The Russell Westbrook situation has reached (and surpassed) critical mass with the Lakers and it’s barely been a week into the regular season. Each game has served as a referendum on him, and postgame questions are spent on how he played and the decisions he made.
Regardless of what his future may hold at this point, what the Lakers cannot continue doing is closing games with him on the floor. Clippers head coach Ty Lue laid the groundwork for how to defend him and the Blazers fully exposed that as part of their late comeback on Sunday.
For a moment, it looked like Russ wouldn’t be closing the game against Portland. After checking out with 3:33 remaining in the third quarter, he remained on the bench until the 4:42 mark of the fourth quarter. At the time, the Lakers led 97-90 with LeBron James at the line for a free throw.
“I just wanted another athletic perimeter defender out there just in case we wanted…to change everything,” Ham said for his rationale for inserting Russ back into the game. “Obviously, Dame got it going and is such a threat anyone and everywhere on the floor. That was the plan.”
The problem right now is that Russ is such a non-factor offensively and is so out of his depth on that end of the floor that he’s bogging down the Lakers offense to a halt. Take this possession for example, where LeBron and Anthony Davis run a screen and roll but Jusuf Nurkić, who is “defending” Russ, just hangs out in the paint to completely derail that action.
Any possession that ends in a Russian jumper, make or miss, is a huge win for the defense, especially late in games. The Blazers clearly want Russ to shoot, considering Nurkić is in the paint when Russ catches the ball on the perimeter.
The next possession sees the Blazers go to a zone but a miscommunication ends with an AD dunk at the rim.
While not being in Portland’s huddle to truly know the answer, I would imagine Portland’s plan is not to defend Russ. It’s such an unnatural scheme defensively that Josh Hart instinctively takes a step towards Russ when he catches on the perimeter, Nurkić has to take a step to the corner and Russ makes a great read to set up the dunk.
But at this point, Portland stopped overthinking things and went man-to-man with Nurkić, who clearly understood the assignment, and matched up on Russ. The end result is the defense setting up like this in the penultimate possession of the game.
That is Nurkić planted in the center of the paint to defend Russ. Obviously, this is a bit out of context as Russ is not looking to score, but Nurkić’s defense wouldn’t be any different if he was.
Because Nurkić can just stand in the center of the court and negate everything about the LeBron-AD ball screen, all that happens is a switch and a (admittedly bad) LeBron 3-point attempt. Technically, Russ was as open as he was when he shot two minutes ago, but there was no chance he was giving him the ball again here.
After the game, Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups talked about the decision to put Nurkić on Russ.
“They started getting us to switch and got some advantages where they kind of got it going,” Billups said. “I wanted to keep Nurk out there for rebounding purposes and even offensively…but putting him on Russ, we were just going to play off Russ at that moment and if they come together, we were just going to go over the screen and allow the offense to see what they were going to do with it.”
Russ was also asked after the game about how to attack defenses when he’s defended by a center and if you couldn’t tell by his play, he doesn’t really have answers.
“I’m not really sure what to do,” Westbrook said. “I’m just trying to do the best I can.”
The problem is, this isn’t the first time Russ has ever been defended by centers. In Houston during the Rockets’ small-ball era, teams would place centers on Russ and he responded with one of his best stretches of play in his post-OKC career. He was so good that many experts picked Houston to beat the Lakers in the playoffs that year.
I’m not accusing Russ of sabotage or anything, but it’s clear he’s not interested in problem-solving anymore, which is an issue considering he’s the biggest problem on the Lakers roster right now. If this sounds like an increasing case to just send him home, it’s not intentional but the points aren’t hard to make.
What’s clear is the Lakers can’t continue playing Russ to close games. Benching him, though, is something that didn’t go over well when Frank Vogel did it last year.
“We don’t have time for feelings and for people to be in their feelings,” Ham said about potentially benching Russ and his reaction. “We’re trying to turn this thing around…For one person to be in their feelings about when and where and how they should be in the game, I don’t have any time for that. We’re not pushing that, we’re not allowing that narrative to even exist in our program that we’re doing to get the Lakers back to where they should be and that’s at the top of the food chain.”
Ham has talked the talk since becoming head coach. He did all he could to empower and support Russ publicly during the offseason, even if it came at a time when the franchise was actively seeking to trade him. But the predictable scenario has played out and Russ is more of a hindrance than a help.
Now, it’s time for Ham to walk the walk and bench Russ at the close of games at the very least in order to help the Lakers turn things around.
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