Russell Westbrook comes off bench in Lakers’ preseason finale and leaves with injury
Guard Russell Westbrook, the former NBA most valuable player for whom the Lakers traded before the 2021-22 season, came off the bench Friday night in the team’s preseason finale in one of Darvin Ham’s biggest moves in his short tenure as Lakers coach.
“It’s not a demotion,” Ham said before the game against the Sacramento Kings. “It’s a realignment.”
But before the team could collect data, Westbrook limped to the back of Golden 1 Center because of a hamstring injury.
He didn’t return to the game, which the Kings won 133-86.
The move to the bench, which has been discussed since the middle of last season, marked the first time Westbrook came off the bench since he took over as the Oklahoma City Thunder’s starting point guard early in his rookie season in 2008.
“We discussed it yesterday, and it’s something we’ve touched on during the summer here and there,” Ham said before the game. “He’s been a pro, man. Russ is one of the most beautiful human beings I’ve ever come across in this business, on and off the floor. He totally understood. Totally looked me in the eye and said, ‘Yeah coach, whatever you need me to do.’ You can’t take that for granted.”
Ham said the door wasn’t closed on Westbrook returning to the starting lineup and it also wasn’t closed on him remaining the sixth man if the coach liked how the switch looked.
But, like how things have gone for the Lakers over the last few seasons, injuries got in the way of the team being able to make a real evaluation.
Ham had said the Lakers hoped to use their preseason finale Friday as a runway into the regular season. Instead, forward Anthony Davis didn’t even make it onto the plane, his lower-back injury again keeping him off the floor. Davis missed three of the team’s six preseason games because of the soreness, though the team has called it precautionary.
Lakers guard Dennis Schroder will undergo MRI testing after injuring a finger during his lone preseason appearance Wednesday against Minnesota.
The Lakers also didn’t have Lonnie Walker IV, ruling him out because of ankle soreness following Friday’s shootaround. The team also was without guard Dennis Schroder, who was back in Los Angeles undergoing testing on a finger he injured Wednesday night against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Ham said Davis and Walker would be ready to play when the team opens its regular season Tuesday night against the Golden State Warriors in San Francisco.
Still, the Lakers wanted to proceed with Westbrook running the second unit, something he and Ham had talked about as a possibility during the offseason.
The Lakers’ Patrick Beverley wouldn’t let a preseason finale against the Minnesota Timberwolves — the team that traded him last summer — rattle him.
“Just some guys play better off the ball, some guys play better with the ball in their hands. And through no fault of their own, that’s just how they’re built,” Ham said. “You’re not going to have LeBron James play without the ball in his hands for 85% of his minutes. At some point, you’ve got to allow him to orchestrate. Same with Russ. And to create some type of balance, we wanted to look at this type of rotation to see if it would work for us.”
With 7:27 left in the first quarter, Westbrook checked into the game, immediately playing with his signature burst of speed and force. Though he missed a pair of jump shots, he was much more aggressive as a playmaker than he was in the Lakers’ loss Wednesday, when he was noticeably quiet.
But minutes after he walked off the bench, he limped past it as he went back to the team’s locker room. He was ruled out of the game midway through the second quarter because of a left hamstring injury. By then, the Lakers were down more than 20 points.
It submarined the Lakers’ plans to try to find a role for Westbrook that works best — a role that he told Ham he was willing to accept.
“It was just a confirmation that this guy is who he says he is and approaches the game as a true professional. Again, he trusts me,” Ham said of Westbrook. “That’s not an easy thing for a guy of his caliber to do, to say: ‘OK coach, I’m gonna give it a try. I’m all about the team.’ He’s willing to sacrifice. I’m happy. So now we get to see it. His energy was great at shootaround today, and I expect him to come off and compete at a very, very high level. And I’m anxious to see how it comes off and works out as well and work through it.
“It’s an exploratory move.”
The exploration, though, didn’t reveal any answers, the Lakers closing their preseason with just more questions.
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