Hernández: To make it work with Lakers, Russell Westbrook must change

Russell Westbrook didn’t speak, but he didn’t have to say anything.

His presence at Patrick Beverley’s inaugural press conference was a statement in itself: I’m still here.

Westbrook isn’t the same player he used to be, but he’s still the same competitor who is now determined to make it clear he’s not going away because everyone wants him to be.

That wasn’t conformity.

This was defiance, as Westbrook bucked the popular view that he was responsible for the Lakers’ disastrous season last year.

He could be here when the Lakers start their season, or he can’t, but as he awaits his fate, he seems driven to show he’s not the malevolent presence he was made to be.

He was one of a handful of players at the unveiling of manager Darvin Ham. He spent time on the bench for the summer league team in Las Vegas. And on Tuesday, he was by the side of the Lakers’ practice facility media room as Beverley answered questions about his return to Los Angeles.

Westbrook’s commitment was praised by Ham, who pointed out, “It starts with the buy-in.”

Except this is just the beginning of shopping.

Players’ investments in their teams are not measured by the number of summer press conferences or league games they attend.

In Westbrook’s case, buying means playing without the basketball in his hands. Buy-in will play defense.

In other words, the buy-in requires him to accept that he can’t play like he has for the last 14 seasons of his Hall of Famer career.

As Beverley said, “Everyone wants to go to the bank and withdraw, withdraw, but you also have to give to be one [successful] Team. So what are you going to give up?”

Westbrook has to give up being Westbrook.

That might not be fair or even possible on Westbrook, 33, but Ham called on the former MVP to succeed Frank Vogel shortly after his appointment. And for good reason: right before a trade, it’s the only way to win for a team featuring LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Westbrook. The Lakers can’t win if Westbrook plays like he did last season.

As much as Ham has complimented Westbrook, there are doubts in his mind as to whether the player can adapt.

Minnesota Timberwolves guard Patrick Beverley reacts after blocking a shot from Lakers guard Russell Westbrook.

Minnesota Timberwolves guard Patrick Beverley reacts after blocking a shot by Lakers guard Russell Westbrook during a game at the Crypto.com Arena January 2.

(Ringo HW Chiu/Associated Press)

When asked if the 6-foot-3 Westbrook and 6-1 Beverly could start together in backfield, Ham replied, “If they play defense.”

Beverly is as much a nuisance as a colony of fire ants. He will play defense. Ham was obviously speaking of Westbrook.

The question now is how Westbrook will respond to his coach’s veiled threats and reports of how the team continues to buy him in with the upcoming training camp. Westbrook needs to know he’s the most expendable of the Lakers’ three superstars and would have been traded by now had the team not been reluctant to part with future draft picks.

The test Westbrook faces is as old as the sport itself, a once-dominant player figuring out his place in the game as his strength wanes with age.

Often the athlete is betrayed by the same irrepressible spirit that made him great, his stubborn determination preventing him from taking the step back necessary to make two forward.

Such was the fate of the late Kobe Bryant, who ended his career by shooting the Lakers down a hole from which their only escape was to hand the franchise over to James.

But there are cases where things click, like Clayton Kershaw or Albert Pujols. Kershaw learned to pitch at a reduced speed. Pujols took on a role as a part-time player and mentor.

This process takes time. Kershaw initially attempted to continue pitching for the Dodgers like he had in his prime, relying on his fastball and slider. Pujols was an underperforming offensive player in his last four years with the Angels. The failure prompted her to consider other options.

Westbrook experienced that kind of failure last season when his homecoming dream turned into a nightmare.

How will he channel his competitive urge now?

Will he use it to prop up his ego and keep banging his head against the wall? Or will he use it to stare down hard truths and try to reinvent himself as a gamer?

The choice is his.

https://www.latimes.com/sports/lakers/story/2022-09-07/column-lakers-hernandez-russell-westbrook Hernández: To make it work with Lakers, Russell Westbrook must change

Emma Bowman

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