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LeBron James apologizes to Lakers fans, but he should’ve seen this coming when he asked for Russell Westbrook

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The Los Angeles Lakers have lost three of their last four games and, at 22-22, currently sit at the play-in line. Head coach Frank Vogel is taking a lot of heat for this season’s heretofore failures. According to a report from The Athletic, Vogel “narrowly avoided” getting fired after a 37-point loss to the Nuggets on Saturday and will continue to be “evaluated on a game-to-game basis and remains at risk of being fired soon if the progress doesn’t continue.”

Meanwhile, LeBron James took to Twitter to apologize to Lakers fans.  

LeBron is doing all he can possibly be expected to do this season, and given the roster that Rob Pelinka put together and the 29 games that LeBron and Anthony Davis (whose annual insistence on playing double bigs contributed heavily to the Lakers’ cruddy start) have combined to miss, to infer Vogel is the problem is a copout. 

The problem is Russell Westbrook

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Twitter idiots are probably not going to read past that last sentence before branding me just another Russ hater, but for those of you still with me, let’s be clear: Westbrook isn’t the whole problem. But he’s the biggest one, not only for his own detrimental play but for the opportunity cost — otherwise known as Buddy Hield — of trading for him in the first place. 

From Marc Stein’s latest newsletter:

Westbrook’s fit as a Laker alongside James and Davis has proven as ponderous as countless skeptics said it would be when Vogel’s bosses — at James’ and Davis’ urging — scuttled a planned trade for Sacramento’s Buddy Hield to acquire Westbrook instead.

A couple things here: First, let’s please agree to stop referring to Westbrook’s “fit.” It’s just a euphemism for what you’re really trying to say, which is that he is no longer a very good NBA player. Westbrook doesn’t “fit” anywhere. 

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There’s not a single GM in the league who heads into the war room prior to the trade deadline and announces to his staff: “OK, what we’re looking for is a really bad shooter who takes really bad shots at really bad times, who only desires to inefficiently dominate the ball and is relatively useless without it, who is a defensive liability and a turnover machine and who still believes he’s a legit superstar despite making every team he’s been on the past three seasons markedly worse.”

Yeah, that’s not a fit problem. That’s a bad player. 

This has been obvious to anyone watching Westbrook play basketball with even half an eye for going on the past half decade. The Rockets, Wizards and now the Lakers are decidedly worse off for his presence. And before you try to counter that statement with a nod to the five-out Rockets who had to turn their team inside-out in a desperate attempt to salvage Westbrook’s last remaining drips of useful gas, understand that by doing so you’re further proving the point. 

You have to lower your standards with Westbrook. Before he got to Houston, that was a top-shelf title-contending team. After he got there, putting together a nice regular-season stretch and barely escaping the first round was actually a pleasant surprise. 

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Bottom line: Teams get better when Westbrook leaves and worse when he shows up. The Thunder got decidedly better, the Rockets got worse. This year’s Wizards are better, while the Lakers are a worse. I know it’s fun to talk about basketball through an Einstein-ian lens these days, but that there is pretty simple math. 

But in the NBA, superstars get what they want. James Harden wanted Westbrook in Houston, so Daryl Morey made it happen. Then it was LeBron who got suckered into the allure of the big name, and Pelinka wasn’t about to tell him no. LeBron likely thought Westbrook’s presence as a primary ball-handler and creator would make things easier on him, but instead it’s only made the challenge in front of him, at 37 years old, significantly tougher. 

It’s indisputable that the Lakers would be a better team with Hield than they are with Westbrook. But even if you don’t want to go down the hypothetical trail, they would be an appreciably better team if they just kept the guys that they traded to the Wizards for Westbrook in the first place. Subtract Westbrook, and plug back in even just Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma, and you have a better team. And this is to say nothing about the Lakers cheaping out on Alex Caruso, a painfully poor decision into which Westbrook’s behemoth salary certainly factored. 

For the most part, it’s a lazy approach to forego nuance and context in the evaluation of any team or player, but with the post-Kevin Durant version of Westbrook, you can’t ignore the simplicity and consistency of his negative correlation. If he’s on your team, you’re not very good. 

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From here on out, the Lakers are betting that LeBron and Davis are great enough to overcome even Westbrook’s drag, and maybe they are. I wouldn’t rule them out in a playoff series against anyone. LeBron remains one of the best players in the world, and Davis can play like that over any given series. But it didn’t have to be this hard. LeBron asked for Westbrook, and he shouldn’t be surprised with the player he got. This is who Westbrook is. It’s been clear as day for years. 

LeBron has had successes playing fantasy GM. He pushed for the Cleveland Cavaliers to swap out Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love and won a title. He moved mountains to get Anthony Davis to the Lakers and won a title. But he, and by extension the Lakers, missed on Westbrook. And it was a bad miss. One that so far is costing the team even more than the $44.2 million it’s paying Westbrook. So far, it’s costing them any real shot at a title. 

That could change. As I said, I’m not in the business of doubting LeBron the player. But if the Lakers do turn this thing around and actually turn themselves into contenders by May, chances are it won’t be because of Westbrook. It will be in spite of him. 


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