EL SEGUNDO — Russell Westbrook seemed to smile hardest at the most difficult questions. And after a bumpy offseason, the 33-year-old faces no shortage of those. For much of the 6½ minutes he sat at the dais at the Lakers’ practice facility, he flashed his pearly whites time and time again.
But he was his most revealing when asked a relatively straightforward query: Do you believe the Lakers want you here?
“Whether they want me here or not doesn’t really matter, honestly,” Westbrook said flatly. “My job is to be professional, show up to work, like I’ve always done. Thus far, I did my job the best way I know how to and that’s it. I mean, you all have jobs – sometimes people at our jobs don’t like us or don’t want us there.”
On a day largely reserved for fresh starts and new promises, Westbrook’s answer felt like an admission: Just over a year into their relationship, the Lakers and Westbrook are all business and little warmth – and maybe mutual tolerance is the best it’s going to get between a former league MVP fallen from grace and the franchise that strongly considered trading him this summer.
The Lakers have a lot to prove at the start of their 2022-23 campaign, which officially gets underway Tuesday when the team practices for the first time. Armed with a new coach and an overhauled supporting cast, team officials and players painted a sunny picture of what they can do this season after managing just 33 wins last year.
But Westbrook’s first run with the Lakers (18.5 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 7.1 apg, 44.4% FG) left both sides feeling some remorse, and the nine-time All-Star already endured a summer in which trade speculation was sky-high. While the Lakers ultimately let the offseason pass without unloading his $47.1 million contract, General Manager Rob Pelinka indicated that a trade could still happen when asked about Westbrook’s future on the roster.
“(The front office) works closely with Darvin every day to make sure we have a team with players on it that reflect his mentality,” he said. “And with that, for any player on our team, you have to always be evaluating the roster. A great friend once said, ‘Job’s never finished. Job’s not done.’ And we know that. So if we have to continue to upgrade our roster throughout the season, we will.”
Pelinka added in the same breath, however, that Westbrook is “a person with high character, high work ethic, one of the greats to ever play the game.” He said he expects Westbrook’s relationship with Ham to bring out “another level” in his play this year – something teammates LeBron James and Anthony Davis also echoed.
But if Westbrook remains on the roster, he might have to bring “another level” of play from the bench. Ham notably declined to guarantee a starting role for the 2017 MVP, who finds Patrick Beverley, Dennis Schröder and Kendrick Nunn also competing for backcourt minutes.
Said Ham: “We’re a ways away. We’ve got several options.”
Westbrook grew frustrated last season when former head coach Frank Vogel pulled him from the lineup during the fourth quarter of tight games last season, saying after one such game against Ham’s Milwaukee Bucks, “I earned the right to be in closing lineups.”
On Monday, Westbrook laughed at a question about how he felt about competing for a starting spot before sidestepping it altogether: “I’m just excited to be on the floor, excited to compete, excited to play. Looking forward to just the start of the season. Whatever I’m told, I’m told.”
Even though tension remains, Westbrook’s teammates projected excitement on his behalf for a potential bounce-back season. Davis said he thought simply that he, Westbrook and James (who played just 21 games together because of injuries, going 11-10) did not get enough repetitions together. Offseason workouts and a player minicamp in San Diego this past weekend have helped them get on the same page, Davis added hopefully. Patrick Beverley, who has feuded with Westbrook on the court for much of the past decade, called Westbrook his “best friend” on the team since he arrived in a trade last month.
When asked if he thought Westbrook could succeed in L.A., James – who seemed to hit a cold patch with Westbrook this summer – said, “Absolutely.”
“I look forward to being a part of the journey with him this year and I’m looking forward to a great year for him,” he said. “And I’m going to be right there with him.”
But as much optimism as the Lakers produced on Monday, the specter of in-season trades looms. The Lakers were reportedly engaged in offseason talks with Brooklyn, Utah, Indiana and other franchises to possibly unload Westbrook – but they are widely known to be unwilling to give up their top two tradeable draft picks: first-rounders in 2027 and 2029.
Pelinka spelled out his strategy more explicitly on Monday: The Lakers are open to trading anything and everything to get a competitive team around James, who signed a contract extension last month. But with just one opportunity to land the right deal, they’ll be judicious.
“You have one shot to make a trade with multiple picks,” Pelinka said. “So if you make that trade – and I’m not talking about one particular player on our team – but it has to be the right one. You only get one shot to do it. So we’re being very thoughtful around the decision on when and how to use draft capital in a way that will improve our roster.”
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Given the history involved, it’s hard to imagine a deal of that magnitude happening without Westbrook. Until the trade materializes (and if it never does), the Lakers and Westbrook find themselves at an uncomfortable detente of convenience.
Ham is among those still holding out hope. He lauded Westbrook’s offseason and how he’s kept up communication.
“Everything I’ve asked of him, he’s done,” he said. “Anytime we call on him, talk to him, everything has been about being selfless, being team-oriented, having a defensive mindset and holding him to that – words that came out of his own mouth that, you know, that he’s going to be at a very high level defensively along with the rest of our roster.”
But the last season seems to have made Westbrook a little cynical of welcoming arms. Last season, James and Davis frequently repeated the phrase “Let Russ be Russ,” which Westbrook said during his season-ending exit interview never seemed to be a genuine sentiment. This season, when asked if he felt like he could play his preferred style on court – if he could be himself – Westbrook hedged.
“I’ll be myself every single day when I wake up,” he said. “Basketball-wise, I’ll continue doing what’s best for the team, doing whatever that is asked of me, I’ll continue doing that. And in those parameters, I’ll be the person I could possibly be.”