Russell Westbrook Might Have A New Home: The Bench
10:59 AM EST on January 20, 2022
The 2022 version of Russell Westbrook, equipped with a growing number of deficiencies, has been given a lot of leeway this season, but Lakers coach Frank Vogel finally reached his breaking point on Wednesday night. With Los Angeles trailing the oft-dreadful Indiana Pacers 101-94 in the fourth quarter, Vogel sat Westbrook down for Malik Monk and never re-inserted his wild-child point guard. The Lakers lost, giving Indiana its first win in 20 tries this season after trailing at halftime, and now it's a little unclear what the rest of Westbrook's season will look like.
Even I, a staunch Westbrook apologist on the grounds that he is fun to watch if you have zero rooting interest, can't begrudge Vogel's decision. Westbrook's travails in his first Lakers season have been well-covered on this here website, and his 5-of-17 shooting performance against Indiana didn't do him any favors. However, it was his subpar work on the defensive end—never a strong suit, even in his peak days—that reportedly led to the benching. With just over seven minutes left in the game, Westbrook allowed Caris LeVert to drive past him on his right hand, something that the coaching staff had reportedly drilled ahead of the game:
Though Westbrook stayed on the court for another three minutes, even hitting a three-pointer to make the game 95-90 with six and a half minutes remaining, ESPN reported that it was this specific play that led to his trip to the bench. After the game, Vogel—who is almost certainly coaching for his job every night—was asked about the decision to bench Westbrook, and his answer was both coach-speak and a clue into something deeper happening in L.A.: "Playing the guys that I thought were going to win the game." Westbrook, by both statistical analysis and the good old eye test, is not a player who can help the Lakers win most games right now, so it's hard to disagree with Vogel there. Will this be a one-time thing, fueled by a rough home game, or something deeper?
Well, in the same ESPN story, Dave McMenamin reports that sources told him that Vogel had the full backing of the Lakers brass to sideline one of its marquee acquisitions from the off-season:
Over the past week and a half, Lakers management has told the coaching staff to coach Westbrook as the coaches see fit, even if that means pulling him from a game, as Vogel did for the final 3 minutes, 52 seconds of the fourth quarter against Indiana, sources told ESPN.ESPN
For clarity's sake, the last week and a half has included a loss to the Grizzlies at home, a road loss to the Kings, a blowout loss against the Nuggets, and a solitary win against the Jazz. Including the Pacers loss, Westbrook shot a putrid 28.8 percent from the field in those games, something he acknowledged after the Sacramento defeat: "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." He didn't answer any questions about his most recent shooting debacle, or the subsequent benching, on Wednesday, leaving the arena without speaking to reporters.
Vogel's patience with Westbrook's inability to make said fucking shots finally ran out on Wednesday, and even his two high-profile teammates didn't fully back him in their own press conferences after the game. LeBron James avoided questions about Westbrook, while Carmelo Anthony made the benching sound less like a pointed statement and more like a regular basketball decision that just happened to involve a former MVP: "I don't think it's nothing personal. It's just something that he's not used to. You would think somebody like that would be on the court. But with the flow of the game, there's been times I haven't been in the game or other guys haven't been in the game."
The bad news for the Lakers is that the schedule doesn't offer much relief in the coming weeks to get Westbrook back on track. Los Angeles is away from Southern California for its next six games, including matchups against Miami, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn. Will Vogel keep sitting one of his bigger names if Westbrook keeps struggling on both ends of the court? Evidence prior to Wednesday would have pointed to a stubbornness for doing just that, but a shift appears to have occurred. To flip a cliché, Westbrook will either have to sink some shots, or he's going to swim his way out of a spot on this Lakers team.