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NBA

Maybe Russell Westbrook Knows It’s Over

Russell Westbrook, Kent Bazemore, DJ Augustin (Los Angeles Lakers)
Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images

Russell Westbrook’s contract entitles him to a little over $47 million in salary for the 2022-23 NBA season, which is around 38 percent of the league’s approximately $124 million cap on team salaries. A few seasons have passed since the last time anyone could make a credible argument for Russ being the kind of player whose actual basketball play justified that much of a team’s payroll; last season he made $44 million from the Los Angeles Lakers and was, charitably, a disaster on the court. If not for the apocalyptic state of the Lakers’ roster—hollowed out in no small part by the gargantuan price the team paid in the summer of 2021 to acquire him from the Washington Wizards, where he also stunk pretty bad—Westbrook might have been outright unplayable.

His basketball issues are years-old now, and well documented. At his peak in the middle of the previous decade, Russ was one of the most productive and dominant players in NBA history, a force of nature who physically overwhelmed opposing teams like no other guard who ever played. But as age grinds away his athleticism—and as long-range jump-shooting, a weakness even in Westbrook’s best years and an efficiency-killing eyesore in his 30s, becomes ever more central to the game’s tactics—his style of play has remained defiantly the same. If Westbrook does not have the ball in his possession and full license to do whatever he wants with it, he just doesn’t do much of anything at all. Moreover it’s not clear that there is much of anything he can do, without the ball, at a level at or above replacement grade; he rebounds well for a guard, I guess, but even that might be a wash or worse as a value proposition, as him rebounding the ball naturally leads to him having it, which tends to produce only dismal outcomes now. If it is maybe an exaggeration to say that the most Russell Westbrook can do to facilitate success for an NBA team in 2022 is take up 38 percent of its opponent’s salary cap, well, it’s at least up for debate.

A popular pastime over the past half-decade among basketbloggers—and presumably, in perhaps sweatier and more desperate terms, among his coaches and general managers, too—has been prescribing this or that set of playing-style adjustments Russ could make to remain a productive and winning player as his strengths eroded and changes to basketball’s tactical landscape transformed his weaknesses into profound disadvantages. With minor differences here and there, these generally have amounted to: Give up the ball, be more active without it (instead of standing dead still out near midcourt, as Russ has tended to do whenever not dribbling), set screens, shoot selectively, play committed defense (instead of coming alive at that end only when throwing himself out of position in pursuit of a steal).

The similarly proportioned, similarly shooting-deficient Bruce Brown made himself an indispensable contributor to a good Brooklyn Nets team over the past couple of years by defending maniacally across all matchups at one end of the floor and, at the other, operating as in essence a very undersized screen-and-roll center; why couldn’t Russ do something like that? Even now, the diminished almost-34-year-old version of Russ remains plenty big enough and athletic enough to—well, to make it easy for observers to imagine that he could be a perfectly good Bruce Brown if he set his mind to it. Set aside the question of whether any plausible iteration of Bruce Brown could be worth 38 percent of an NBA team’s payroll (the answer is no). In strict basketball terms, in the year 2022, it is better to pay $47 million for Bruce Brown than to pay $47 million for Russell Westbrook.

New Lakers coach Darvin Ham shares this idea, or anyway sees the value in claiming to. In interviews and press chats since his hiring Ham has talked enthusiastically about what he wants from Russ; predictably, this includes giving more energy on defense and embracing a variety of off-ball roles on offense. This morning in The Athletic, Lakers beat writer Jovan Buha reports what certainly seems to be a grim and souring state of affairs between Westbrook and the only agent he’s ever had, and also between Westbrook and the Lakers, over their plans for him. Westbrook parted with that agent, Thad Foucher, last week, and Foucher then took the very unusual and weird step of issuing a public statement to ESPN explaining the split. Here’s that, with emphasis added:

I represented Russell Westbrook for 14 years and am proud of our partnership which included a highly successful 2008 draft, a super-max contract and the only renegotiation-and-extend max contract in history. I also supported Russell throughout his rise into a prominent fashion industry figure and recently orchestrated three successive trades on Russell’s behalf—culminating with the trade to his hometown Los Angeles Lakers.

Each time, teams gave up valuable players and assets to acquire Russell—and each time, a new organization embraced his arrival. We did it together with grace and class.

Now, with a possibility of a fourth trade in four years, the marketplace is telling the Lakers they must add additional value with Russell in any trade scenario. And even then, such a trade may require Russell to immediately move on from the new team via buyout.

My belief is that this type of transaction only serves to diminish Russell’s value and his best option is to stay with the Lakers, embrace the starting role and support that Darvin Ham publicly offered. Russell is a first-ballot Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame player and will prove that again before he is retired.

Unfortunately, irreconcilable differences exist as to his best pathway forward and we are no longer working together. I wish Russell and his family the very best.”

ESPN

If there is some other way to read this than the agent asserting that Russ is not willing to accept a role as the Lakers’ Bruce Brown—wait, no, there isn’t. There is no other way to read this statement. That is what Foucher is expressing as clearly as if he had “RUSS IS NOT WILLING TO ACCEPT A ROLE AS THE LAKERS’ BRUCE BROWN” written on his shirt.

There are at least a couple of possibilities here, at least unless and until Russ speaks for himself on the issue. One is that Russ still genuinely believes his abilities warrant anything like the kind of central, ball-dominant role he held back when he was an MVP for the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2016-17 season, won’t settle for anything less than that, and continues to believe there exists the right situation for him to thrive in that role. This sort of broadly fits with one of the themes of his career, the kind of obdurate and indefatigable self-belief that once made him such a terrifying one-man avalanche on the court. Because of that, it is perhaps easier to read this level of bullheadedness into the actions of Russell Westbrook than into those of any other living person. His gruff answers to countless press questions over the years also lend themselves to this: He has never, so far as I know, cooperated even a little bit with the suggestion that he is less than the player he used to be, and generally treats questions to this effect as self-evidently ridiculous, even in the immediate wake of appallingly bad performances.

One problem with this explanation—which most of the blogs and online analyses tend to adopt—is that it involves the assumption that Russ has always been 100-percent forthright in his answers to press questions. It has always seemed to me at least as likely that he’s just stubbornly withholding the kind of degrading apologia that reporters so clearly want from him. The bigger problem, anyway, is that this would make Russ genuinely delusional. There is no other way he could be out there on the floor with himself, bonking jumpshots off the side of the backboard, whistling passes into the seats, dribble-driving sloppily into the comfortable containment of unaided defenders of no particular merit, and not see that his skills and abilities are in deep collapse. That’d be psycho shit.

Another possibility is that, however honest Russ is or isn’t with himself about the state of his game in 2022, he simply likes playing the way he has always played and isn’t ready to give up on it forever while there’s still the possibility that some team might accommodate him on the issue. NBA players, particularly those of a certain stature, are supposed to be maniacal in their singleminded focus on winning championships at all costs; for fans of a certain bent, believing and/or demanding this of them is a way of medicating (or weaponizing) resentment of how otherwise great those players’ lives seem to be, making tens of millions of dollars to be extremely cool and famous and play basketball on TV for a living. Remove that from the picture and the idea that Russ might simply want to find a workplace where he can play the way he likes playing seems almost… reasonable?

I mean, if somebody out there will pay him $47 million for one more season of being the captain of the ship, and he’d rather look into that than accept that he must imitate Matthew Dellavedova for a year in hopes of piggybacking his way onto somebody else’s championship chase, well, Godspeed, buddy. I suspect any number of normal people might at least insist on exploring their other options if their new boss was going around talking up how excited he is to strip them of most of their autonomy and make them work harder at the parts of the job they don’t like. To the extent this possibility has a problem, it’s bound up with however hard it is for you, personally, to accept the idea that Russell Westbrook might be a more-or-less rational person.

There’s a third possibility. However excited Ham might authentically be to excavate Russ’s hidden inner Gary Payton II in his 15th pro season, talking up his confidence that this can be done, and that the Lakers can succeed by doing it, serves a dual purpose. The organization wants to trade Russ. The honchos would rather find a willing trade partner to take his $47 million salary off their books than unlock even the most productive theoretical role-player version of him. As Buha observes in his Athletic piece, they might sooner pay him $47 million just to stay away from the team for a year than play him if they can’t find a trade. It suits the organization’s purposes, even if flimsily and transparently, for the coach to express the utmost confidence that the Lakers do not need or even want to trade Russ, and also in Russ’s willingness to adapt and play differently, at last. The former paints the Lakers as less desperate to be rid of him at any cost; the latter portrays Russ as perhaps a better bargain for potential trade partners wary of taking on a very expensive 34-year-old who will sulk if not given exclusive rights to the ball.

What if Russ simply doesn’t share Ham’s (real or feigned) optimism? What if he’s just pretty sure there is nothing to be done at this point in his career—no version of him that can improve a bad team by dutifully scampering to the corner to shoot spot-up threes, no hay to make as a 34-year-old non-shooting off-ball point guard on a team with LeBron James (also can’t shoot) and Anthony Davis (sorta can shoot, but also needs lots of space to play his best)—and doesn’t want to participate in the degrading theater of pretending only now to have discovered Effort and Sacrifice for the sake of helping the Lakers discard him? Maybe the true irreconcilable difference Foucher refers to in his very weird statement isn’t that Russ won’t play the small-ball center role for the Lakers, but that he won’t feign some late-career conversion to the Church of Hustle, for the sake of helping the Lakers send him to friggin’ Sacramento, or for any other reason.

The thing is, he’s going to get the $47 million under just about any plausible scenario except one where the Lakers trade him to some backwater dump where his only chance of ever playing meaningful basketball again in his life is to accept a discounted buyout in exchange for hitting free agency. That’s what happened to Russ’s fellow “supermax” contract albatross, John Wall. The tanking Houston Rockets paid him to stay away for a year, then bought out his contract in exchange for him discounting $6 million off his 2022-23 salary; he’s now with the Los Angeles Clippers on a cheap one-year deal that the Clippers have the option to extend for a second year.

Russ is already in L.A.; he’s already on a (theoretically, give or take whoever Anthony Davis decides to be this year) star-studded roster with pressure to compete for a championship. Why participate in diverting himself through some bottom-feeder’s digestive tract as a salary dump just for the opportunity to pursue exactly this kind of setup a few months from now, for less money? Why make a show of embracing, in Foucher’s formulation, a role the Lakers might only be offering him for the sake of burnishing the “value” Foucher’s fretting over? He can simply say nothing, stay where he is, make $47 million, and let the Lakers figure it out.

That is to say, maybe the thing the famously bullheaded Russell Westbrook is being bullheaded about isn’t whether it’s over, but whether he should pretend it isn’t. I kind of hope so.