Russell Westbrook still combative, and the Lakers are torn

It was slated as a day of opulent optimism when the Lakers were rumored to kick off training camp, gifting reporters with a new coach, new focus and renewed energy.

Instead, it was another day at Russell Westbrook Hell.

He’s still a Laker. He’s still fighting. He’s still Russ.

“Honestly, it doesn’t matter if they want me here or not,” he said.

The Lakers are still bothered. You are still hopeful. They’re still torn.

“For every player on our team, you always have to evaluate the roster…if we need to keep improving our roster throughout the season, we will do that,” Rob Pelinka said, but later added, “Russell Westbrook is a great part of our team .”

For now. Maybe for this month. Maybe by mid-season. Maybe not for another second. Maybe that’s not the way they want to start a season already filled with fear and without championship hopes.

The two parties had all summer to find a way forward from last season’s nightmare, but they emerged for Monday’s media day at their El Segundo facility still stuck in a bitter, confusing place.

Westbrook rolled his eyes. Pelinka sighed. Westbrook looked bored. Pelinka looked tired.

It’s completely nonsensical. It’s more than a distraction. It’s a total mess.

Westbrook doesn’t seem to want to be here, and the Lakers would certainly like to trade him, but it’s not that easy. He’s making $47 million this season and might not even be a starter anymore, so the Lakers would certainly have to part with two future first-round draft picks to convince anyone to pick him. They don’t want to give up such an important part of their future unless they can bring back a star who can help them win now. And that star has yet to materialize.

So Westbrook is here, but kinda, kinda, but not really. And the Lakers are trying to be polite — “He was great, he did everything I asked him to do,” said new coach Darvin Ham — but how long will that last? Maybe up to the final seconds of the season opener when he clinks one?

He has to go for Westbrook and the team. But right now he’s not going anywhere. Even on what was supposed to be the brightest day, the festive practice facility was shrouded in persistent darkness.

Russell Westbrook listens to a reporter's question.

Russell Westbrook, listening to a reporter’s question, was combative at times during the media day.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

When Westbrook met with reporters, his answers were brief, his eyes wandered elsewhere, his patience paper-thin, the exchanges that followed were typical.

He was asked: “How comfortable are you being able to be yourself as you know it, in some kind of team with other stars and in this system? Or maybe ‘Russ being Russ’ means something new this year?”

He replied, “What is the question?”

“Do you think you can do this?”

“What should I do?”

“Be yourself and play how you feel comfortable and want to play in this system?”

“I’m myself every day when I wake up.”

Westbrook was more expansive when asked if he thought the Lakers still wanted him. He said he didn’t care if they wanted him, then executed it.

“I mean, you all have jobs — sometimes people don’t like us in our jobs or don’t want us there, as you can probably attest to in any job around the world,” he said. “As a professional and as a worker I have to do my job and do it as well as I know how to support and provide for my family and I will do that.”

Pelinka never said the Lakers didn’t want Westbrook. However, he noted that following LeBron James’ recent two-year contract extension, the organization has a responsibility to give James another shot at a championship before he retires. And Pelinka carefully explained that under NBA rules, they will only have one chance to trade those first-round picks from 2027 and 2029 in a single deal, so they have to make it count.

“So if you make that trade…it has to be the right one,” he said. “We strive to do everything we can to provide the best team around LeBron.”

So Pelinka will keep looking. In the meantime, there is some hope that the respected Ham can help transform Westbrook into a selfless and defensive-minded player who will really make the Lakers want him again. Ham has apparently already reached Westbrook in a way that former manager Frank Vogel could not.

“Just being able to communicate and connect with me is a positive thing,” Westbrook said. “We’ve talked about a lot of different things and chatted about a lot of different things, which doesn’t always have to be about basketball. And that’s something that makes the relationship grow.”

On the other hand, Westbrook thought he reached out to James and Anthony Davis during last season’s training camp and ended up accusing them of being dishonest in their support. Westbrook now says they haven’t played enough games together – 21 in total – to properly assess their bond.

“Going into this season, God willing, to be able to be healthy and to find ways to be successful … is definitely a conversation,” he said.

It’s hard to believe that more games featuring James and Davis will drastically change Westbrook’s ball-dependant style. Just as it’s hard to believe which Laker now calls Westbrook his best friend on the team.

Yes, that’s the guy who once called him “garbage”.

“It’s true,” Patrick Beverley said. “He was at my press conference. We slap the weights together. And, I mean, not like teamweight stuff. We’re in lab 6, 6:30 a.m.

He added, “Obviously you guys think we have the worst relationship in the world… [but] When you have two people who love to win, two alpha males, and you put them together, it usually works…to get where we need to be, man, we need to be good friends.”

So Beverly is trying. And James is trying. And Davis is trying. And Ham is trying. And Pelinka tries. It’s exhaustive, the number of Lakers saying they’re trying to make this untenable situation work.

The question: Is Russell Westbrook trying?

It’ll be hell if he doesn’t. Russell Westbrook still combative, and the Lakers are torn

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