It was well documented that Russell Westbrook struggled with the Lakers last season.
It played a large role — along with injuries and a poorly constructed roster — in the Lakers missing the playoffs, and it’s a big reason why the team is working to acquire Kyrie Irving before the start of the season.
But if Los Angeles does go into the 2022-23 season with Westbrook on the roster, what will his leash look like compared to last year?
According to The Athletic’s Jovan Buha, not very long.
In a Lakers’ mailbag where Buha answered questions from fans on Twitter, he noted that new head coach Darvin Ham will have much more say over the team’s lineups.
“Lakers head coach Darvin Ham will have more power to bench Westbrook down the stretch of games, according to league sources, (Former head coach Frank Vogel did so a few times last season),” Buha wrote. “That could eventually extend to removing Westbrook from the starting lineup as well.”
If Westbrook gets out to another slow start, could he and the Lakers benefit from a move to the bench?
Let’s break it down.
How did Westbrook play without LeBron James and Anthony Davis?
Westbrook played in five games last season without James or Davis available.
On one hand, those games look really good from an individual production standpoint for Westbrook. On the other hand, the Lakers went winless in those five games.
- Jan. 28 at CHA: 35 PTS, 4 REB, 5 AST, 12-23 FG, 3-7 3PT, 8-10 FT in a loss
- March 7 at SAS: 17 PTS, 10 REB, 6 AST, 5-14 FG, 0-2 3PT, 7-13 FT in a loss
- March 23 vs. PHI: 24 PTS, 9 REB, 8 AST, 10-20 FG, 2-5 3PT, 2-5 FT in a loss
- March 29 at DAL: 25 PTS, 8 REB, 6 AST, 9-17 FG, 1-5 3PT, 6-6 FT in a loss
- March 31 at UTA: 24 PTS, 6 REB, 7 AST, 9-18 FG, 0-2 3PT, 6-10 FT in a loss
To be fair, that Lakers roster was bad as is last year, never mind without James or Davis. So it’s hard to solely place those losses on Westbrook’s shoulders. Besides, the star guard averaged 25.0 points, 7.4 rebounds and 6.4 assists while shooting 48.9 percent from the field in those contests.
That, alone, could make a case for him being more productive off the bench, although he’d be in a limited role compared to being the featured player in those five games.
How would coming off the bench suit Westbrook’s play?
Since his rookie season, Westbrook has never come off the bench in the NBA. He started in 65 out of 82 games as a rookie and the former MVP has started in every single game of his career since then.
It’s safe to say coming off the bench would be quite the adjustment for Westbrook, who has been a starter, presumably, his whole life.
But that’s not to say it couldn’t suit his play with this team at this stage of his career.
There were always questions as to how two players as ball-dominant as James and Westbrook would mesh. A move to the bench would mean Westbrook can take the keys to the second unit and run the show. There would be more shot attempts available, he’d get to operate the offense, and with the Lakers’ more athletic offseason additions, he would be able to push the pace with guys like Lonnie Walker IV, Juan Toscano-Anderson and Stanley Johnson.
The biggest problem — which exists across the roster, not just on the second unit — is that there isn’t a lot of shooting around Westbrook. As a non-shooter himself, defenses would be able to pack the paint against a Westbrook-led bench mob, which would likely result in some very ugly offensive possessions.
But if head coach Ham feels Westbrook is better suited for a Sixth Man-type role, he should see a silver lining in having more opportunities to do the things he loves to do with the ball in his hands on every possession.
Would Westbrook be OK with coming off the bench?
All signs point to… no.
Back in January, when former head coach Vogel elected to bench Westbrook down the home stretch of a game, the former MVP let his opinion heard on the decision.
“Surprised, yes. I was disappointed I didn’t go back in, but I’m more disappointed that we lost the damn game,” Westbrook told reporters, according to ESPN.
“I want to be able to be on the floor to help my teammates and be able to help our team win in games like that — but that was a decision that was made.”
Later in the season, ESPN also reported there was an “increasing push among many in the Lakers organization” to demote Westbrook from the starting lineup, but Vogel was resistant to bringing Westbrook off the bench.
There were more rumblings of Westbrook expressing displeasure of the idea of coming off the bench at new head coach Ham’s press conference back in June, too.
The star guard was in attendance for the press conference and The Athletic’s Bill Oram had an interesting nugget that was only seen by those in attendance.
“When Ham was asked whether he had discussed a potential role change with Westbrook, including the possibility of him coming off the bench, Westbrook, who had been expressionless through most of the proceedings, couldn’t keep himself from frowning, then laughing,” Oram wrote.
None of those things add up to Westbrook being OK with a demotion, but maybe Ham can convince the nine-time All-Star to put the team first if it comes to that.