.
He was asked, “How comfortable are you that you can be yourself, the way that you know it, in sort of a team that has other stars and in this system? Or does ‘Russ being Russ’ mean something maybe new this year?”
He responded, “What’s the question?”
“Do you believe you can do that?”
“Be yourself and play the way that you are comfortable and want to play in this system?”
“I be myself every single day when I wake up.”
Westbrook was more expansive when asked if he thought the Lakers still wanted him. He said he didn’t care if they wanted him, then he elaborated.
“I mean, you all have jobs — sometimes people at our jobs don’t like us or don’t want us there, as you guys can probably attest to on any level job across the world,” he said. “As a professional and as a working man, I have to do my job and do it the best way I know how to be able to support and take care of my family and that’s what I will do.”
Pelinka never said the Lakers didn’t want Westbrook. Yet he noted that in the wake of LeBron James’ recent two-year contract extension, the organization has a responsibility to give James another shot at a championship before he retires. And Pelinka carefully explained that under NBA rules, they will have only one chance to trade those 2027 and 2029 first-round picks in a single deal, so they have to make it count.
“So if you make that trade … it has to be the right one,” he said. “We are committed to doing everything we can to put the best team around LeBron.”
So Pelinka will continue to search. In the meantime, there is some hope that the respected Ham can help transform Westbrook into the kind of unselfish and defensive-minded player that will truly make the Lakers want him again. Ham has apparently already reached Westbrook in ways that former coach Frank Vogel could not.
“Just being able to communicate and connect to me is already just a positive,” Westbrook said. “We talked about many different things and conversed about a lot of different things, which doesn’t have to always pertain to basketball. And that’s something that grows the relationship.”
Then again, Westbrook thought he connected with James and Anthony Davis during last season’s training camp, and he wound up accusing them of being dishonest in their support. Westbrook is now saying that they didn’t play enough games together — 21 total — to properly judge their cohesion.
“Going into this season, just God willing, being able to be healthy and finding ways to be successful … is definitely a conversation,” he said.
It’s hard to believe that playing more games with James and Davis will drastically change Westbrook’s ball-dependent style. Just as it’s hard to believe which Laker is now claiming Westbrook as his best friend on the team.
Yeah, it’s the guy who once called him “trash.”
“It’s true,” Patrick Beverley said. “He was at my press conference. We hit the weights together. And, I mean, not like team weight stuff. We’re in the lab 6, 6:30 in the morning.”
He added, “Obviously you guys think that we have the worst relationship in the world … [but] when you get two people who love winning, two alpha males, and you put them together, it usually works … in order to get to where we’re going to have to get to, man, we have to become great friends.”
So Beverley is trying. And James is trying. And Davis is trying. And Ham is trying. And Pelinka is trying. It’s exhaustive, the number of Lakers who say they are attempting to make this untenable situation work.
The question: Is Russell Westbrook trying?
It will be hell if he doesn’t.