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If Russell Westbrook Can't Handle Being Benched, the Lakers Are Screwed

Liam McKeone
Russell Westbrook
Russell Westbrook / Harry How/GettyImages
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The Los Angeles Lakers lost to the Indiana Pacers last night, blowing an early lead en route to a 111-104 loss. The end result is certainly not great for LA but it is not as important as what transpired during the contest. With the Lakers down by seven with just under four minutes to go, Russell Westbrook was benched in favor of Malik Monk. As his team died a slow death, Westbrook left the court with 10 seconds left and was gone from the locker room before his teammates hit the showers.

Between the news of Frank Vogel's hot seat yesterday and what happened against the Pacers, it's clear the Lakers are in turmoil right now. Westbrook needed to be benched; aside from his poor statistical play over the last month, his lackadaisical defense has been killing Los Angeles. The ESPN article reporting on the events noted that Westbrook's utter lack of effort defending Caris LeVert on one possession was the catalyst that led to getting yanked. It was the right decision, even if it didn't pay off. For the Lakers to win, Westbrook needs to either bring the intensity defensively or put up efficient, winning numbers offensively. When he's not doing either, the team has no shot.

But based on his reaction and what we know of superstar personalities in the NBA, it is worth questioning if he can handle getting benched when he isn't playing well. Westbrook in particular might have trouble with that. He's had a permanent green light ever since Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City in 2016. No matter what team he's been on, Westbrook has been critical enough to success that all of his coaches just let him play through his bad stretches because the good stretches usually lead to wins.

This year, though, those bad stretches have been far more common. The superstar guard's latest drought has been brutal; he hasn't shot above 50 percent from the floor since January 2 while averaging only five assists to two turnovers per game, an awful ratio for somebody of his talent and usage. All season long he's had brief stints of efficient shooting and overall productive offensive play surrounded by terrible performances in every facet. It is not the only reason the Lakers are losing games, but he is more often a reason they lose than a reason they win.

Volume has been the key with Westbrook post-KD. Give him enough shots and he'll eventually reward his team with a big night or a clutch shot. Give him enough touches and he'll dish out the assists to get the triple-double. Run the game through Brodie and things will, more often than not, work out. But that has slowly been changing over the last few seasons and it's never been more clear this year. The Lakers cannot and do not want to use Westbrook like that. They want him to make the most of his opportunities every night instead of playing the long game and banking on him to average out as a good player.

Because of that, benching him when he doesn't have it is the only way for the team to stay in the game, especially if he is exhibiting his usual loose interest in maybe playing some defense. But it's something Westbrook hasn't dealt with since... his rookie year? Maybe even UCLA? Maybe even high school? It's a tough pill to swallow, as his teammate Carmelo Anthony can attest to.

If Westbrook can't handle that, then the Lakers are sunk. He has a player option for $47 million that he is almost certainly opting into. Nobody is going to take that off their hands, not even the Oklahoma City Thunder and their urge to acquire all the draft picks in exchange for taking on salary. Los Angeles is stuck with Westbrook for the next year and a half. And the clock is ticking with 37-year-old LeBron James.

It is because of LeBron that there's optimism this will work out. If anyone can get a ball-dominant superstar on board with playing team basketball and buying in defensively, it's LeBron. That's what the Lakers were banking on when they traded for Westbrook in the first place. Yet that has not worked out so far. It's why we find ourselves here, discussing this right now.

For all the talk about how Westbrook could change and work with this Lakers team, it hasn't really happened. He's taking only three less shots per game than he did last year as the co-No. 1 option in Washington but posting a worse field goal percentage with a ever-so-slightly less usage percentage. He has basically gotten worse with fewer opportunities. While playing bad defense on top of it all. Benching him in crucial moments is the only way the Lakers can make it work. If Westbrook isn't on board, we've got problems in Los Angeles.

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