Looking back at the Russell Westbrook trade, it makes sense what they were trying to do. The Los Angeles Lakers’ 2020-21 season was cut at the kneecaps by injury. It was the second time that had happened in three seasons. They needed a third star so that if they lost LeBron James or Anthony Davis or both, they wouldn’t tumble in the standings and be lost come playoff time.
The Lakers traded for Westbrook during the offseason and were correct in assuming injuries would be a problem again this season. James missed time early with an abdominal injury, and Davis is currently working his way back from an MCL sprain. However, at the halfway point of this season, the Lakers are hovering around .500, and Westbrook is having arguably the worst season of his career.
It has gotten so bad that Lakers coach Frank Vogel had to bench Westbrook in crunch time Wednesday night as they blew a lead in a 111-104 loss to the middling Indiana Pacers. Not only was Westbrook pulled from the game, but a few hours after it ended, ESPN’s Dave McMenamin reported that the move had full support from the Lakers’ front office. McMenamin wrote that, “the organization would support [Vogel] in taking a hard line while coaching the star.”
It’s one thing to bench a star while fighting to stay out of the play-in tournament. It’s another when a game ends around 10 p.m, and shortly after 1 a.m. a report comes out that the front office is giving the coach permission to coach that player. It’s 2019 all over again, or did anything ever really change.
James’ first season with the Lakes ended in disappointment in 2019 and ESPN’s Baxter Holmes wrote a story about the dysfunction in the Lakers front office following Magic Johnson’s abrupt resignation and ripping of Lakers’ general manager Rob Pelinka on First Take. Apparently, the only difference between then and now is that Davis really wanted to play for the Lakers so all they had to do to acquire him was trade the Santa Monica Freeway to the New Orleans Pelicans, and also neither he nor James got hurt during The Bubble season of 2019-20.
Last season, the Lakers were the No. 2 seed in the West when Davis went down with that calf strain in February. Without their second-leading scorer, and best defender, the Lakers kept fighting and on March 20, they were still in the mix for that No. 2 seed. Then disaster struck during the Lakers’ game that day against the Atlanta Hawks. Solomon Hill fell into James, resulting in a high ankle sprain for the Lakers’ leader in points and assists.
The Lakers tumbled in the standings and ended up in the play-in tournament. Davis and James returned late in the regular season, and the Lakers were still believed to have a legitimate shot at the NBA Championship as they advanced to the first round to play against the team that finished the regular season with the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference, the Phoenix Suns. Davis got hurt again in Game 4 with the Lakers up 2-1, James was never fully healthy after his return, and they lost the series.
Enter Russell Westbrook. In his previous two seasons, one with the Houston Rockets and one with the Washington Wizards, he had started slow, but he ended up helping both teams immensely late in the season. With the Wizards, the first three months of last season he averaged under 20 points per game and shot 42.4 percent from the field. The final three months of that season he averaged a 23.7 point, 13.1 assist, 12.6 rebound triple double while shooting 44.9 percent from the field. He also didn’t miss a single game during that stretch and helped the Wizards go on a run that got them to the playoffs for the first time since 2018.
With James, win-now mode is a way of life for the Lakers so they traded three rotation players and a first-round pick for Westbrook and the $90-plus million remaining on the final two years of his contract — gutting their depth. This formerly outstanding defensive group, coached by Vogel, is currently 18th in defensive rating and that is part of why Westbrook got benched Wednesday.
According to McMenamin’s report, Westbrook giving up a layup to Caris LeVert was the breaking point. The scouting report instructions were to play LeVert one way and Westbrook did not, which resulted in the bucket. This is on top of his current shooting slump in which he has shot better than 40 percent from the field only once in the past seven games.
Again, pulling the trigger to get Westbrook didn’t sound awful at the time, but the Lakers pushed all their chips to the table and the keys to the car. Currently, the Wizards have a better record than the Lakers.
On Tuesday, The Athletic’s Bill Oram and Sam Amick reported that Vogel’s job was in “serious jeopardy.” In that report, a familiar face appeared from that Holmes report in 2019 — Kurt Rambis.
In the story, it is reported that owner Jeanie Buss and general manager Rob Pelinka are not happy with the direction of the team this season — regardless of the injuries. The lack of success speaks more to the roster that they signed off on, but sure they’re probably unhappy. However, the message to staff was delivered by Rambis. It was shortly after he warned the staff that they’re jobs were on the line unless the team improved, that the Lakers dealt with their December COVID outbreak.
Rambis’ official title with the Lakers is director of basketball affairs, and his wife, Linda, is one of Buss’ closest friends and advisors. In Holmes’ report, some people he talked to said Linda is referred to as the “shadow owner” of the Lakers, and one even suggested that she manipulates Buss. He also reported Linda is also a close friend and ally of Pelinka for reasons that puzzled many in the organization.
Kurt Rambis coached the Lakers for most of the lockout shortened 1998-99 season, and they went 24-13 during that time, 31-19 overall. They were swept by the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs, and Phil Jackson was the coach the next season. Rambis had a .195 winning percentage in two seasons as coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves from 2009-11, and a .321 winning percentage in 28 games as coach of the New York Knicks in 2015-16.
These days, Rambis holds a ton of weight in the Lakers organization. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, McMenamin, and NBA Insider Marc Stein all reported that when the Lakers interviewed Tyronn Lue for the head coach opening in 2019, Rambis and Pelinka wanted him to put Jason Kidd on his staff. Lue ended up with the Los Angeles Clippers, first as an assistant under Doc Rivers, now he’s the head coach. While there are conflicting reports about how much Rambis and Pelinka wanting Kidd on the staff had to do with Lue not taking the Lakers’ job, when Vogel was hired, Kidd was on his staff for two seasons.
On Tuesday, after The Athletic piece was published, the Los Angeles Times’ Dan Woike and Broderick Turner reported that there were no “current plans” to oust Vogel, but Rambis is a constant figure around the coaching staff. He sits in on their meetings regularly and makes many suggestions.
So now, with the thumbs up being given by management to do what’s necessary with this botched Westbrook deal, it appears that the Lakers problems have not changed since the reporting bonanza around the franchise during the 2019 NBA Playoffs in which they were not a participant. The Lakers’ best players have health problems and the picture is murky on who is exactly making the decisions in the front office.
The only thing anyone can be certain of with the Lakers is that this Westbrook trade has been a bust through half of the season. They are on their way to a much worse record than last season when they finished 12 games over .500, and this season they will have a worse overall team around their stars once Davis returns to the lineup.
Changes are necessary, but who do they start with? They can fire Vogel once they deem his job no longer “currently safe,” and Westbrook will be on an expiring contract next season so that will spark interest in him after the completion of this one. All of this makes sense, but if the Lakers really want to win again in the waning years of James’ career this cronyism has to stop. Either they hire some people to make basketball decisions, and not to go to happy hour with, or they’re going to turn into the Dallas Cowboys — all the glamour but none of the gold.