Unfortunately, the scattered collection of stars in the stands was stuck watching a scattered collection of stars on the court.
On paper, the Lakers are a glittery constellation with six future Hall of Famers: LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard and Rajon Rondo. But in their first game together, they just didn’t align. While James and Davis combined for 67 points and had their share of good moments, Westbrook pressed far too hard and left his Lakers debut scowling as Stephen Curry and the Warriors pulled out a 121-114 victory.
The Lakers preached patience throughout a winless preseason, which conjured memories of 2012, when another star-studded group faced immediate fit questions that eventually proved to be its undoing. James and company stuck to that message after Westbrook’s night to forget, in which the nine-time all-star finished with eight points, five rebounds and four assists while shooting 4 for 13 from the field in 35 minutes. The 32-year-old guard, who arrived from the Washington Wizards by trade in July, also committed four turnovers, missed all four of his three-point attempts and drew a technical foul for arguing with an official.
“For him more than anybody, it’s going to be an adjustment period,” Lakers Coach Frank Vogel said. “He’s coming into our culture, our system. He’s the new guy. He’s got to find his way. … He just needs time. He just needs minutes on the floor with these guys.”
Time and again since media day, the Lakers have said that they simply need Westbrook to be Westbrook. That mantra is an indirect acknowledgment that Westbrook has always played the same way: fast, hard and bold, sometimes to a fault. For this experiment to work, the Lakers can’t expect Westbrook to make radical adjustments to his game at this stage of his career. Instead, they need to adjust his role by significantly reducing his playing time.
For the past four seasons, Westbrook has averaged around 36 minutes per game, which puts him among the NBA’s leaders. Vogel said this week that he intends to take a similar approach, playing Westbrook in the mid-30s, just as he did on opening night. Yet this looks like a golden opportunity to play smarter, not harder.
The pitch to Westbrook should be this: Less is more. A lighter minutes load would allow Westbrook to continue to play full throttle offensively and to expend more consistent energy defensively. It also would save him from some wear and tear after he dealt with injuries in each of the past two seasons.
Reducing Westbrook’s role would have other benefits for the team dynamic. James and Davis would be able to use more possessions themselves, and the two stars would be able to play longer stretches with better perimeter shooters, making their lives easier on offense.
Rondo shares years of well-honed chemistry with Davis and could fill in some of the gaps. Talen Horton-Tucker, a promising youngster who is sidelined after a thumb injury, deserves every opportunity to hold a major role in the rotation. And Vogel has other options worth exploring, including defensive specialist Avery Bradley, a recent pickup, and scorers Malik Monk and Kendrick Nunn.
None of those guards can match Westbrook when it comes to fame or athleticism, but some of them might prove to be more effective than Westbrook when he is stretched too thin and the worst of his erratic tendencies are on display.
To be clear, the Lakers are right to insist that patience is in order; Westbrook started slowly before playing better down the stretch at his past two stops. The Houston Rockets changed their philosophy during the middle of the 2019-20 season to create more space for Westbrook, while the Wizards shook off early covid-related absences to make a late push into the 2021 playoffs. Along the way, Westbrook familiarized himself with star teammates in James Harden and Bradley Beal. Based on that history, there’s little doubt that Westbrook will be more effective in January than he was Tuesday.
“I think it was just first-game jitters,” James said. “[Westbrook] put too much into it. There’s a lot going through his mind. Being here in L.A., watching the Lakers growing up. … I told Russ to go home and watch a comedy. Put a smile on his face. I told him don’t be so hard for himself. We’re all competitors. We all feel like s--- when we don’t play well and play to our abilities.”
As the Lakers plot their next steps for integrating Westbrook, though, they must remember that they have a proven championship duo in James and Davis, something that the Rockets and Wizards did not possess. James, who battled an ankle injury at the end of last season, moved well against the Warriors and finished with a game-high 34 points, 11 rebounds and five assists. There were age-defying moments, such as a thunderous dunk in transition and a pretty touch pass to Davis for a slam.
Davis, meanwhile, returned with intensity after a disappointing and injury-marred season. He posted 33 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks, looking fully engaged and assertive after floating through much of last season.
The problem for the Lakers was that their half-court offense often looked at its best when James or Davis was working in isolation and Westbrook was left to watch away from the action. When Westbrook took control, he drove wildly, missed layups and asked the referees for calls that he hadn’t earned. The Warriors found a nice flow — registering 30 assists on 41 field goals — that the Lakers never matched with Westbrook at the wheel.
“I’ve just got to figure it out,” Westbrook said curtly. “That simple.”
Remarkably, the Lakers were outscored by 23 points in Westbrook’s 35 minutes. In the 13 minutes he was on the bench, Los Angeles outscored Golden State by 16 points. The eye test matched those numbers: Westbrook’s inability to find the range on his jumper cramped the Lakers’ offensive spacing, and his lack of attention on defense repeatedly proved costly.
Trying to change Westbrook would be a fool’s errand, but changing how he is deployed is the Lakers’ best shot to make sure their big offseason gamble doesn’t go bust.