“Toxic and unaccountable”: Inside the nightmare that was the Russell Westbrook experience

After a tumultuous 18 months, the Lakers and Russell Westbrook finally moved on from one another.

As part of a three-team deal with the Utah Jazz and Minnesota Timberwolves, the Lakers traded Westbrook, Juan Toscano-Anderson, Damian Jones and a first-round pick to Utah, and a 2024 second-round pick to Minnesota, on Wednesday. The Lakers received D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley and Jarred Vanderbilt in the trade. Westbrook was sent to the Jazz, though he’s expected to be bought out and will command interest from the Clippers, Heat and Bulls.

The Lakers believe there is an addition-by-subtraction element to dealing the nine-time All-Star. The situation had become untenable over the past week or so, after starting off on the wrong foot 18 months ago.

Two sources described the situation as “toxic.” And while Lakers owner Jeanie Buss was known to be against the idea of waiving Westbrook, sources say there was a strong sense from the coaching staff that it might be necessary if no trade was forthcoming.

Lakers coaches had grown frustrated with Westbrook’s recent behavior, and he was known to be upset with being openly mentioned in trade discussions. Both sides were ready to move on from an imperfect partnership.

The trade ends Westbrook’s disastrous tenure with the Lakers – a homecoming marred by his awkward fit on and off the court, and multiple injuries to the Lakers’ two other stars. Los Angeles was 22-22 in the 44 games that LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Westbrook played together across two seasons, a subpar record for a trio of Top 75 players and future Hall of Famers still producing at high levels.

Westbrook’s exit was nearly a year in the making. The Lakers explored trading him at the 2022 trade deadline before more seriously considering it last offseason in potential deals with Brooklyn for Kyrie Irving and Indiana for Myles Turner and Buddy Hield. Those developments being so public naturally affected Westbrook, though he denied it publicly.

“No. I do not,” he said Saturday when asked if trade rumors affected him. “That’s not up to me. Like I said, I’ve known this was a business since I was 18, 19 years old, since I got into it. My dad taught me that at that age, getting to this league is a business, and people make whatever decision they make. And I’ll make sure I’m ready and professional, like I always have been and always will be.”

To give Westbrook credit, he did oput his best fit forward this year in being more of a team player and accepting a 6th man role earlier in the season. But the fit and growing tensions made it clear the time to pull the trigger on this divorce was long overdue.

Halftime of Westbrook’s Lakers finale was an emblematic ending to his time with the franchise. Ham went, well, HAM on the entire team because of its porous defensive effort in the first half. The Lakers had given up 76 first-half points to a young Thunder team that entered play averaging just 58.1 points in every other first half of this season.

So Ham, whose offseason pitch to land this coaching job had included a promise to communicate directly, candidly and fearlessly with his players, did just that when the team reached the locker room. He admonished them for focusing too much on their individual play, and implored them to take more pride and compete.

But when Ham turned his attention to Westbrook and his specific individual struggles, sources say the future Hall of Famer appeared to take it personally. As had been the case so many times before, when the coaching staff struggled with Westbrook’s unwillingness to be held accountable for his play, Westbrook wasn’t hearing it.

Ham, sources say, was upset at a number of on-court developments from the first half. But the final straw, it seems, was Westbrook’s choice to walk off the court so slowly after he was replaced late in the second quarter. For both parties, the topic of great disagreement centered on respect — or lack thereof. In the end, with the tension in the room adding to the toxicity of their environment yet again, they agreed to disagree.

Former Lakers coach Frank Vogel paid a price for the Westbrook addition, as his inability to inspire total buy-in from the future Hall of Famer was a significant factor in his April 2022 firing. Never mind that he was just 18 months removed from leading the Lakers to the storied franchise’s 17th title in the Orlando bubble.

For Westbrook’s part, he spent last summer wondering what might come next. Now while packing his bags to fly out to Utah, a place Westbrook has had issues with in the past, the future hall of fame guard must be pondering what’s next or what’s left of his playing career.

There were always going to be limitations to the Lakers-Westbrook partnership. Both sides attempted to make adjustments, but neither could provide the other with what they needed. Westbrook wasn’t capable of adjusting without the ball in his hands and embracing role-player duties after 13 years of being a superstar. The Lakers didn’t have the requisite shooting or perimeter defense to embolden him offensively and hide his off-ball defensive errors.

There were glimpses of potential every so often. There were also particularly challenging moments, never more so than in the final week. But when this three-team deal was finally done, with the very real possibility of missing the playoffs a driving force for these underachieving Lakers and more roster moves to come, this harrowing homecoming finally came to an end.

The Russell Westbrook Experience: No self-awareness, excuses, and losses

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