With no middle ground to evaluate Russell Westbrook, the Lakers look destined for mediocrity ... again

SAN FRANCISCO — It’s never too early for panic in Lakerland, or at least concern of the worst fears coming true.

Is it merely one game or the same old Halloween horror film repeating itself, with the same villain leading to destruction?

The roster deficiencies and a Hall of Fame piece that doesn’t quite fit with the rest was on display in the Lakers123-109 opening-night loss to the Golden State Warriors, and no one was in the mood to deflect what seemed clear to naked eyes.

Russell Westbrook returned to the starting lineup after a one-game preseason experiment — an experiment that saw him limping to the locker room with a hamstring injury last Friday that he subsequently blamed on coming off the bench after a career of being in the first five.

He was prompted by a query so he wasn’t crying wolf on his own, but he didn’t mind discussing his feelings on a role he hasn’t played since Nov. 28, 2008, when he came off the bench for the final time as a rookie with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

“Absolutely. I’ve been doing the same thing for 14 years straight,” Westbrook said. “Honestly, I didn’t know what to do pregame, I was trying to stay warm and loose.

“I felt something, didn’t know what it was. Wasn’t gonna risk it in a preseason game. But definitely wasn’t something I was used to. Wasn’t warm enough. It was something I wasn’t accustomed to.”

He’s an easy target, and some would say easy to defend given the myriad issues the Lakers have that don’t include him. There’s hardly a middle ground with him — which makes him hard to evaluate. But employing a team with talents like LeBron James and Anthony Davis leads to Champagne expectations, therefore placing the focus on a Westbrook-like figure instead of looking at the roster to say there isn’t much variance between a really good Lakers season and an abject disaster.

Charles Barkley throwing Westbrook a life raft, saying the Lakers are essentially sucking the life from him, isn’t a foreign concept. But Westbrook only danced around it, choosing not to make an uncomfortable situation unbearable.

It’s hard to discern the ills because everything is so loud. Westbrook played generally well, but the turnovers were ugly and memorable — same for everyone else wearing purple, it should be said.

Los Angeles Lakers guard Russell Westbrook shoots the basketball against Golden State Warriors center James Wiseman during the third quarter of the season opener at Chase Center in San Francisco on Oct. 18, 2022. (Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports)

The Warriors are perhaps the league’s best at looking in the mirror and knowing what’s staring back at them. Even when they were playing sloppily, choppy or in spurts, they never shed their skin.

Sooner or later, the shots were going to fall. They did. Sooner or later, those wayward passes were going to find their mark — Stephen Curry and Jordan Poole each had seven of the Warriors’ 31 assists.

There was little doubt Curry or someone else who received a gaudy ring would squash the modest Lakers run midway through the fourth quarter. There’s an internal knowledge and confidence that isn’t quite a continuation from last season, but the on-floor DNA is ever present even in the face of drama.

“The Warriors are who they are, it goes without saying, I don’t need to harp on that, the greatness they possess every night with their ballclub,” James said.

He later laid bare what everyone saw for the better part of 48 minutes, the Lakers’ 3-point percentage looking like a frigid day in January. At the end of the third quarter, the Lakers had shot 19% from three on 31 attempts.

“I think we got great looks, but it also could be teams giving us great looks,” James said. “To be completely honest, we’re not a team that’s constructed of great shooting. Truth of matter is not like you know, we [have] a lot of lasers on our team. We’re not sitting here with a bunch of 40-plus [percent] career 3-point shooting guys.”

James missed his share of open looks, but it’s hard to quantify how he’ll fare as a long-range shooter when he’s gotten better in that category over the last stretch of years.

But it seems simple enough to identify what wins in today’s NBA, and shooting is a big part of that puzzle. Defending the perimeter, and doing it with strong wings are two other major components.

The Lakers appear to have none, which is what James referred to. It’s not just winning unconventionally, but clearly it seems a basic tenet of this plan revolves around playing harder than the opponent.

Pat Beverley helps in ways other than the box score, and so will Dennis Schroder, when he makes his return. It’s not the crew of Golden Boys from last season; they’ve gotten younger in spots.

But how many Lakers will have to play to their full potential to even escape the play-in, provided reasonable health for James and Davis?

Playing smarter and more opportunistically will help, and maybe they’re due some injury luck. If that’s what this house is being built on, the slightest miscalculation can lead this team right back where it doesn’t want to be.

Take Tuesday, for instance. Westbrook believed the Lakers got in trouble when they weren’t playing fast. James didn’t seem inclined to agree.

“I thought the game was what the game was,” James said, somewhat cryptically when asked about Westbrook’s comment.

It’s a difference of opinion with James and Westbrook. Not a direct point of contention but certainly basketball philosophies that don’t parallel. Perhaps it would work if both men were younger — if James was the end-to-end supernova who only needn’t a sliver of space before bearing down on defenses, if Westbrook was more efficient, or as efficient as he could be — they’d terrorize visiting arenas.

Instead, Chase Center fans derisively implored Westbrook to shoot from the perimeter when the bigs gave him space, ceding 3-point shots. It wouldn’t have been the case 10 years ago, when both were athletically capable of dominating from start to finish.

The vision of the comedic errors can obscure Westbrook playing a good game given where he is in his career, and James can put up numbers like 31 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists in his sleep — even if it’s hard to recall many impactful stanzas that put the Lakers in position to take control of this contest.

Davis was all over the place for moments — including the floor, taking tumbles more frequently than anyone wants to see.

Everyone’s pledging to do the right things, to give this new setup an honest try. But somehow it seems like the Lakers are destined for mediocrity and Westbrook could be headed for the next game of “Who He Play For?”