The Lakers’ disastrous start continued with a loss Wednesday night at Denver, falling to 0-4 while joining the Kings and Magic as the only teams without a win this season. While there’s plenty of blame to go around for the Lakers’ early struggles, the conversation has mostly revolved around Russell Westbrook, a once-dominant player whose rapidly eroding skill set coupled with an albatross contract (he’s owed $47.1 million this season) has been an undeniable source of tension within the locker room.
When Westbrook returns to the lineup Friday against the Timberwolves (he missed Wednesday’s game with a hamstring injury), he’ll be coming off the bench, the first time he’s done so since his rookie season in 2008-09. Accustomed to playing a full complement of minutes, Westbrook has largely resisted this role change, displaying an irrational confidence that may have served him earlier in his career but now comes off as arrogant, bordering on delusional.
Rather than humble himself, deferring to younger teammates while acknowledging his shortcomings as an aging vet arriving at a career crossroads, Westbrook seems either blissfully ignorant or in complete denial of his deteriorating athleticism, imagining himself to be the same player he was in Oklahoma City. During his guest appearance Thursday on The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz, Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated presented a grim outlook on Westbrook’s NBA future, urging the former MVP to change his game or risk playing himself out of the league.
“The hardest thing for any player is to accept when their athleticism is waning and their skills are declining. We saw it quite visibly with Allen Iverson towards the end of his career where he bounced around from Detroit to Memphis back to Philadelphia. Allen Iverson very easily could have tacked on three, four, five years of his career if he accepted the decline of his skills and accepted that he was a lesser player,” said Mannix, who, in addition to his work at Sports Illustrated, also covers the Celtics as a studio analyst for NBC Sports Boston. “You can see Westbrook sliding right down that Iversonian path where he’s not going to accept anything short of the role he had throughout the entirety of his career and he’s never going to accept that he’s not the player he was in Oklahoma City when he won an MVP.”
While Westbrook has never been an efficient scorer, his shooting woes, particularly from the perimeter, have made him a liability, making it doubtful anyone would trade for him without significant draft compensation. Mannix cited both Tim Duncan and Jamal Crawford as players who extended their careers by embracing lesser roles. Vince Carter made a similar pivot in his late 30s, reinventing himself as a three-point specialist and veteran mentor in Memphis and Atlanta. Of course, for athletes who are used to betting on themselves, that kind of introspection and self-evaluation doesn’t always come naturally.
“You can say to Russ, ‘Look you went to Houston. It didn’t work. You went to Washington. It didn’t work. Last season in L.A. It didn’t work.’ You can show him that there’s plenty of reasons why he should change, but he just won’t do it. And as long as he’s being this obstinate, there’s a pretty good chance we’re looking at the last season of Russell Westbrook’s career,” warned Mannix. “Look, I understand the challenge that goes with it. But Russell Westbrook right now, through three games, is shooting 8.3 percent from three-point range. He has made four of his 17 jump shots this year. His decision-making has been awful for the entirety of this early part of the season. If he doesn’t change, that’s it. There’s nobody out there that’s going to give him even a minimum-level contract.”
The NBA’s all-time leader in career triple doubles and a member of the league’s 75th Anniversary Team, Westbrook has already cemented himself as a shoo-in Hall-of-Famer and one of the most unique talents to ever play the point guard position. But his game hasn’t evolved and now that he can’t win on pure athleticism, Westbrook’s day of reckoning has come with opponents exposing him as an erratic player with a hot temper and a broken jump shot.
“Whoever acquires Westbrook in a trade, whether it’s Utah or Indiana, Charlotte has been mentioned as a possibility because of Gordon Hayward and his contract, they’re not keeping him. If Utah acquired Russell Westbrook tomorrow, they would waive him or send him home. He would never play a game for the Utah Jazz. He would never play a game for the Indiana Pacers. They’re not acquiring Russell Westbrook the player. They’re acquiring the multiple draft picks that will come with him and the contract that will come off the books next season,” said Mannix. “If Russell Westbrook doesn’t play for the Lakers this season, he’s not going to play anywhere.”
LISTEN on the Audacy App
Sign Up and Follow Audacy Sports
Facebook | Twitter | Instagram