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Can Russell Westbrook Change?

The former MVP will need to in order to last with the Lakers—and maybe even in the NBA altogether

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Eyebrows wrinkled, eyes focused, Russell Westbrook looks like he’s listening when a reporter at Lakers media day asks how he ironed out his issues with Anthony Davis. “Number one, extremely blessed to never take having the ability to be able to play another season, that’s something I really honed in on. The details of kinda what happened, to me, don’t really matter,” he says.

He’s filtered out the negatives, accentuating the positive. On the floor, that tunnel vision has been a double-edged sword, powering nine All-Star appearances and an MVP but also blinding him to his flaws.

“I think the most important part is being healthy,” he continues, “looking forward to the season and looking forward to doing great things.” At 33 years old, none of those things are guaranteed.

After the worst season of Westbrook’s career, the Lakers failed to find a trade partner for him. Opposing teams seem to value his expiring contract more than his on-court services. He has resisted change for most of his career, but as he enters his 15th season, a repeat of last season could end his career.

He seems to know it, telling ESPN he’s “all in” for whatever role the Lakers ask him to play, but knowing is only half the battle. Westbrook talked about sacrificing all through last season. But the Lakers got off to a rough start, LeBron James and Davis suffered injuries, and Westbrook’s role toggled back and forth from third fiddle to LeBron impersonator. Westbrook, a merchant of consistency and control, struggled. He tried attacking, but his overaggressive drives left his layups short on the rim. His patent stop-and-pop midrange jumper regularly clanked off the backboard.

“I just feel like he accepted a role he had probably never played in before, not knowing how hard it would be,” said Mike Penberthy, a former Lakers assistant coach. “It probably just felt like he was in quicksand the whole time.” Penberthy remembers Westbrook as a player who was “very coachable.” He “listened, he wasn’t stubborn” and wanted to “have the truth told to him.”

“He’d come into practice, and he would be frustrated with how he was playing,” Penberthy said. “It’s hard, though, when you’re answering questions after a game and you haven’t played as well as you want to, to give that type of response. He feels like he’s being attacked, so he’s going to put his defenses up. And by the end of the year he just …” Penberthy pauses. “I mean, it just, when it rained it poured, you know?”

Ironically, being more available than Davis or James meant shouldering a disproportionate amount of the blame. Lakers fans booed him, and harassed his family at games. Against the Spurs, a fan called him “Westbrick,” to which he replied, “Don’t disrespect my name.” The fan responded by saying it even louder. In his exit interview after last season, he admitted to concentrating energy on fighting against narratives he didn’t think were true.

The more public the scrutiny, the more defensive he became. Under pressure, Westbrook reverted to his worst habits. In February, after multiple crunchtime benchings, his stated willingness to do whatever he thought was best for the team came up against his pride. “I shouldn’t have to hit any benchmark, to be honest,” he said about finishing games. “I put in a lot of work, and I got a lot of respect in this game. I don’t have to hit a benchmark, or I shouldn’t have to. I earned the right to be in closing lineups.”

Now, when asked about potentially not starting, he sounds relatively loose. “I think I’m just excited to be on the floor, excited for the start of the season,” he says. “Whatever unfolds, unfolds.”

If you’re dubious, I don’t blame you. I am too. Recent history suggests he’ll eventually balk—if this isn’t all just posturing in the first place—but circumstances always play a role. Maybe training camp optimism is getting to me, but my mind keeps lingering on the tiny blip of his career that suggests adapting isn’t as impossible as it seems.

Let’s flash back to February 22, 2020, at what was then known as the Vivint Smart Home Arena. Westbrook, spotted up in the left corner, is engaging in a favorite pastime: jawing with a Utah Jazz fan.

“I know a good barber,” says the fan. “I can give you his number. He’ll be able to help you out.” This strangely helpful fan also advised Westbrook to shoot the 3, because Rudy Gobert, roaming the paint, is the best defensive player in the league.

Westbrook flashes his famous side-eye, and responds quickly, “No, he’s not.” He then turns and explodes for a baseline cut, perfectly timed to the drive of James Harden, who throws Westbrook the alley-oop.

For the Lakers, this version of Russ would be a fever dream: playing off ball, seamlessly taking advantage of the attention being given to his creative, ball-dominant teammate. It wasn’t the only thing he changed with the Houston Rockets. In the previous three seasons, Westbrook averaged 5.6 3-point attempts per game at a groan-inducing 31.5 percent clip. Over the course of the season, he cleaned up his shot selection: In the 19 games just before COVID-19 interrupted the season, he concentrated his attack inside the arc and shot fewer than two 3s per game.

According to a former teammate, Westbrook made the adjustment even though no one asked him to. In November of that season, then-Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni told SB Nation, “We’re not trying to change Russ. We’re bringing him here as the MVP and what he has done, he’s done. Now can he just—we play a certain way, does he kind of move toward that a little bit? That’s on him. I hope he does. He has. If you’re gonna have to change a guy, you might not want to bring him in in the first place. So he’s adapted and we’ve adapted to him also.”

At first, Westbrook struggled to adapt to playing next to Harden, but the Rockets opened the season 11-3. Winning lessened the sting of his struggles, and kept negative attention at bay. There was a lightness to Westbrook’s time in Houston, where he was freed from the pressure of carrying a team on his back. He told reporters he didn’t feel the need to prove he could muster triple-doubles.

He organized summer workouts at UCLA. According to the former teammate, he showed up to charity events, and treated everyone equally, regardless of whether they were stars or equipment managers. He was an active voice in film sessions and team meetings. Austin Rivers called him the best teammate he’s ever had. When Westbrook said at his Lakers exit interview that he “was never given a fair chance just to be who I needed to be to help this team,” on or off the court, this is the guy he was alluding to.

When Harden’s tardiness held up the team bus, Westbrook would get upset. “You have to be on time,” a former teammate recalled Westbrook saying. “What the fuck is this? It’s not normal.” Moments like this ingratiated him to role players, but strained his relationship with Harden. Westbrook requested a trade and was sent to the Wizards in the offseason, putting their experiment to a premature end.

Westbrook’s reasons were noble, but they also exemplified an unwillingness to adapt to a hard NBA reality: The best player runs the show, and it wasn’t him anymore. That certainly isn’t going to change on the Lakers.

Maybe there are other ways they can make him feel comfortable.

It seems like Westbrook put his best foot forward this offseason, rallying the troops at summer league (albeit while ignoring LeBron), showing up to the facility when first-time head coach Darvin Ham asks him to mentor young players. The two have apparently already connected on a level he never did with Frank Vogel. “Everything has been about being selfless, team-oriented, having a defensive mindset, holding him to that—words that came out of his own mouth—that he’s gonna be at a high, high level defensively, along with the rest of our roster,” Ham said.

The Rockets went as far as swapping center Clint Capela for 3-and-D wing Robert Covington, playing super small to create space for Harden and Westbrook to thrive. The Lakers, on the other hand, remain low in spacing. They acquired Dennis Schröder and Patrick Beverley over the past month to help, but the veteran guards will also compete with Westbrook for minutes.

In the offseason, Lakers owner Jeanie Buss tripped over her words to make Westbrook feel appreciated, calling him the Lakers’ best player, and then amending the statement to “consistent.”

I’m not sure how convincing that was. Rob Pelinka, the Lakers’ vice president of basketball operations, showered Westbrook with compliments on Monday, but when he was asked if Westbrook would be on the roster this season, he put it this way: “If we have to continue to upgrade our roster throughout the season, we will.”

Truth is, Westbrook will either get traded or spend the entire season seeing his name in rumors. Even though expectations have never been lower, the pressure has never been higher. No matter what Westbrook does this season, he’ll do it under a microscope.