Russell Westbrook is, if nothing else, a proud man. He believes he has earned his place in the upper echelons of the National Basketball Association with his resolute application of his singular skill set — and, yes, he will argue that his body of work bears him out. Not for nothing was he able to wrap his arms around the Maurice Podoloff Trophy in 2017, and his resume includes nine All-NBA selections, nine All-Star berths, four triple-double seasons, three assist titles, and two scoring crowns. Which, in a nutshell, is why he feels he is not being accorded the respect he deserves. Not by the Lakers, who have seemingly resolved to dangle him as trade bait a single year after they wooed him into the fold. And not by the rest of the league, who doesn’t appear to value his services enough to spread the welcome mat for him.
Considering that Westbrook just fired longtime agent Thad Foucher (who had advocated for him to stay with the Lakers), it’s evident that he can’t wait to get out of La-La Land. He simply won’t accept a situation where he’s no longer seen as integral to progress. Heck, he can’t even keep up appearances; last week, he purposely ignored teammate and supposed close friend LeBron James, said to be pining for the mercurial Kyrie Irving at his expense, even though they were both at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas for the Summer League.
So, yes, everybody seems to be on the same page insofar as the Westbrook experiment is concerned — even Westbrook himself. The problem is his price tag: He’s due to be paid $47.1 million in the last year of his contact, to which he opted in three weeks ago. At the same time, the Lakers want to ensure that they are not being fleeced by the Nets, potential trade partners for Irving, for whom the market is likewise extremely thin. They’re angling to keep their first-round picks, not to mention avoid taking in onerous salaries in turn.
Under the circumstances, the Lakers will need to walk the tightrope between being patient and being proactive. They may want to get Irving on board soonest, but they’re subject to the Nets’ timetable, who are understandably determined to act on Kevin Durant’s trade request first. In other words, they should be ready to play the long game, never mind the obvious difficulties associated with continuing to integrate Westbrook in an environment where all and sundry know the real score.
How the 2022-23 season will unfold for the Lakers is anybody’s guess. That said, they are undeniably at a crossroads, what with James also in the last year of his contract and his inclination to extend it dependent on how competitive they become. He’s an old 37 with an eye towards cementing his status as the best of the best of all time in the sport, so he knows his capacity to chase the hardware is fast dwindling. He has only so many tries left, and far be it for him to waste these by perpetuating a condition that he knows does not work. It’s the very definition of insanity — doing the same thing and expecting a different result. Meanwhile, nobody’s happy. At the very least, fans long used to winning should be prepared for quarters pouting and posting cryptic messages on social media, taking passive-aggressive actions, and doing a whole lot of running in place.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.