There’s no one to truly blame when looking at the underwhelming Los Angeles Lakers, but it doesn’t appear to be any solutions anywhere around Crypto.com Arena.
It shifts like a spotlight from a helicopter looking for a fugitive in the dead of night. First, it’s Frank Vogel and his job security. Now it’s Russell Westbrook being benched for being … Russell Westbrook.
As if we haven’t seen his movies before, as if history wasn’t predicting his athletic decline after years of playing with reckless abandon in pursuit of greatness, statistics and shutting up the vocal critics.
The margin for error in Los Angeles is too thin to risk Westbrook’s ghastly 32% shooting this month, even as he’s turned down the usage in the effort to assimilate and adjust to change the Lakers’ losing tendencies.
Westbrook watched the final minutes of the Lakers' most recent loss, purportedly after watching Indiana Pacers guard Caris LeVert stroll for an easy layup. He was given the unspoken “Love don’t live here anymore” speech by Vogel, a man whose championship ring doesn’t give him the real estate to work through myriad issues he didn’t have much of a hand in creating.
“Playing the guys I thought were gonna win the game,” Vogel said about Westbrook's benching.
Vogel seems to be a smart man, he doesn’t boast and place his ego outwardly to claim credit. He’s not the force of personality that drives the team on the floor, or the franchise in general. So when the option of coaching Westbrook was placed in front of him, it seems very unlikely he would chafe at LeBron James, Rob Pelinka or Jeanie Buss — he knows where he sits in that power structure.
But he also knows the profession he chose and the pressure cooker that comes from coaching the most glamorous franchise in all of professional sports. The Lakers are the franchise, led by the same Buss family, that told two of the three greatest coaches in modern basketball history to hit the road for one reason or another.
Perhaps Pat Riley and Phil Jackson’s time was up when leaving the franchise they’d won a combined nine championships, but the Lakers either ushered them out or had their bags packed and locks changed before the sweat dried after closeout playoff games.
Again, love don’t live here anymore.
The Lakers share a dirty secret among themselves, that likely applies to only themselves — a coach matters only so much to them, so they don’t have to value one over the next or the last.
It’s no tears for Vogel, as it seems the decision has already been made — daily referendums on a head coach’s job stability after reports that his job is in jeopardy likely indicates it’s a matter of “when” as opposed to “if.”
You can make the case, with a few exceptions across the NBA, that most coaches can be fired. Whether it’s failing to meet expectations, a lack of player development, late-game strategies or being abrasive to the locker room in a player-led culture, there’s always a reason.
But just because there’s a case, doesn’t mean it’s pragmatic or the solution to a team’s issues. It’s just the easiest thing to do, and most coaches understand it’s a relationship heavily tilted in the other direction — a heavily compensated relationship but a merry-go-round that keeps most of them in contact with the other in the event of filling a future need.
Vogel’s present need wasn’t Westbrook’s wayward play or game plan mistakes — which used to be obscured by his boundless energy and excellence. But LeVert wound up torching defensive savants Talen Horton-Tucker and Carmelo Anthony for the rest of his 22-point fourth-quarter performance that saw the Lakers outscored by 11.
Westbrook wasn’t the problem, per se, but the answers weren’t behind him. He wasn’t the answer to this roster, but James pushed for it and got his way, as evidenced by the “will they, won’t they” trade on draft night that saw the Lakers go from taking a Sacramento Kings meal to the Westbrook turnover.
James knows that stars win championships in this talent-rich NBA, and even though he saw an expertly built Phoenix Suns team represent the West in the Finals and likely had no idea Golden State would reclaim a spot back atop the hill, he went for what he knows.
It’s easy to envision the calculus for James, seeing Westbrook as a system on his own similar to James himself — capable of eating up shots, minutes and games without putting an inordinate amount of 82-game pressure on James to keep himself fresh for the playoffs.
Playing alongside Anthony Davis — a superbly talented but physically awkwardly developed game of “Operation” if there ever was one — created a need for a durable star-type player who wanted to be in Los Angeles and also understand his place in that hierarchy when it was time.
And according to reports, when Damian Lillard wasn’t interested, the Lakers had to go in another direction.
Things turn on a trifle in the NBA, and because of injuries to James and Davis last season, it was difficult to truly assess the best course for future success. James is still singularly excellent, even though his presence alone can’t will his team to improbable wins every night.
The roster looks as if it's from the Island of Misfit Toys — a land James has long been familiar with and been able to make up for its flaws with his excellent basketball makeup. Expecting him to make it all fit at his advanced age, especially when he’s eyeing his place in the record books could be too much to ask at once.
Ideally, that’s supposed to be Davis, but his basketball excellence seems to ebb and flow even when he’s available.
Is he a center? Or a power forward? Or is he so in tune with his body he knows it can’t take the nightly punishment against more conventionally built giants? Whenever he returns, Davis can be part of the solution, but it feels unlikely he’ll be the catalyst for any type of turnaround.
The Lakers don’t have the assets to make a blockbuster move, or at least one that doesn’t look like a donation from a poverty franchise doing everyone a favor to keep the biggest money machine closer to June than an April conclusion.
The Lakers swung big last offseason, as they often do. And more times than not, it has worked out sooner or later. It’s just not working now, and even though there’s no one to blame, no one has the answer to dig them from a hole that is steadily getting deeper.