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Russell Westbrook Has The Eye On Him

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Lakers fans got their first look at their new superstar trio Tuesday night, in a preseason loss to the Golden State Warriors. Pay no attention to the outcome or final score: The Lakers were mostly fine during the parts of the game that resembled a regular season contest, and were mostly fine with new cog Russell Westbrook on the court, even if they improved in measurable ways when he was replaced by Rajon Rondo. As several Lakers were at pains to explain after the exhibition, these are the very first steps in a long process, one that will require patience. “It could take all year to really be at our best,” said Frank Vogel, who for a variety of professional reasons will want to reorient things to this long view as often as possible. “It’s reasonable to think that there’s going to be some bumpy nights early in the season.”

There were indeed bumps Tuesday night, as there have been in each of Los Angeles’s five preseason games. Westbrook was fine, by rusty preseason standards. ESPN had this very funny line in their recap, but nevertheless you must say that he did fine.

Westbrook, who worked his way to the Lakers in the offseason by convincing the Washington Wizards to seek a deal, looked the best he has yet in purple and gold — which isn’t saying much, considering he combined to shoot 4-for-19 with 16 turnovers in his first two outings. But his speed in the open court when flanked by so much talent will be a difference-maker this season.

ESPN

It’s probably a little bit less than ideal when you have to point to unproven future success for encouragement, but here again I must emphasize that we are talking about the preseason, which exists for de-kinking. The kinks are already well-known: Spacing will be an issue for the Lakers’ half-court offense, because Westbrook is a notoriously poor shooter and a mostly stationary off-ball player. The two-man game featuring Westbrook and Anthony Davis will need lots of reps and lots of creativity for Davis to be much more than a floor-spacer. Westbrook will need to become a willing spot-up shooter, and a somewhat less willing pull-up shooter. It takes a lot of squinting to picture a best-case version of these Lakers that doesn’t feature Westbrook playing like some completely other player, with a completely different skillset, but they would not be the first or 50th flawed team to win a title.

This much is certain: Lakers games are going to be fascinating, whether the experiment works beautifully or fails spectacularly. But even with all that to think about and puzzle over, this is still an unusual amount of attention to heap on a preseason game:

I do not mean to suggest that the people making these clips are doing anything wrong, or that the attention is in any way unfair. For one thing, this sort of clip analysis is increasingly a feature of the way that basketball is processed on Twitter, for better or worse. For another, Westbrook is just a very fascinating, rewarding player to zero in on, under any circumstances. But those dynamics, plus the fact that he is playing for the Lakers, on a team with Anthony Davis and LeBron James, mean that the take economy will not lack for oppressively detailed evidence of how this whole project is going. I found myself chuckling shitheartedly and forwarding around an ultra-slo-mo clip of a Westbrook defensive glitch Wednesday morning, before it occurred to me that no NBA player other than perhaps Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons is getting anything even close to this level of attention in the second week in October, and all Russ is doing is playing basketball:

There’s a very decent chance that these awkwardly shaped but impressively credentialed Lakers, if healthy, will become unbeatable in the spring and rampage to a championship. That would be a cool outcome, for delivering an elusive championship to Westbrook, putting an impressive capstone on his extraordinary career, and defanging the types of people who feel that any conclusions about a given player’s career must be subjected to the RINGZZZZZ test. It’s nice to think of Russ smooching the trophy in a state of pure ecstasy, and Chris Paul watching it on television and slowly shrinking and shriveling until he has completed his transformation into a prune.

That’s the prize for Westbrook, and his potential reward for toiling away in obscurity for a season with the godforsaken Wizards, proudly enough and juuuust effectively enough to rehabilitate his reputation and make himself a viable trade target for a team with extremely realistic title aspirations. But there’s a consequence, too: Westbrook will be the subject of incredible scrutiny for as long as he is a teammate of LeBron James. The margins up there in the thin air of real-deal title pursuit are vanishingly narrow, and Westbrook is not a delicate instrument. However it happens to not work, if in the end it doesn’t work, it will for sure have lots and lots of Russ all over it, enough for whole disparate and competing theories of exactly why it didn’t work to center on something Westbrook did or did not do. Call it the Kevin Love Experience, and shudder at what it meant for Love, who joined LeBron’s Cavaliers as a highly regarded and widely coveted offensive fulcrum and emerged ashen, grey-haired, and noticeably hollowed, the butt of one million jokes, and having spent 85 percent of his time as LeBron’s teammate positioned as the doofus who was fucking everything up. Love gained a ring and one legendary highlight, but he also aged like a jack o’ lantern in stop motion. LeBron’s orbit can be a cruel place for the guy whose awkward fit conspicuously disturbs the title hunt.

There’s a very good chance Westbrook cares about this sort of thing not at all, and will happily continue doing his own thing and evaluating the outcomes according to his own standards. In fact, the possibility that the mind palace of Russell Westbrook has no place in it for the suggestion that Russ’s preferred way of doing things might cost his team a title shot further juices up every Lakers possession. But the effort to remake himself on the fly, in his age-33 season, after the career he’s put together, would not guarantee a championship, and in fact may in the end bring the Lakers no closer to one. This can look like a lose-lose proposition, except that the Lakers might quite literally win the whole thing. And that might be what it takes for Westbrook to emerge from this experience as anything other than the bad guy!

So if you find yourself aghast that the Zaprudering of Russ’s every twitch in a Lakers jersey somehow started before his first actual game in a Lakers jersey, just remind yourself that it could only ever be so. The most headstrong player maybe ever now has for a teammate the greatest player of this generation, on a title contender, for the Lakers. No pressure!

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