Instead of taking his lumps as he learned the ropes, the nine-time all-star guard exploded onto the scene with the Oklahoma City Thunder, reaching the conference finals at age 22 and the Finals at age 23. Instead of enjoying the long-awaited championship payoff once he reached his prime, Westbrook found himself abandoned by Kevin Durant in 2016 and unable to mount the type of deep playoff push that had once seemed inevitable. And instead of fulfilling his presumed destiny as a one-franchise cult hero, the Los Angeles Lakers’ latest splashy addition is set to play for his fourth team in four seasons following his offseason trade by the Washington Wizards.
Yet Westbrook’s circuitous journey has been building to this moment: Arguably the NBA’s most polarizing and scrutinized star has suddenly found himself on the sport’s biggest stage and brightest spotlight. What’s more, his new role will require deft tap-dancing. To help LeBron James and Anthony Davis win their second title in three years, Westbrook must produce like a veritable star while also adjusting in ways that his critics have long suggested are beyond his reach.
Although Westbrook is 32 years old and five seasons removed from his 2017 MVP campaign, this experiment is anything but late-career ring-chasing, in part because Westbrook arrives with a $44 million salary and in part because he’s joining a championship duo rather than a championship team. Besides James and Davis, Dwight Howard and Talen Horton-Tucker are the only remaining members of the 2020 title team with Rajon Rondo possibly set to rejoin the Lakers after a buyout from Memphis.
Meanwhile, the Lakers are still smarting from a first-round exit that saw James and Davis, who were limited by injuries, unable to count on their supporting cast to step up and fill in the gaps. Key players such as Dennis Schroder, Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell and Andre Drummond were all jettisoned because they didn’t deliver when it mattered. Now, the Lakers are counting on Westbrook, who averaged 22.2 points, 11.5 rebounds and 11.7 assists per game last season, to function as the third member of a “Big Three,” a la Chris Bosh on the 2013 Miami Heat or Kevin Love on the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers.
“A lot of his triple-doubles early were done with force,” Lakers President Rob Pelinka said at a mid-August news conference, talking up Westbrook as a rabid competitor who has evolved during his 13-year career. “But I think now his triple-doubles are done with force and with thoughtfulness [in] how he uses the pieces and his teammates and makes the sum of the parts greater than each individual. He’s really learned how to think the game at a higher level.”
Just as the Lakers will be doomed if Westbrook can’t do enough, they run the risk of a spectacular implosion if he tries to do too much. James is the best playmaker with whom Westbrook has ever played, surpassing Durant, James Harden, Paul George and Bradley Beal. Davis is the best big man with whom Westbrook has ever played, easily supplanting Serge Ibaka. Both James and Davis are far more efficient scorers than Westbrook, and their mutually beneficial partnership will be compromised if Westbrook lapses into bad habits like ball-stopping, poor shot selection and undisciplined defense.
“Any time you have three great players like this, there’s an element of sacrifice required,” Lakers Coach Frank Vogel said. “We’ve all talked about that and are all in on that. These three guys can do it all. What I love about our group — ‘Bron, AD and Russ — they’re all ‘Make the right play’ players. It’s not just about scoring or being a one-dimensional player.”
The fundamentals of Westbrook’s game — energy, fearlessness, power — have remained the same throughout his career, but he has demonstrated some ability to adapt to his high-profile teammates. During the 2018-19 season in Oklahoma City, he ceded authority to George, who unexpectedly emerged as an MVP candidate. In 2019-20, he shifted into a clear-cut No. 2 role behind Harden and found success attacking in small lineups after a rocky start. Last season, he shook off early injuries to help Beal lead the Washington Wizards on a late-season playoff push. All three partnerships required patience at the start.
“My job is to come in and uplift [James and Davis],” Westbrook said. “They’ll do the same with me, vice versa. As the season prolongs, we’ll figure it out. There will be ups and there will be downs. That’s normal. That’s okay. We’ll figure out the best way we want to play to win a championship.”
When Harden joined Durant and Kyrie Irving on the Brooklyn Nets in January, the trio enjoyed instant chemistry. The Lakers will almost certainly need more time, though they are fortunate to play 12 of their first 15 games at home.
Their wheels are already turning. Vogel wants to utilize Westbrook’s speed and athleticism to become “an extremely dynamic, fast-breaking team,” while James and his new sidekick got together shortly after the trade for workouts and a quick trip to Las Vegas Summer League.
“[Lab] work with the Brodie,” James wrote alongside an Instagram photo of their shared gym time, before sarcastically jabbing the Lakers’ doubters. “I agree I don’t think this will work.”
The verdict won’t truly arrive until the playoffs. There is significant upside for Westbrook, who is eyeing his best championship shot since 2016 following a disappointing run of four first-round exits in the past five years. If he can somehow strike the right balance, his complicated career could come together in a storybook fashion that seemed impossible in the aftermath of Durant’s departure.
After all, Westbrook is a Los Angeles native who grew up as a Lakers fan and starred at UCLA. Imagine if the Lakers beat the Nets — led by Durant and Harden, his former teammates — in the 2022 Finals.
“Being from L.A., everything coming full circle for me is a blessing,” Westbrook said, smiling at the opportunity before him. “It’s a lot of things I can’t put into actual words.”