Russell Westbrook’s poor play has been a problem for the Lakers this season. But, it has not been THE problem.
And while national pundits are pointing to the Lakers point guard and their head coach Frank Vogel, NBA on TNT’s Charles Barkley isn’t buying it.
Speaking Thursday night ahead of the network’s broadcast of the Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks game, Chuck was fed up.
“The Lakers are such wussies,” Barkley said, admitting he would like to use more colorful language. “The way they have tried to throw Russell Westbrook and Frank Vogel under the bus is just pissing me off.”
“The people up top who put that trash together are running and hiding like cowards saying, ‘Oh it’s Frank. It’s Russ.’ You put all of them old geezers out there— whoever running that trash out there… it’s ridiculous.”
The Lakers have been a massive disappointment mostly because of the poor roster construction by general manager Rob Pelinka and ownership’s unwillingness to go deeper into the luxury tax. Yet there have been various scapegoats trotted out to deflect the blame in recent days.
Sure, they brought in Stanley Johnson on a 10-day contract, which has paid off. But that’s basically part of the problem.
“Listen,” Barkley continued, “the best guy other than LeBron [James] in the last month has been who? Stanley Johnson. And for y’all to bring in a guy who was on the street and he becomes your second best player… it’s ridiculous.”
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Coach Frank Vogel looked to be the target when rumors of him being on the hot seat surfaced earlier this week. Now the attention has shifted onto Westbrook, who was benched to close the Lakers’ loss against the Pacers on Wednesday.
There is no denying that Westbrook has had an extremely down year, but the rationale for this benching didn’t really pass the sniff test. According to Dave McMenamin’s ESPN reporting, the explanation given was that Westbrook did not follow the scouting report on the Pacers’ Caris LeVert:
The coaching staff had repeatedly emphasized the scouting report to take away LeVert’s right hand, and Westbrook, guarding LeVert at the top of the key one-on-one, didn’t angle himself properly to thwart the drive and allowed LeVert easy access to the paint en route to the hoop.
Here is the likely play in question, found by former NBA assistant coach and video coordinator Steve Jones.
So I guess this is the possession. It’s not good defense. But scroll up. Also this is legit the 4th possession since Westbrook came back in and 2nd defensive one. The previous was LeVert hitting a 3 off an overhelp from Reaves. pic.twitter.com/ulBfzcWjxc
— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) January 20, 2022
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LeVert did have a big game, dropping 30 points in the Pacers’ win. Additionally, Westbrook’s defense on that play was poor. But he was not the reason why LeVert exploded against the Lakers.
That play in question was the only one where LeVert scored with Westbrook as his primary defender. LeVert was guarded for most of the game by either Avery Bradley, Stanley Johnson or Talen Horton-Tucker. Other players, such as Austin Reaves and Carmelo Anthony, also had defensive breakdowns that led to easy scores for LeVert. Yet Westbrook was singled out for his lone error on LeVert, despite stripping him a few possessions later on a help assignment.
Jones went on to note other incongruities in the coaching staff’s benching explanation. Westbrook was allegedly pulled for failing to keep LeVert from going to his right. However, some of the Lakers’ defensive coverage throughout the game looked to be intentionally pushing LeVert to his right hand.
LeVert was also wide open at times because of questionable schematic decisions, such as not switching screens. And during the times when other players such as Avery Bradley did push LeVert to his left, a lack of ball pressure allowed LeVert to get wherever he wanted on the floor.
Westbrook was benched for the final four minutes of the game, and LeVert went on to hit all three of his shots after that exit. The Lakers’ defense also performed statistically worse during that portion of the game sans-Westbrook.
It’s fair to question Westbrook’s defensive intensity, which has waxed and waned both with the Lakers and throughout his career. He is by no means a plus defender. Part of the team’s precipitous drop from the No. 2 defense last season to No. 22 this year per Cleaning the Glass can be attributed to him. But the whole team has defended poorly. Look to 28 of LeVert’s 30 points as proof. To single Westbrook out is missing the bigger picture.
Westbrook has essentially been a net neutral by on/off numbers at Cleaning the Glass. Advanced statistics such as estimated plus-minus also peg him as a basically average NBA player in terms of impact at this point in his career. Where the Lakers are getting killed is in having to play so many of their minutes with Pelinka-chosen players who have contributed nothing.
The real reason why the Lakers look broken is because of the lack of depth on the roster, and the pieces that they have not fitting well. There were other options available too, but this is the route that Pelinka chose.
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Pelinka shipped Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Kuzma and the No. 22 first-round pick to the Wizards to acquire Westbrook. Kuzma has improved his all-around game, Caldwell-Pope has been solid and Harrell has re-established himself. The Lakers could really use that depth.
Pelinka’s moves around the fringes have also been crippling. Malik Monk and, to a lesser extent, Carmelo Anthony, were good signings for the team. Stanley Johnson has played well as a hardship exemption addition. But choosing Horton-Tucker over Alex Caruso looks like a massive mistake right now.
The Lakers also needed to nail their minimum signings. Instead, they flubbed them. De’Andre Jordan and Kent Bazemore are no longer in the rotation. They’ve already moved on from Rajon Rondo, who was traded to the Cavs. Per Dan Woike of the Los Angeles Times, management seems to think that playing Jordan more alongside Dwight Howard will fix some of these problems. Spoiler: It will not.
Westbrook is an expensive and easy target. There are 44 million reasons to point the finger at him. But benching him isn’t going to get this team back on track. The Lakers need to add depth. With the roster constructed the way that it is, they don’t have many avenues to do that at the trade deadline. That is a Pelinka problem. The franchise can keep on pointing its finger at other sources, but eventually the team will keep struggling and there will be no one else left to point to.