Column: Russell Westbrook is welcome home if he puts his new Lakers teammates first
Welcome home, Russell Westbrook!
Well, maybe. Yeah, possibly. OK, we’ll see.
The Lakers either won an 18th championship or started an 18-alarm fire Thursday when they acquired the tempestuous Westbrook from the Washington Wizards for Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and the 22nd overall draft pick.
Either the Lakers now have a Big Three or a Big Bang Three.
Either Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka is instinctively brilliant or he’s completely lost his mind.
Either the headstrong Westbrook will agree to defer or his presence will destroy.
The Lakers acquired Russell Westbrook for Kyle Kuzma, Caldwell-Pope and Montrezl Harrell. Inside the talks behind the blockbuster trade that created a new Big 3.
At first glance, Westbrook is the sexiest of additions to a team with LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the perfect Hollywood buddy, a local kid from Leuzinger High and UCLA who has returned home after 13 years of wandering the NBA’s deserts.
He’s a nine-time All Star, has the most triple-doubles in NBA history, has led the league in assists three times and scoring twice, plays hard all the time and is one of the greatest players alive.
He is, however, also a huge pain. He needs the ball. He needs to be the focal point. He needs the offense to run through him, and when it doesn’t, he often grabs that offense by the neck and shakes it into ugly submission. He has accompanied great players before, and the results have always ended up a discordant mess.
He has played with Kevin Durant. It ultimately didn’t work. He has played with James Harden. It quickly didn’t work. He has played with Bradley Beal. It had no chance to work.
There is a reason the Lakers will be his fourth team in four years. At age 32, Westbrook has become a player without a fit, and there is little beyond his sheer star power that makes one think the Lakers can be that fit.
One of Westbrook’s most impressive numbers is points created per game off assists. He’s led the league in that category several times, and the Lakers finished 18th in that department last year.
The Tulsa Race Massacre has been largely glossed over for a century. Russell Westbrook ensures that the story of Black Wall Street will not be forgotten again.
The Lakers need a facilitator, but while Westbrook racks up the assists, he is generally taking bad shots at key moments and is famous for playing his team right out of games.
The Lakers more desperately need three-point shooters and Westbrook is not that. He has been in a four-year slump that has lowered his career percentage from the three-point line to 30.5% (the NBA leader in this category shot 47.5%).
While the Lakers might not seem like they’re giving up much in the deal, Kuzma and Caldwell-Pope were championship team players, something Westbrook has never been, and how do you replace that intangible? Harrell never meshed defensively in his one year in a Lakers uniform, but he was also a strong team player whose toughness will be missed.
This deal is also tenuous because it will require deference not just from Westbrook, but from his two more accomplished teammates.
LeBron? Hello? You’re not playing point guard anymore. You’re not controlling the tempo and forcing the action. You’re a power forward now, and are you OK with that?
A.D.? You see this? You’re going to have to move to center full-time now, mix it up around the rim a lot more, get your body in shape to handle the battles, and are you OK with that?
The Lakers needed to add firepower to last year’s injury-prone roster, and they’ve done that, but at what cost? There was at least one more possible and palatable option.
Forget that talk about Sacramento’s Buddy Hield, because he’s as potentially divisive as Westbrook. But how about that other local kid who wanted to come home, San Antonio’s DeMar DeRozan, from Compton? Wouldn’t he have been a safer bet?
The biggest positive with Westbrook is his probable motivation. He has been in 11 postseasons and has yet to win a ring. He could be coming here with a new attitude of humility and teamwork. He could be willing to sacrifice all those triple-doubles for one NBA championship.
It’s happened before. It’s happened a lot. It’s even happened in this town, this summer, when disgruntled Albert Pujols was basically kicked off the Angels and signed with the Dodgers.
This columnist wrote that Pujols would bring the Dodgers clubhouse nothing but selfish distractions. This columnist was wrong. By all accounts, Pujols has been a delightful addition, a strong leader, an unselfish role model.
Russell Westbrook is an inarguable superstar, but he also has shortcomings. Questions linger about how much better the Lakers are after the blockbuster trade.
The reason for the change? Pujols saw a chance for another championship and is doing whatever it takes to get it.
Maybe Westbrook sees that same opportunity with his new team in his hometown, and will adjust his game to fit the Lakers’ attack and become the perfect complement to their mission.
They better hope so.
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