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 point to Lakers point guard and head coach Frank Vogel, NBA on TNT’s Charles Barkley doesn’t think so.
Speaking Thursday night before the network broadcast of the Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks game, Chuck was fed up.
“The Lakers are such cowards,” Barkley said, admitting that he would like to use more colorful language. “The way they’ve tried to throw Russell Westbrook and Frank Vogel under the bus is bugging me.”
“I’m not going to sit here like all these clowns on other networks who got into the Lakers’ cleats,” Barkley continued. “They’re blaming Frank Vogel and Russell Westbrook.”
Barkley has a different perspective.
“The people upstairs who put that garbage together are running and hiding like cowards saying, ‘Oh, it’s Frank. I’m Russ. You put all those old geezers out there, whoever’s running that crap out there…it’s ridiculous.
The Lakers have been a huge disappointment primarily due to poor roster construction by general manager Rob Pelinka and the owners’ unwillingness to delve into the luxury tax. However, in recent days various scapegoats have been brought up to deflect blame.
Sure, they brought in Stanley Johnson on a 10-day deal, which has paid off. But that’s part of the problem.
“Listen,” Barkley continued, “the best guy aside from LeBron [James] in the last month it has been who? Stanley Johnson. And for them to bring in a guy who was on the street and he becomes their second-best player…it’s ridiculous.”
Coach Frank Vogel appeared to be the target when rumors surfaced that he was on the bench earlier this week. Now the focus has shifted to Westbrook, who was benched to wrap up the Lakers’ loss to the Pacers on Wednesday.
There’s no denying that Westbrook has had an extremely bad year, but this bench’s justification really didn’t pass the sniff test. According to ESPN reports from Dave McMenamin, 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 LeVert’s right hand off, and Westbrook, guarding LeVert on top of the key one-on-one, didn’t position himself at the right angle to thwart the drive and allowed LeVert to access. easily to the area. paint on the way to the hoop.
Here’s the likely play in question, found by former NBA assistant coach and video coordinator Steve Jones.
So I guess this is possession. It’s not a good defense. But scroll up. Also, this is the legitimate fourth possession since Westbrook returned and the second defense. The previous one was LeVert hitting a 3-pointer with excessive help from Reaves. pic.twitter.com/ulBfzcWjxc
—Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) January 20, 2022
LeVert had a great game, dropping 30 points in the Pacers’ win. Plus, Westbrook’s defense on that play was poor. But he wasn’t the reason LeVert snapped against the Lakers.
That play in question was the only one LeVert scored on with Westbrook as his main defender. LeVert was guarded for most of the game by Avery Bradley, Stanley Johnson or Talen Horton-Tucker. Other players, such as Austin Reaves and Carmelo Anthony, also had defensive lapses that led LeVert to score easily. However, Westbrook was singled out for his one mistake on LeVert, despite undressing him some possessions later on a help assignment.
Jones went on to note other inconsistencies in the explanation from the coaching staff’s bench. Supposedly, Westbrook was removed for failing to prevent LeVert from moving to his right. However, some of the Lakers’ defensive coverage throughout the game seemed to be intentionally pushing LeVert into his right hand.
LeVert was also open wide sometimes due to questionable schematic decisions, such as not switching screens. And during the times when other players like Avery Bradley pushed LeVert to his left, the lack of ball pressure allowed LeVert to get where he wanted to go on the floor.
Westbrook was benched for the final four minutes of the game, and LeVert made all three of his shots after that outing. The Lakers’ defense also performed statistically worse during that part of the game without Westbrook.
It’s fair to question the defensive intensity of Westbrook, who has had ups and downs both with the Lakers and throughout his career. He is by no means a defender plus. He can be blamed for part of the team’s precipitous drop from No. 2 defense last season to No. 22 this year according to Cleansing the Glass. But the whole team has defended poorly. Look at 28 of LeVert’s 30 points for proof. To single out Westbrook is to miss the big picture.
Westbrook has been essentially net neutral for on/off numbers in Glass Cleaning. Advanced stats like plus-minus estimated they also cast him as a basically average NBA player in terms of impact at this point in his career. Where the Lakers are getting killed is having to play so many minutes with Pelinka’s handpicked players who haven’t contributed anything.
The real reason the Lakers look broken is because of a lack of roster depth and the pieces they have don’t quite fit. Other options were also available, but this is the route Pelinka chose.
Pelinka sent Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Kuzma and the 22nd first-round pick to the Wizards to acquire Westbrook. Kuzma has improved his all-around game, Caldwell-Pope has been solid, and Harrell has reset. 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-waived addition. But choosing Horton-Tucker over Alex Caruso seems like a huge mistake right now.
The Lakers also needed to nail down their minimum signings. Instead, they were deceived. De’Andre Jordan and Kent Bazemore are no longer in the rotation. They’re past Rajon Rondo, who was traded to the Cavs. By Dan Woike of the Los Angeles TimesManagement seems to think playing Jordan more alongside Dwight Howard will fix some of these issues. Spoiler: It won’t.
Westbrook is an expensive and easy target. There are 44 million reasons to point the finger at him. But benching him won’t get this team back on track. The Lakers need to add depth. With the roster built the way it is, they don’t have many avenues to do it at the trade deadline. That is a Pelinka problem. The franchise can continue to point fingers at other sources, but eventually the team will continue to struggle and there will be no one left to point to.