A few months ago, If you were to have sketched out a worst-case scenario for the 2021-22 Los Angeles Lakers that did not involve a season-ending injury to LeBron James, it might have looked something like where the team currently finds itself. 16-18 is not a record that any kind of serious championship contender should be wearing at this time of year, and a 122-115 Christmas Day loss to the Brooklyn Nets was the Lakers’ fifth in a row.
Worse than the loss itself was the manner in which it occurred. The Lakers were without the ever-injured Anthony Davis, but the Nets were missing both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to the COVID-19 protocols. James Harden, the Nets’ last star standing, came into the game fresh out of the protocols himself, and hadn’t played in over two weeks. If there was ever a time for the Lakers to really go for it and earn themselves a “big” win in front of a huge national TV audience, something that may have at least convinced the casual fans tuning in for the first time all year that everything is still gravy in L.A., this was the moment.
James certainly did his part, scoring 39 points, grabbing nine rebounds, and handing out seven assists in 40 minutes. He scored 13 of those points in the fourth quarter, which wasn’t quite enough to fully erase the 20-point hole that the Lakers were in when the final frame started. It was the kind of great, lonely LeBron James performance that we haven’t seen much of since his first stint in Cleveland. Davis’s absence certainly played a role, but the determining factor behind this loss was more about who was on the floor with James than who was missing.
Russell Westbrook was out there, missing 16 of his 20 shots, playing extremely poor defense, and finishing the game with a team-worst minus-23. As if seeking a way to punctuate just how bad of a game he was having, Westbrook saved his worst lowlight for the biggest moment of the game: a biffed dunk with under 30 seconds to play that would have brought the Lakers within a point of the lead:
Even the most optimistic Lakers fan had to have gone into this season expecting to mutter, “Yikes,” “Jesus Christ,” and “What the fuck?” to themselves several times while watching Westbrook, but what’s worrying about yesterday’s performance is not just that Westbrook couldn’t get a shot to fall, but the kinds of shots that weren’t falling. We’re all used to the clanged elbow jumpers and psychotic pull-up threes, but Westbrook has historically been able to cancel out those negative shots in games where he puts his head down and makes hay at the rim. In terms of shot selection, yesterday was a Good Westbrook game; he only took three shots outside of the restricted area. What ultimately saddled he and the Lakers with a Bad Westbrook game was the fact that he could only put four of the 16 shots he took around the basket through the damn hoop. If Westbrook is no longer a guy who the Lakers can rely on for positive production even when he’s taking the shots everyone wants him to take, then where exactly is this project going?
Perhaps sensing that and similar questions rattling around the heads of fans and reporters, James did his best to go to bat for Westbrook after the game last night. From ESPN:
Instead, James lauded Westbrook’s “spectacular” decision-making that led to the guard’s double-digit assist total and pointed out how five of Westbrook’s rebounds came on the offensive glass, which meant more chances to score for the Lakers.
“He gave us extra possessions, he gave us a lot of looks around the basket, which I know that he can’t stand [failing to convert] as well,” James said. “But as far as the effort piece, if a guy plays hard, if a guy leaves it all out on the floor, I got no problem with that. It’s a make-or-miss league.”ESPN
Oof. The “he tried really hard” vote of confidence is maybe something that would feel encouraging if was being said about a struggling rookie, but Westbrook isn’t supposed to just be some ornament on this team. The whole idea behind his signing was for him to function as an additional engine of playmaking and shot creation who could take some of the weight off James’s old legs. Nobody expected Westbrook to suddenly become a flawless, efficient player, but it was reasonable to look for him to be a guy who could carry some of the load on nights when James and Davis weren’t quite up for it. What he was yesterday, what he’s been far too often this season, was not a guy who supported James’s winning efforts, but one who cancelled them out entirely.
It’s definitely not fair to pin all of the Lakers’ poor results on Westbrook—Davis has been rather cruddy himself during the games he’s been healthy enough to participate in—but the eye was always going to fall on him. That’s the consequence that comes from being the third star, handpicked by James and tasked with providing the necessary spark for a title run. It also doesn’t help that there’s no clear way out of this mess for Westbrook or the Lakers. Westbrook’s $44 million salary makes it all but impossible for him to be traded this season, and the fact that the Lakers already cleared out most of their depth and young talent in order to acquire Westbrook in the first place makes it unlikely that any reinforcements are on the way. This just who the Lakers are now, and it doesn’t get any easier or less fraught from here.