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Russell Westbrook’s Moment of Truth

For years, the relentless guard dominated the NBA, bending the game to his will. But for the last couple, he’s failed to get the message, both from Father Time and his coaches: Either adapt and accept a smaller role—or get out of the way.

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Asked at the Thunder’s 2017 media day about how he felt about coming off the bench for his new team, all Carmelo Anthony could offer was an immediate two-word reply—“Who, me?”—and a hearty laugh.

It was a reflex reaction, wholly authentic, and you could understand it. Yes, Anthony was on the wrong side of 30 and joining a team that already featured two established in-their-prime superstars. But he had just averaged 22.4 points per game as the no. 1 option in New York, and he had just made his eighth consecutive All-Star appearance. Did questions linger about whether he’d accept a long-resisted move to power forward, or whether he could fit into a lower-usage “Team USA Melo” role on a Thunder team with title aspirations? Sure. But the idea that Anthony, who had never come off the bench in the NBA, might be best suited to the second unit? It seemed—to him, at least—laughable.

Melo did start after all, but he also sacrificed, coming in third on the Thunder in scoring, shots, and usage rate. There were plenty of bumps in the road along the way, but Oklahoma City won the West’s no. 4 seed, performed better with Anthony on the court than off it, and fielded one of the NBA’s best starting lineups. Everything fell apart in the playoffs, though, as he shot 38 percent from the field while being routinely roasted on defense in a first-round loss.

Three months later, he was out of OKC. Four months after that, he was out of Houston. Barely a year after that knee-jerk “Who, me?” and those laughs, the future Hall of Famer was out of the league; he’d have to wait another full year for an opportunity.

It’s hard not to think about Melo amid all the chatter about what comes next for Russell Westbrook. As the reigning MVP in Oklahoma City, Westbrook saw how quickly everything changed for Melo after that Thunder media day—how the NBA world turned and where Melo was left. As the Hail Mary addition to last season’s Lakers, Westbrook again teamed up with a version of Anthony that clawed his way back into the league by making peace with playing a more narrowly tailored role. And after a disastrous campaign in L.A. that stands by most metrics as the worst season of his career, Westbrook now finds himself at the same moment of truth that Melo, and so many other superstars throughout the years, have been forced to face.

“When you’re one of the top 10 players in our league for 10 years, you think it’s going to be there forever,” one of Anthony’s former NBA coaches told ESPN’s Baxter Holmes in 2019. “They’re always the last ones to know.”

Every fear that everybody had about how badly Westbrook would fit with the Lakers last season came true, as he looked ill-suited to life alongside LeBron James and (when healthy) Anthony Davis. The individual box-score numbers looked fine enough: 18.5 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 7.1 assists per game, leading an injury-and-inconsistency-ravaged 33-win Lakers team in total minutes and games played. Dig a little deeper, though, and you find one of the NBA’s least efficient scorers—among 46 players to take at least 1,000 shots, Russ ranked 42nd in true shooting percentage. He also turned in the second-highest turnover rate of his career, and his often lackadaisical effort didn’t help a woeful Laker defense that finished 24th in points allowed per possession.

For more than a decade, Westbrook combined breathtaking explosive athleticism with relentless determination to bend the game to his will, becoming the first player since Oscar Robertson to average a triple-double for an entire season (and then doing it three more times in the next four years), earning nine All-NBA selections (including consecutive first team nods), and winning the 2016-17 Most Valuable Player award. His primacy extended beyond the white lines, too, with Oklahoma City reorienting its program around him after Kevin Durant went west, and Houston dispensing with centers to create more runways for a player who used to make them himself. In Los Angeles, though, LeBron, not Russ, is the sun around whom everyone orbits; in a perhaps related story, Westbrook spent a significant portion of his exit interview with Lakers media back in April detailing his frustrations at “never [being] given a fair chance just to be who I needed to be to help this team,” even going so far as to say that James and Davis saying they’d make space to let Westbrook be himself “wasn’t true, let’s be honest.”

If it wasn’t, maybe that’s because they shouldn’t be making that space for him. The on-court evidence—the broken jumper, the iffy handle, the on- and off-ball defense shakier than ever, the total package prompting internal pushes for the since-ousted Frank Vogel to bench him on multiple occasions last season—has mounted to a point at which it’s hard to conclude anything but that Westbrook just isn’t who he used to be anymore. The evidence suggests that Westbrook continuing to do what he’s always done is more harmful than helpful, and particularly damaging for a Lakers team that needs to surround LeBron with players who can shoot, defend, and not turn the basketball over.

That’s why new head coach Darvin Ham has come in saying what so many have said before: that while “there’s still a ton left in [Westbrook’s] tank,” he’ll need to sacrifice to access it through diversifying his offensive game by more frequently moving off the ball and setting screens, and “redirecting” his energy toward the defensive end. He could still be the starting point guard; he’d just need to be a different kind of starting point guard. Which is to say: Ham and the Lakers want Westbrook to not be Westbrook. Or, failing that, to be less Westbrook. They’re asking for the NBA’s preeminent maximalist to pare down and simplify; for a player who has only ever played with the volume at 11 and the knob ripped off to just chill out and quiet down; and for Russ to embrace a more complementary role, as Melo did in Portland and, later, L.A.

His longtime agent, Thad Foucher, apparently thought that Ham’s plan sounded pretty good—or, at least, better than seeking a trade for a fourth offseason in a row, with the stench of the Lakers’ failures (that, in fairness, were far from solely his fault) clinging to Westbrook. It’s perhaps worth noting that, less than two months after Ham laid out his vision, Foucher isn’t Westbrook’s agent anymore; for what it’s worth, multiple sources told Dan Woike and Broderick Turner of The Los Angeles Times that the split “had nothing to do with the Lakers.”

Russ has reportedly never formally requested a trade away from the Lakers since arriving in 2021, and recently hopped on a call with LeBron and AD to “make sure all three were on the same page … in their pursuit of a championship,” according to Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports. Even so, from the sound of things, LeBron—who reportedly supported the rumored Westbrook-for–Kyrie Irving swap and didn’t appear too eager to smooth over any rough patches at summer league—seemingly has “no interest” in running it back with a version of Russ who’s not interested in getting with the prescribed program. And yet, given the lack of a market for an about-to-be-34-year-old guard who can’t shoot and who’ll make nearly $50 million next season, LeBron and Co. might not have a choice.

Shams Charania of The Athletic reported Monday that the Jazz, Knicks, and Pacers, among others, “have discussed deals with the Lakers” including Westbrook and outgoing draft picks to incentivize a suitor to take on Westbrook’s mammoth contract. Charania’s colleague Bob Kravitz recently reported that a proposed Pacers-Lakers swap that would’ve sent center Myles Turner and shooting guard Buddy Hield to L.A. in exchange for Westbrook and the Lakers’ 2027 first-round pick “is currently dead,” with talks stalling over Indiana wanting the Lakers’ 2029 first, too. The mentions of Utah and New York are interesting in the context of a rumored framework shared last week by Marc Stein that would see the Knicks take on Westbrook’s $47.1 million expiring contract in exchange for shedding the final three guaranteed years of Julius Randle’s deal, thus also creating financial flexibility for a team reportedly looking to trade for Donovan Mitchell.

Those rumblings aside, though, Charania notes that there’s “no deal imminent” to move the 33-year-old Westbrook out of L.A. Even if one emerges, it’s unlikely that the team taking Russ on will be doing so with the intent of slotting him in the starting lineup and making him its primary option; he is, at this point, the steep cost of acquiring draft picks, most probably bought out in favor of cap space once his freight’s been paid. The off-court evidence suggests that the league at large has seen the on-court evidence, and judged it harshly—that the NBA thinks the current version of Russell Westbrook no longer helps you win basketball games at a level commensurate with his salary, and that there might not be another version.

That’s the challenge in front of Westbrook: to either prove that the style that built a Hall of Fame career can contribute to winning ball, or to turn and face the strange and reimagine who he is on the basketball court. When Anthony, who never reached Russ’s MVP heights but does have the benefit of being four inches taller and a considerably better 3-point shooter, got to that point, it had taken him a year in the wilderness before he could accept a humbler role as a minimum-salaried year-to-year hired gun. It wasn’t easy.

“You go for 16, 17 years and you’re the guy on the team and you’re the star, and then all of a sudden somebody is like, ‘Listen, come off the bench,’” Anthony told reporters when he joined the Lakers last season. “I had to swallow that ego. I had to swallow that pride. But I also had to use that ego and that pride to keep me on edge and keep me motivated. And I’ve accepted that.”

Other all-time greats never really could accept that; you can understand why a star would laugh at the suggestion that he should be anything other than what he’s always been. The problems start, though, when you stop being a star—when you’re the last one to realize that the world has turned, and it’s time to find a Plan B.