How Russell Westbrook’s Lakers Tenure Went From Optimism To An ‘Inevitable Divorce’

In late July of last summer, after Montrezl Harrell exercised his 2021-22 player option, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported the Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings were moving “toward completing a deal” that would bring Buddy Hield to Los Angeles. In return, Sacramento would receive Harrell and Kyle Kuzma.

The trade made sense for both sides. Hield had reportedly long yearned for a new environment and the Lakers needed more shooting. Harrell struggled to contribute in the the Lakers’ first-round loss to the Phoenix Suns. Kuzma, a good, useful and versatile wing, was a worthwhile return for Hield. But that deal never materialized, and Hield stayed in Sacramento until a trade deadline move rendered him an Indiana Pacer.

Instead of landing Hield, the Lakers pivoted toward Russell Westbrook, sending Kuzma, Harrell, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and their 2021 first-round pick to the Washington Wizards in exchange for the nine-time All-Star, as well as second-round picks in 2024 and 2028. Despite Kuzma and Caldwell-Pope being valuable components of Los Angeles’ championship and defensive ethos in 2020, the belief was Westbrook could invigorate the offense and lighten the burden for LeBron James and Anthony Davis, both of whom dealt with nagging injuries throughout 2020-21. Westbrook found his stride over the second half of the year with Washington and while not the MVP-caliber superstar of his peak, still looked like a pretty dang good player as he dragged the Wizards to the postseason.

From the outset, the Lakers’ move backfired. Westbrook struggled in their opening night loss to the Golden State Warriors and never really recovered. There were stretches of viable, encouraging two-way play, where his offensive decision-making improved and the defensive focus heightened. Overwhelmingly, though, those were footnotes in a season of on-court disappointment for Westbrook and Los Angeles. When James and Davis again missed extended time, Westbrook’s presence and play were not sufficient to prevent losses from piling up.

Of course, that responsibility should not fall solely on Westbrook and it’s hard to win without two stars in the lineup on a star-heavy team. The addition of Westbrook, though, was intended to alleviate the impact of potential absences or struggles from those two.

By midseason, the Westbrook In Los Angeles Experiment had spiraled. Westbrook’s play continued to underwhelm and his minutes began being cut. In a nationally televised, blowout loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Feb. 8, he played just 26 minutes (James and Davis combined for 72 minutes) and scored 10 points on 3-of-11 shooting and went 4-of-7 at the free-throw line. At that point, Los Angeles was 26-29. Rumors and reports of the Lakers looking to potentially deal Westbrook ahead of the Feb. 10 trade deadline swirled.

Ultimately, Westbrook remained in Los Angeles. He and the team’s speed bumps continued. James and Davis missed more time, and by season’s end, the Lakers failed to even qualify for the Play-In Tournament and wrapped up 2021-22 with a dismal 33-49 record. Teams like the Los Angeles Clippers and New Orleans Pelicans both made the Play-In, despite their best players, Kawhi Leonard and Zion Williamson, being sidelined all year. Yes, the Lakers endured their own health ailments, but the Play-In should’ve been a reasonable and attainable benchmark nonetheless.

Speculation about Westbrook’s future in Los Angeles carried into the offseason; the Pacers were once reported as a possible new home. If the right trade arose, the Lakers would clearly prefer to move him and close the door on a discordant, tumultuous partnership. Once it became known that Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets were not particularly happy together, as well as reports of Irving’s alleged interest in rejoining James, a Westbrook-Irving swap came to light. Nothing appears imminent on that front at the moment, though.

There was the awkwardness of Summer League, where it was impossible not to notice the lack of interaction between Westbrook — who sat on the bench and was engaged with the young Lakers — and LeBron, who sat elsewhere courtside and never engaged with the man who remains his co-star for now. Then, late last week, Westbrook and Thad Foucher, his agent of 14 years, parted ways due to “irreconcilable differences.” Foucher’s explanation from his perspective was rather candid and illuminating. Read it in its entirety here, if you wish.

All that’s transpired over the past 12 months has led Jovan Buha, who covers the Lakers for The Athletic, to posit that Westbrook and Los Angeles are destined for an “inevitable divorce.” It’s a swift and jarring shift from last summer and 2020-21, when the two sides were optimistic as could be and Westbrook was fresh off a strong second half of the season (playoff foibles notwithstanding). As Westbrook further distances himself from his prime, calls for adaptation — more cutting, quicker decision-making, better defensive focus and decision-making — swell. That role is supposedly the one new Lakers head coach Darvin Ham envisions for him.

Yet Westbrook has failed to ever consistently embrace those sorts of ideals. It’s among the various reasons last season was so concerning and why we sit here today, with Westbrook’s Los Angeles departure seemingly a foregone conclusion in the eyes of many. It’s simply a matter of when, not if, Westbrook leaves his hometown team.