The Los Angeles Lakers are turning Russell Westbrook into a $47 million sixth man.
The often-criticized Lakers point guard came off the bench In Friday's game against the Minnesota Timberwolves and will continue do so for the foreseeable future, according to ESPN' Adrian Wojnarowski. The Lakers didn't even start him after Anthony Davis was ruled out Friday with low back soreness, going with Troy Brown Jr. instead.
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) October 28, 2022
The result wasn't much different for the Lakers, who lost 111-102 to the Timberwolves, knocking them down to 0-5 to open the season.
Westbrook posted what is honestly an average game for him these days, with 18 points, eight rebounds, three assists, five turnovers and four personal fouls while shooting 6-of-17 (1-of-4 from deep).
Why the Lakers are no longer starting Russell Westbrook
The decision came after an 0-4 start for the Lakers, though Westbrook was out with a hamstring injury in their most recent loss, a 110-99 setback to the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday.
Even when Westbrook was the court, he hadn't exactly been justifying his status as a starter, as he is shooting 28.9 percent from the field (8.3 percent from deep) while averaging career lows in both points and assists per game and per possession before Friday. Westbrook's style of play, needing the ball in his hands with steadily decreasing efficiency, has clashed with James since he joined the Lakers, so the team opted to see what he could do as the lead playmaker of the second unit, per Wojnarowski.
Coming off the bench broke a streak of 1,007 straight starts for Westbrook, which was the third-longest active streak in the NBA, per ESPN. The only streaks longer than Westbrook's belong to Chris Paul and James.
Los Angeles reportedly practiced with a starting five of James, Davis, Damian Jones, Patrick Beverley and Lonnie Walker IV at shootaround on Friday, a lineup big on size possibly intended to counter the Timberwolves' big-man duo of Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert.
Replacing Davis with Brown hurt that effort, as the twin towers combined for 43 points while Gobert pulled in 21 rebounds.
Russell Westbrook said coming off bench for Lakers hurt his hamstring during preseason
Westbrook has already given us a strong indication he is not a fan of coming off the bench.
The Lakers gave the set-up a shot during their final preseason game earlier this month, and the result saw Westbrook exit the game with a hamstring injury. After the game, he said the different preparations for coming off the bench threw him off:
“Absolutely. I’ve been doing the same thing for 14 years straight,” Westbrook said. “Honestly, I didn’t know what to do pregame, I was trying to stay warm and loose.
“I felt something, didn’t know what it was. Wasn’t gonna risk it in a preseason game. But definitely wasn’t something I was used to. Wasn’t warm enough. It was something I wasn’t accustomed to.”
Lakers head coach Darvin Ham and Westbrook have since discussed the idea of coming off the bench, and the coach said they arrived at an understanding. Whether or not they can make the arrangement work is pretty much up to Westbrook now.
Finding a way to productively use Westbrook has been priority No. 1 for Ham since he took over for Frank Vogel, who was reportedly fired due to his inability to do the same. Declining to start Westbrook is a bolder step than anything the Lakers have previously done, but there would have to be a massive turnaround to not make a salary dump trade feel like an eventuality, even if that wouldn't solve everything for Los Angeles.