Trading Russell Westbrook won't solve Lakers' problems

LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers are in uncharted territory, with no answers and no path to contention.

It hasn’t been the case for James in nearly two decades, it’s a hard adjustment and certainly not the way he envisioned his golden years playing for the golden franchise in Los Angeles. The Lakers’ organizational ethos has been simple, effective and almost impossible to duplicate: acquire stars and contend. It’s hard to recall a period in modern NBA history when the Lakers had two bona fide stars, not just in name but impact, and yet not have at least a realistic vision of being a threat.

James had years of carrying teams that first stint in Cleveland that turned out to not fill expectations, but his excellence validated those expectations. Shaquille O’Neal came to Los Angeles as a grown star, but it took a few years for Kobe Bryant to be a consistent one, thus resulting in the Lakers reaching potential.

These Lakers are nothing like either of those situations, and while three games can appear hasty, nothing with the current roster or anything on the horizon would lead one to believe the Lakers can make their way through a crowded Western Conference.

It’s not just being winless in the interim, but it doesn't feel like even the positive moments are sustainable and the flaws are loud.

Russell Westbrook is everybody’s villain and at this point, his play makes it easy to pile on. He’s a culprit, but not the only one. The roster construction is porous, the performances have been underwhelming and all that’s left is accountability.

James has refused to criticize Westbrook publicly, particularly after Westbrook’s boneheaded decision to try to go two-for-one late against Portland with the Lakers nursing a one-point lead. That approach from James would be admirable if he didn’t play such a huge role in Westbrook becoming a Laker to begin with, as the Lakers changed course on draft night in 2021. It’s easy to see why James wanted Westbrook as a running mate, considering Westbrook was still productive and James battled injuries the year before.

Regardless of the logic of the moment, it hasn’t worked and James has to wear it, along with Rob Pelinka and everyone else in the Lakers’ brain trust.

Russell Westbrook sits on the bench next to Anthony Davis and Patrick Beverley during the Los Angeles Lakers' game against the Los Angeles Clippers on Oct. 20, 2022 in Los Angeles. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The team that was assembled looks like a squad of try-hards rather than one that will overwhelm its opponents with talent. Even with the poor start and collapse on Sunday against Portland, effort hasn’t really been a question.

It’s important to note, the Warriors are the champions who haven’t missed a beat, the rival Clippers have realistic designs on dethroning the Warriors and Portland’s Damian Lillard looks to be on a revenge tour to remind those who didn’t believe he’d be back to previous form otherwise.

In the micro, any game can be written off, but the macro presents a picture that cannot be ignored.

There are no easy nights, even the Utah Jazz aren’t a guaranteed win.

It feels like a lot will have to go right to mask the Lakers’ ills, from James playing at an otherworldly level to Anthony Davis reversing the trend of being self-check outside of 15 feet to the Lakers' shooters … being able to shoot.

As the phrase goes, “They’re open for a reason.”

Davis was supposed to help James transition into the final phase of his career, a young, gifted, two-way co-star who could take the reins and start a new reign. Talent-wise, he’s every bit worthy of comparisons to Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett. But he’s not reliable in terms of availability (Garnett’s strength) nor is he dedicated to planting himself on the block to punish opponents, like Duncan did from Day 1.

We’ve been waiting on him to turn into That Dude, to step into the place his talent demands, to live up to that surprising inclusion into the NBA’s top 75 list. We’ve been waiting for him to be as audacious and ambitious and alluring as Giannis Antetokounmpo.

It doesn’t look like that day is coming, especially as the stumbles keep piling up, the miles add up and the disrespect from opponents starts to surface, like Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic dismissively waving his arms at Davis while he fired a corner jumper Sunday.

The numbers don’t look bad, and he has moments of energetic impact but the Lakers need more — from somewhere, anywhere.

Westbrook is in the worst spot. Earlier in his career, it was criticism for a table of three but he was often the only one paying the bill. He was worthy of critique, but it felt heavy-handed because of his approach and walk-on-the-wild-side ways. It actually made him a cult figure at times, not dissimilar to Allen Iverson — another flawed hero who was headed toward a painful ending.

But similar to Iverson, Westbrook finds himself on a steep decline, a swift one. In the span of two years, Iverson went from third in the NBA in scoring to out of the league by 2010. Iverson’s reluctance to change while the game was changing around him, along with the accumulation his body took from so many years of hard minutes and hard living, led to the NBA being done with him before he was ready to go.

Westbrook, to no one’s surprise, isn’t the same athlete he was four years ago. This is his 15th year — historically, players are entering retirement, not trying to recapture old glory. He didn’t use his acquired smarts during that two-for-one play, instead relying on tried-and-true instinct — the former usually aids aging players rather than the latter. Westbrook is battling it — his body, his mortality, his place in the league — and the answers are not to his liking.

In a way, expecting him to be anything but the Russell Westbrook he has been, expecting him to play a mature game rather than one of unvarnished fury, is the Lakers’ fault.

Haven’t they seen his movies?

But Westbrook has to own not being a better shooter, defender or decision-maker, or judging his play by the useless triple-double accumulation. The day was going to come when his gifts would wane. Perhaps it wasn’t suggested he evolve, or maybe if it was, he didn’t listen.

The Lakers could do Westbrook a favor and trade him, rather than continue this uncomfortable relationship that seems to benefit no one while pushing a proud and historic player further into the abyss.

Trading Westbrook wouldn’t change the Lakers’ outlook, even if they acquired a shooter and big man in return. At best, it looks like a play-in team or one on the fringes.

It doesn’t look like a squad worthy of James’ greatness or one worthy of recapturing magic from the Orlando bubble years ago, to validate a title that appears harder to define the further we get from it.