Three years ago, when he was still that guyRussell Westbrook foreshadowed his current disastrous situation.
Doubts were starting to creep around his game: the missed 3s, the bad decisions, the reliance on athleticism over skill. Asked if he was affected by the criticism, Westbrook said, “I’ve been blessed with the talent not to give af—.”
That can be read two ways: He has a talent for not caring about what others say, or he has so much talent, he doesn’t need to care. Both were accurate – and they now explain why Westbrook’s career is hurtling towards a cliff with the same momentum he once had attacking the rim.
Back when Los Angeles Lakers guard Westbrook was a tornado in sneakers on his way to setting the all-time NBA record for triple-doubles, his athleticism and relentlessness made him unique. Nobody could stop him from finishing at the rim or getting off his accurate midrange pull-up. His 3-pointer was always suspect, at 30% for his career, but he was never scared to shoot them anyway because of his stubborn belief in himself. Above all, Westbrook never, ever stopped attacking. He emptied his clip every night and lived by the mantra “Why not?”
Now, approaching his 34th birthday, Westbrook is no longer able to jump over and through people, but he keeps trying. His midrange is sketchy and his 3-ball even worse, but he keeps hoisting. His history of refusing to change is unchanged. At this point, with criticism raining down amid the Los Angeles Lakers’ 0-4 start, Westbrook is basically doing this to himself.
The question “can Russell change his game?” has followed Westbrook since the Oklahoma City Thunder politely pushed their MVP point guard out of town in 2019. He briefly seemed to adjust with the Houston Rockets, but didn’t like playing off the ball and asked for a trade. With the Washington Wizards he played like the Westbrook of old, averaging a triple-double along with nearly five turnovers per game. Since coming to the Lakers in 2021, there has been no evidence that he is willing to account for his decline in athleticism and the imperative to spread the floor for teammates LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
When I profiled Westbrook just after he left Oklahoma City, I found a man built and defined by his supremely stubborn nature, and who leaned into a “me against the world” attitude despite gifts that got him drafted at 19 and have earned him $340 million during his career. “I’m not going to change who I am,” he told me then. “I feel like my mindset has gotten me to this point. But there are ways to be able to adjust through your mindset and adjust to new teams, adjust to different players, and I’m able to do that.”
Now we know: Even that adjustment isn’t happening. Russ will always be Russ.
To make sure I wasn’t missing something, I called hooper and basketball entrepreneur Devin Williams, who trains NBA players and watches as much film as anybody. Yo, Dev, is it just me, or is Westbrook stuck in the past?
“The same thing that made him a great player is what makes him who he is right now,” Williams said. “Being resilient, being a little bit stubborn, going against the grain, being that tough player that we’ve come to know. But it’s also hurting him in this situation because he won’t adjust.”
I actually feel for Westbrook. Changing the core of your being is hard. Losing the powers that made you great is painful. Hearing your home crowd murmur, sigh and yell, “Don’t shoot!” when you have the ball – I wouldn’t wish that humiliation on anybody, even if he is making $47 million this season.
The Lakers’ problems also run much deeper than Westbrook. General manager Rob Pelinka has Frankensteined a roster that does not complement James and Davis. Forget about lasers, the Lakers role players are shooting like they lost their flashlights after the lights went out at the park. Yes, in Monday’s loss to Portland, Westbrook missed a pull-up jumper with 27 seconds left in the game, 18 seconds on the shot clock and the Lakers up one point – the wrong shot in that situation. But shortly before that, James missed an ill-advised side-step 3 with plenty of time left on the shot clock. Davis bounced a corner 3 off the site of the backboard. Although people are begging the Lakers to trade Westbrook immediately or even pay him to stay home, neither move would solve the team’s problems.
But still. Westbrook, being Westbrook, is doing himself no favors.
He started the season with a solid game against Golden State: 19 points on 7-for-12 shooting. Then he went 0-for-11 against the LA Clippers, including 0-for-6 from 3, and described his performance afterward as “Solid, played hard, all you can ask for.”
Wait – you can’t be asked to make one basket?
In the Portland debacle, Westbrook shot 4-for-15 and missed all three of his 3-pointers. That last crunch-time clank, which Westbrook shot off-balance despite no defender being within six feet of him, and which Blazers coach Chauncey Billups said after the game they were hoping he would take, encapsulated every criticism of Westbrook’s game. Even if you are looking for a 2-for-1 shot clock opportunity, why not accept your limitations and pass the ball to James or Davis? The only reason is Westbrook’s stubborn denial of the obvious: He’s not what he used to be.
There is precedent for Westbrook’s predicament. “A great player is not great because he’s rational,” former Georgetown coach John Thompson told me for his autobiography. “He’s great because he’s irrational.” Thompson was talking about Allen Iverson, whose NBA ending should be a warning to Westbrook. When Iverson lost his speed and quickness, when his aura faded and he was asked to come off the bench – when Iverson was no longer that guy – he couldn’t adjust. Two seasons after starting all 82 games and averaging 26 points, he was gone.
Speaking of coming off the bench: That role has been proposed for Westbrook, but the first time new Lakers coach Darvin Ham tried it, in a preseason game, Westbrook claimed it was responsible for tweaking his hamstring. He sat out Wednesday’s game against the Denver Nuggets with “hamstring soreness” — and the Lakers still got spanked.
Carmelo Anthony, on the other hand, who once was that guy and is the NBA’s ninth all-time leading scorer, was able to extend his career by accepting a vastly reduced role. Vince Carter is another superstar who lasted two decades by embracing his decline instead of fighting it.
But Anthony and Carter had a ratchet from 3. With Westbrook, teams are practically begging him to shoot. Now in his 15th season, Westbrook might be effective on handoffs, as a cutter off the ball, or by keeping his dribble on drives to the hoop instead of launching himself at the rim. But there has been no sign of any of that in Los Angeles.
His collapse has been painful to watch, like seeing sprinter Usain Bolt pull up blades in his final race or baseball great Willie Mays stumble under fly balls in center field. But unlike those legends, who drew admiration for giving it their all, there’s a sense that Westbrook’s struggles are avoidable. And he doesn’t seem interested in filling the traditional aging-veteran roles of mentor or locker room leader.
“Clearly you don’t have to be inside the organization to see that there’s some stubbornness involved,” Williams said. “You don’t have to be inside the organization to understand that there are some things going on with the stars of that team. If you just look, there’s a clip of how frustrated ‘Bron and AD were with that shot Westbrook took at the end of the Portland game.”
Williams, a Golden State fan, misses the Westbrook who helped propel the Thunder to the NBA Finals in 2012 and then battled the Warriors at the start of their dynasty. “Those OKC versus Golden State rivalries, those were fun to watch. What makes me the most angry is that when you see a decline in a player like this, people assume that player was never good. Like, they forget about things that he used to do. At the end of the day, Russell was super fun to watch. So, now, obviously you don’t want to see players go out like this. You just don’t.”
Clearly, Westbrook can’t move on from the things he used to do. Why not? Let’s take the man at his word: “I’m not going to change who I am.”