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Russell Westbrook’s dilemma: Being himself is not helping the Lakers

Lakers guard Russell Westbrook scores a basket guarded by Brooklyn Nets forwards Bruce Brown and James Johnson.
Lakers guard Russell Westbrook scores a basket guarded by Brooklyn Nets forwards Bruce Brown and James Johnson as James Harden looks on in the first half at Crypto.com Arena on Christmas Day.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Russell Westbrook leaned back in his chair and laughed Monday after the Lakers’ practice, the subject matter more of a riddle than a knee-slapping joke.

How should Westbrook, the Lakers’ $44-million-plus investment this season, play?

As the team hits the midway mark of the season in two weeks, it’s hard to fathom that the Lakers don’t feel any closer to knowing that answer.

The plan all along, according to the team’s stars, has been to embrace Westbrook’s game and mold theirs around it.

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“As far as Russ, we need Russ to be Russ,” LeBron James said on Sept. 28 during the Lakers’ media day. “We don’t need Russ to change for anybody. That’s why we got him.”

Yet with the Lakers’ record below .500, the team mired in a five-game losing streak and failing the eye test, is “Russ being Russ” the best fit for the team? Is it even happening yet?

Maybe that’s why all this is so funny. Because just like in Oklahoma City and in Houston and in Washington, people are confused again about the kind of player Westbrook is.

NBA players who test positive for COVID-19 now have a quicker path to return after the league completed an update to its health and safety protocols .

“Honestly, I’m over the whole situation with what everyone else wants me to do and what they think I should be doing,” Westbrook said Monday, now very serious. “And I’m going to go out and just play and do what I do best — and that’s compete my ass off, compete to win games and make my teammates better like I’ve done many, many years. And I’ll continue to do that. It’s as simple as that.

“… People are saying, ‘let Russ be Russ.’ I think nobody understands what that means. I think people just say it — ‘let Russ be Russ’ — but nobody actually knows what that means but myself.”

Trying to define Westbrook’s game with NBA scouts and executives quickly starts to sound like something you might hear in the parking lot before a Phish concert, a string of circular arguments that don’t have answers and leave you hungry to move on to something new.

Westbrook wants to be, and is proficient at, impacting a game in many ways. He scores, he passes, he rebounds and he hustles. But while he’s impacting the game in so many areas, his flaws also are transposed onto each of them.

Take the Lakers’ Christmas night loss to Brooklyn in which Westbrook missed a barrage of layups but still registered a triple-double. The way he attacked the glass for the Lakers, a dreadful rebounding team, keyed their rallies. He‘s always kept an eye on the rim, meaning he’d sometimes lose his defensive assignment, like he did with the Nets’ Patty Mills on a critical late-game three-pointer.

Westbrook also continued to get into the paint and challenge the Nets at the rim, 100% what the Lakers want, per David Fizdale, the assistant running the team while coach Frank Vogel is in COVID-19 protocols. Yet on a late dunk that Westbrook missed, cameras caught James in the corner of the court, hands in the air, calling for the ball.

“There will be nights when you don’t make shots,” Westbrook said Monday. “But for me, my game is not predicated on if I miss and make shots. I do other things that impact winning, that impact the game on nights when I don’t make shots.”

Lakers guard Russell Westbrook guarded by Brooklyn Nets forward James Johnson.
Lakers guard Russell Westbrook guarded by Brooklyn Nets forward James Johnson in the first half at Crypto.com Arena on Christmas Day.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

The Lakers aren’t winning lately. Even when they have, they’ve hardly been impressive.

Westbrook, who says he doesn’t pay attention to outside noise but acknowledges using criticism for motivation, has to be keenly aware of the scrutiny — he’s the easiest target to blame with Anthony Davis hurt and Vogel out.

Westbrook defended his play on Monday, saying he’s been “fine” despite not living up to the standards he’s set for himself. This season he’s one of only four players in the NBA to average at least 19 points, eight assists and seven rebounds. Of the four — James Harden, LaMelo Ball and Luka Doncic are the others — Westbrook has the highest field-goal percentage.

But he’s turning the ball over a lot — 4.6 per game — and his free-throw problems (65.6%) have continued as part of a bizarre nosedive at the line, where his career average is 78.6%.

Yet most of his shooting splits are either at or above his career averages, including a terrific 47.6% on corner threes, a valuable portion of the court critical to spacing the floor. Add in that Westbrook is a notorious slow starter, and there’s reason to expect some uptick in the coming months.

It’s a confusing picture, his numbers suggesting that he’s playing well, but the team not looking anywhere near a contender on the court.

“None of it is for him to figure out alone,” Fizdale said. “We don’t want to leave him any kind of island to figure out anything by himself. What we are encouraging him to do is what he said, he’s got to be himself. And within that framework, good things will come out of it.”

Playing in his first game after a confusing time in the NBA’s COVID protocols, Malik Monk scored 20 points off the bench for the Lakers in their Christmas Day loss to Nets.

There is one factor, though, that is out of Westbrook’s control, and that’s his salary. He can’t escape from the depth the Lakers sacrificed to trade for him and the salary-cap problems his presence alongside two other maximum-contract players causes, particularly for a team that didn’t want to go deep into the tax to keep a valuable role player like Alex Caruso.

Within those circumstances, “fine” isn’t good enough from Westbrook — just like it won’t be from Davis and James. With the current roster construction, it can’t be.

Russ can be Russ. That means missed shots, turnovers, plenty of frustrations. It also means tons of competitive fire and a desire to do the right thing to help his team win. You can’t trade for someone because he’s relentless and then expect him to be comfortable relenting.

Yet if Russ is going to be Russ, he has to be a better version of the one Lakers fans have seen so far. At this point of the season, if someone suggested the Lakers are where they want or need to be, you’d probably laugh too.

UP NEXT

at Houston

When: 5 p.m., Tuesday

On the air: TV: Spectrum SportsNet; Radio:1110, 1330

Update: Houston is playing much better than it was when the Lakers beat the Rockets in back-to-back games in Los Angeles, though they’ve cooled off considerably. After winning seven straight, Houston had lost seven of nine entering Monday’s game with Charlotte. Rookie Jalen Green has returned from injury and should play Tuesday. The Lakers still are dealing with the health and safety protocols, but Malik Monk’s return on Christmas gave them a nice spark.


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