Most Los Angeles Lakers players preached accountability and self-reflection over the issues that plagued their team during exit interviews on Monday. However Russell Westbrook chose a different path, one filled with denial.
Throughout his 21-minute post-exit-interview press conference, Westbrook doubled down on the consistent excuses he used amid a brutal season — and debuted new explanations to absolve his responsibility in constructing his Lakers experience.
Westbrook believes one of the primary issues with his season was that his negative reputation preceded him and he was never given a “fair chance” with the organization.
“When I first got here, unfortunately, people create narratives of who I am, and what I do, and what I believe in, that just aren’t true,” Westbrook said. “I’m always having to prove myself again year after year after year, which to me is really unfair. There’s no reason for me to have to do that. So when I first got in here, I just felt that I never was given a fair chance just to be who I needed to be to help this team.”
But deflecting blame onto the media wasn’t suffice for the regressing point guard. Westbrook’s criticism quickly extended to former head coach Frank Vogel, who was fired on Monday morning.
After regularly taking veiled shots at Vogel, particularly after games in which Vogel benched him during the fourth quarter, Westbrook attempted to flip the narrative and say that Vogel instead had a problem with him.
“I think it’s unfortunate, to be honest, because I’ve never had an issue with any of my coaches before,” Westbrook said. “I’m not sure what his issue was with me or I’m not sure why, but I can’t really give you an answer to why we really never connected …
“That’s something that he has to answer. But I never, from the get-go, was feeling like (we were on the same page.) I was having to try to prove myself to him and my capabilities and what I’ve been able to do for this game. And it’s unfortunate but it’s really not (my fault). It’s kind of out of my hands.”
Based on all accounts, nothing Westbrook said above holds to be true.
Vogel was reportedly one of Westbrook’s lone allies, optimistically believing that he would eventually turn his play around and insisting that he remain in the starting lineup despite some in the organization pleading for Vogel to bring Westbrook off the bench to split him and James up.
The postgame comments throughout the season refute that sentiment, too.
Westbrook repeatedly criticized Vogel and the coaching staff in a passive-aggressive manner. Meanwhile, Vogel routinely defended Westbrook’s performance despite his starting point guard bricking jumpers, throwing passes out of bounds and failing to rotate or keep track of his man defensively.
But Russ’s bad play doesn’t fit the alternate reality he lives in. It had to be Vogel, or the media, hell even the fans fault. Anyone but Mr. Triple-Double’s fault.
Westbrook’s grievances then moved on to his on-court dynamic with his star teammates, LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
In postgame press conferences, James and Davis supported the concept of “let Russ be Russ” as the best strategy to empower Westbrook and unlock the best version of the former MVP.
But Westbrook revealed that he felt that notion was disingenuous.
“Yeah, (they said it),” Westbrook said. “But that wasn’t true. Let’s be honest.”
He also took another shot at Vogel, placing much of the blame on the star trio’s lackluster record — they were 11-10 in their 21 games together — on the way they were used offensively, while also mentioning their obvious fit issues and unfortunate health.
“I mean, it’s a combination of where we are on the floor, positioning, fit and challenge, trial and error, being able to play on the floor with each other,” Westbrook said. “Finding ways to be able to utilize us to the best of our abilities. It’s that simple.”
Westbrook’s attempt to deflect and finger-point ultimately rings hollow.
The Lakers indisputably went out of their way to accommodate their highest-paid player ($44 million), from giving him spots in the starting and closing lineups at times he didn’t deserve them, to letting him handle primary ballhandling duties, to handling him with kid gloves in critical media sessions. Vogel tweaked his defensive schemes to factor in Westbrook’s limitations.
Even Westbrook’s superstar teammates made notable adjustments. Davis slid up to center more despite his historic hesitance to better space the floor. James even played some small-ball center, and implemented more screening, rolling and cutting into his game to remain effective off the ball when Westbrook had it.
In contrast, Westbrook, who promised James and Davis last offseason that he would adjust more than either player, never expanded his skill set to become effective without the ball in his hands. He rarely screened on or off the ball, cut hard, or relocated around the perimeter.
On the whole, there is a clear cognitive dissonance between the player Westbrook is and the player he thinks he is.
He is no longer an All-Star or All-NBA player. He’s declined as a jump-shooter, finisher and defender. He was arguably the worst high-volume shooter in the league. He no longer impacts games with his energy and effort the way he used to.
His lack of gravity can suffocate his team’s offense, barring the other four players all being above-average shooters. It’s difficult for a coach to find four shooters to place around Westbrook in every lineup. His turnovers are often momentum-swinging. Defensively, he’s typically disinterested, to say the least. He didn’t box out.
Most advanced metrics deem Westbrook as somewhere between an average-to-major-net-negative player.
Yet that is not how he views himself. He hasn’t accepted that he’s moved into a different phase of his Hall of Fame career. He believes he’s entitled to playing time and a role because of who he used to be. He lacks self-awareness. And he can’t properly adjust his game — and become the proverbial star in his new role — until he adjusts his perspective.
Which makes the uncertainty regarding his future so interesting.
Westbrook may have been trying to save his legacy with this exit interview, but in the process he burned every bridge connecting back to the Lakers.
And that might be his biggest contribution to the Lakers during his tenure.