Russell Westbrook the 6th Man? Here’s how the Lakers plan to manage the Westbrook experience this season

The Los Angeles Lakers have many problems, most of them self inflicted and reoccurring. But the problem with TNT tied to its ankle is Russell Westbrook and his role on the 2022-23 Lakers.

When the Lakers’ disastrous 2021-22 campaign came to an end in early April, it seemed inconceivable to many people close to the situation that Russell Westbrook would ever wear the purple and gold jersey again. It was that ugly of a finish with both sides openly frustrated with one another.

But a way out of this toxic relationship was never going to be easy.

The trade market was bound to be challenging, with the combination of Westbrook’s struggles and his fiery personality sure to lessen the odds of any team being willing to take on a future first-ballot Hall of Famer on the decline — one who is owed $47 million in the forthcoming final year of his deal, no less.

But the grand superstar plan that was concocted inside of LeBron James’ home the previous summer had fallen so flat, had inspired so much frustration and uncomfortableness along the way, that the Lakers couldn’t possibly consider running it back. Right?

Wrong, well at least for now.

With training camp roughly a week away, a limited trade market, and no thoughts of a buyout, Westbrook will be the Los Angeles Lakers point guard this season.

But will he be the starting guard?

While the Lakers have been hopeful the Westbrook experiment might be a success this time, with the prospect of Westbrook coming off the bench is being strongly considered.

I know Russell Westbrook and 6th man isn’t a combination you would have ever fathomed, for a multitude of reasons. His ego wouldn’t allow it.

At a minimum, it seems clear Westbrook will have to outplay new addition Patrick Beverley and Schröder if he’s going to retain his starting role. As with most lineup constructions ahead of training camp and the season, it remains a very fluid situation. But sources say first-year head coach Darvin Ham, with the full backing of the organization, is ready and willing to make whatever difficult rotation decisions might lie ahead in the interest of team success.

Westbrook being benched in general would be ego shattering.

But getting benched for Patrick Beverley might break the mans soul.

With that said, it is the right basketball move.

Westbrook is the prime example of not being able to teach dog new tricks. He is stuck in his ways and you have to take him for what he is. Players don’t simply change their identity 13 years into their hall of fame career.

So let Russ be Russ. Just in a different capacity.

Run Russ out there with the second unit, even overlapped with the starters, and let him cook for 18 of his 30 minutes on the court. Don’t conserve energy or worry about coinciding with LeBron James and Anthony Davis, two ball dominating players. Those minutes of Russ spotting up in the corner are useless and net minus.

The combination of Beverley’s arrival, the Schröder addition and the organization’s commitment to do whatever it takes to improve this season, it seems, has put the onus on Westbrook to find a way to fit in here.

The team gave the “let Russ be Russ” a full season to become a positive experience which can lead to winning. They’re done accommodating the glorified role player. The player who performs best will get the opportunities.

The Lakers are confident Ham can figure out the best way to get the most out of Westbrook. The nine-time All-Star point guard, who made it clear throughout last season that he wasn’t a fan of Vogel’s approach with him, has already connected with Ham in a way he never did with Vogel. Ham has publicly championed Westbrook during multiple interviews over the summer, including dubbing him a starter in an interview with Andscape back in early July. Ham has said Westbrook, who attended Ham’s introductory news conference, the Lakers’ first summer-league game and Beverley’s introductory news conference, is fully bought in to what the Lakers are asking of him.

But that theory could be put to the test if the Lakers decide to bring Westbrook off the bench.

When Ham was asked about the possibility of Westbrook coming off the bench during his introductory news conference in early June, Westbrook, standing off to the side with a few teammates, laughed at the notion. Moreover, Westbrook’s former agent, Thad Foucher, strongly implied soon after being fired by Westbrook that the Lakers star wasn’t on board with the Lakers’ projected role for him next season

Last season’s coaching staff feared they would lose Westbrook if they benched him, according to league sources. The Lakers were careful with how they handled Westbrook, but with the former MVP on an expiring contract, there appears to be less concern with how he might handle a smaller role.

As the Lakers prepare for the 2022-23 season, the organization is attempting to strike the tricky balance between contending in the short term and maintaining its options in the long term. The Lakers will only make a trade if they calculate that it’ll improve this season’s roster enough to warrant the possible downside of taking on longer-term salary and/or giving up their valuable picks at the end of the decade. As things stand, it seems unlikely they find a deal that reaches that threshold. Their motivations could change as the season unfolds and they get a better sense of the roster’s potential.

In the meantime, they are betting on Ham to figure out the Westbrook fit — including whether he’s most effective as a starter or off the bench — and improved health for James and Davis alongside a better, younger cast of role players.

It’s a gamble no matter which direction the Lakers choose, with long-lasting ripple effects that will likely shape the rest of their decade.

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