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A bad third quarter doomed the Lakers on Wednesday night in a discouraging road loss to the Sacramento Kings. Mostly this was attributable to a high-intensity defensive meltdown, which is maybe to be expected when the tallest player in the lineup is LeBron James. The Lakers, still missing the injured Anthony Davis, saw as much as they could stomach of DeAndre Jordan and have finally bolted him to the bench pending a salary-dump trade. Dwight Howard is the only true center left in the rotation, which is a little bit like saying whatever you can scrape out of your garbage disposal is the only food left in your kitchen. LeBron is a very strong and experienced man, but even the Kings are capable of punishing a team stuck using him as its only rim protector. Sacramento shot 12-of-16 at the rim and 64 percent overall in the decisive third quarter, put up 40 points, and hung on for the win.

That’s possibly more than you wanted to know about one quarter of a January game between the West’s eighth and 11th seeds, but for some reason—possibly, at long last, a surge of pity—I feel compelled to make sure you understand that Russell Westbrook was not totally to blame for his team’s latest humiliating loss. Frank Vogel is trying out some desperate stuff, and it’s not always going to work, even against crummy competition. But poor Westbrook, man. Russ is locked into a series of go-to moves that he is increasingly incapable of executing effectively, and the results are becoming gruesome. Thursday night he put up eight points in 37 minutes on ghastly 2-of-14 (.143) shooting. It’s bad enough even without placing it against the rest of his performances since the calendar flipped over to 2022: On Jan. 2, Westbrook put up 20 points on 7-of-16 (.438) shooting, but had nine turnovers; two nights later, he went 7-for-19 (.368); on Jan. 7, Westbrook made just four of his 14 (.286) shot attempts; and then on Sunday, against the surging Grizzlies, he shot 2-of-12 (.167).

This stretch represents a new low point in what has been a very bad first half for Westbrook. He’s having easily his worst offensive season since his second year in the league, grading out in the negative in several of Basketball Reference’s big advanced metrics. Unbelievably, Westbrook’s shot selection has somehow gotten dramatically worse over the course of his career, not just because he’s taking more jumpers but because he’s missing them in really striking ways. This hilarious, heartbreaking video contains clips just from the full first half of this season—still way too short a time to account for so many astoundingly bad misses—but also captures to a really alarming degree the Westbrook experience over the last two weeks. There’s slumping, and then there’s banging a 14-footer off the side of the backboard, shaking it off, setting your jaw, bringing the ball back up the court on the next possession, and banging a 14-footer off the top of the backboard. The word “slump” feels wildly inadequate:

Westbrook prefers not to think of this stretch as a slump at all. “The word ‘slump’ isn’t something I lean on,” he told ESPN’s Dave McMenamin Thursday night. “I stay locked into my craft … I’ll figure it out, and that’s that … Figure out ways to just make a fucking shot. That’s it.” This is not very encouraging, once you’ve observed that there are elements of Westbrook’s game that will need to change in order for him to become, you know, good again. It is the very possibility that the problem “every jumper might miss the rim by more than a foot” could spring from anything that might be considered “my craft” that makes the contemporary Russell Westbrook viewing experience so confounding. The solution—and I’m just spitballing here—might be to excise the pull-up mid-range bank-shot from the arsenal altogether, as at this rate it could conceivably take another century of practice for it to become a game-ready weapon.

But it is safe to say, 14 years into his NBA career, that this sort of logic never penetrates Westbrook’s sense of who he is and what he should be doing on a basketball floor. When that screechingly awful bank-shot falls, it’s evidence that he should take it again. When it misses, whether by a couple inches or a couple feet, that too is evidence that he should take it again. At no point will anything as crude and flattening as a “trend” linking together multiple events and proving, perhaps with the aid of a mathematical equation, that Westbrook is not any good at a given shot type be allowed to enter the conversation. That is what is meant by “craft” in the Westbrook lexicon.

It is hard to come up with a way out of this. When you are torpedoing your team’s offense, it is because the shots you are taking are not going in, and therefore you must redouble your efforts at making those shots, which necessarily must involve taking more of them. Right now Westbrook “can’t make a fucking shot,” and that’s bad. At some point, if he sticks with it, he will make some, but at no point will he become solidly good at the shots he’s taking. The best the Lakers can hope for is that Westbrook will make more of them once the games really matter, and not miss so many in the meantime that that day never comes.

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