Occasionally last season, former Los Angeles Lakers head coach Frank Vogel elected to close games without Russell Westbrook in the lineup. Given Westbrook’s stature, vast collection of accolades, and the significant trade required to bring him to Los Angeles, such a move was somewhat surprising. Conversely, though, given his struggles in 2021-22 and discordant fit alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis, such a move made sense, especially on the nights Westbrook’s jumper, defense, and decision-making lagged below the necessary threshold.
If those struggles continue into 2022-23, new Lakers head coach Darvin Ham will enjoy the freedom to reduce Westbrook’s minutes, according to Jovan Buha of The Athletic.
“Ham will have more power to bench Westbrook down the stretch of games, according to league sources. (Former head coach Frank Vogel did so a few times last season),” Buha wrote in a recent mailbag article. “That could eventually extend to removing Westbrook from the starting lineup as well.”
Buha also speculated that Los Angeles’ regular closing lineup could be composed of James, Davis, Juan Toscano-Anderson, Austin Reaves, and Troy Brown, although he noted Stanley Johnson could supplant Toscano-Anderson, depending on how training camp unfolds.
And herein lies the problem for Los Angeles. Even if Westbrook’s foibles extend into next season, the alternatives and counters are not ideal solutions. Barring a Westbrook trade that bolsters the rotation significantly, the roster around James and Davis is quite lackluster. Toscano-Anderson is an effective, defensive-minded bench wing. Reaves is a sufficient closing option, fueled by his defensive exploits and complementary offense. I still reserve some optimism about Brown’s NBA future, but he was a fringe rotation forward on a Chicago Bulls team that lost in the first round in five games last season. Either him or Toscano-Anderson closing games for a team with title aspirations is suboptimal.
A renewed version of Westbrook, however likely or unlikely that is, provides this team a boost that none of the aforementioned Lakers probably can. It’s absolutely conceivable all of them prove to be better closing candidates than Westbrook next season, but that presumably spells trouble for Los Angeles’ overall quality as a team if it’s consistently the case.
This is not to say Westbrook deserves to close all the time, more so that his inability to do so would hamstring the roster and underline the lack of playoff-caliber and starting-caliber depth around James and Davis. Those two will be required to do some seriously heavy lifting, though their talents may certainly be up for the challenge. It’s simply a lot to ask is all.