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Can the Lakers’ Russell Westbrook fix his game?

Russell Westbrook is on his fourth team in four years,

Russell Westbrook is on his fourth team in four years,
Image: Getty Images

It’s not breaking news that things are not going well for Russell Westbrook with the Lakers, but things reached a particularly embarrassing point on Wednesday night as the Sacramento Kings’ game ops trolled the former MVP with an “Ice Cold Player Of The Game” scoreboard graphic, on a night when the nine-time All-Star shot 2-for-14 in Los Angeles’ 125-116 loss.

Westbrook was able to chuckle at the arena DJ playing “Cold As Ice” for him, saying, “I hope they played that the last 14 years, too … that’s cute,” before sounding a more serious note about his play.

“Nobody’s going to feel sorry for me,” Westbrook said in his postgame presser. “I’ve got to figure out to do it the the best way within — playing within a system. I’ve got no excuses. I don’t point fingers.”

Anyone can have a slump, and Westbrook certainly is over the last four games, shooting 25.4 percent from the field while missing all of his three-pointers. But this is more than just a couple of rough weeks, amid an overall decline in which, if you didn’t know Westbrook is 33 and LeBron James is 37, you’d think those ages were reversed. The trajectory of the entire season has been enough to make you wonder if, as much as Westbrook wants to figure it out, and as hard as you know he’ll work to do so, whether he actually can.

Westbrook is on his fourth team in as many seasons, and it can’t be ignored that he’s the only player who’s appeared in every game for the Lakers this year. The idea of bringing Westbrook to Los Angeles was that he could be the third member of a big three with James and the enigmatic Anthony Davis, and both of those guys have missed big chunks of time. It’s not hard for a good fit to become a bad fit when you have to ask someone to do more than they’re capable of.

Never an elite shooter, it’s not a coincidence that the one really good season that Westbrook had at it — 2016-17, when he was 34 percent on three-pointers — was his masterpiece, averaging a triple-double while leading the league in scoring and winning the MVP. While Westbrook has had three more seasons doing the formerly unthinkable and averaging triple-doubles, it’s been while leading the NBA in assists three of the past four years.

The thing is, though, Westbrook already has adjusted accordingly. He’s shooting less often this season than at any time since his second year as a pro. He still gets a ton of rebounds — especially for a 6-foot-3 guard — and the assist rate is still high. Just not as high, because James also does a ton of dishing.

It’s that dynamic, rather than Westbrook’s age, that is the most worrisome about the prospect of him putting it together with the Lakers. Veteran players, especially great players, and especially-especially great players with great minds, can find ways to adapt to losing some physical dominance, and avoid going over the cliff that Westbrook has looked like he’s Wile E. Coyote-ing in Forum blue and gold. There’s an echo of two years ago in Houston, when Westbrook played alongside James Harden, who averaged 34.3 points and 7.5 assists that season. Westbrook still scored 27.2 points a game because the Rockets didn’t have much else in the way of shooters, but his assist and rebound numbers both took a hit.

It’s not that Westbrook can’t play with a bigger star than himself. Most people would agree that Kevin Durant is a pretty good ballplayer, and it was he, with Westbrook in 2016, who took a 73-win Golden State team to seven games in the Western Conference Finals.

Take a look at the top two players in touches per game for Westbrook’s teams since that season, and what’s happening now comes into still clearer focus.

2015-16 Thunder: Westbrook 86.6, Durant 64.0

2016-17 Thunder: Westbrook 94.8, Victor Oladipo 46.3

2017-18 Thunder: Westbrook 96.0, Paul George 56.7

2018-19 Thunder: Westbrook 91.1, George 59.7

2019-20 Rockets: Harden 84.6, Westbrook 76.8

2020-21 Wizards: Westbrook 95.3, Bradley Beal 69.0

2021-22 Lakers: James 89.7, Westbrook 83.4

Westbrook needs the ball, but it’s impossible to justify giving him the ball more than the Lakers’ best player, who also needs the ball. The last time that James averaged less than 80 touches a game was 2015-16, when he was at 78.1 and Cleveland teammate Kyrie Irving was at 74.1. That went alright, but also not without issues, and 2022 Russell Westbrook ain’t exactly 2016 Kyrie Irving.

The good news for Westbrook in trying to figure things out is that he doesn’t need to come up with a solution for aging — these struggles aren’t because he’s old. The bad news is that playing on a team with James (and Davis needs his share of touches when he plays, too) is a bad fit for Westbrook’s skills and needs. There might not be anything there to figure out, save for an exit strategy that itself looms as nearly impossible because of Westbrook’s $44 million salary and NBA trade rules.

Westbrook shooting 2-for-14 in Sacramento is a low point. It’s one that he and the Lakers can rebound from. But even when and if everyone is healthy, there’s a reason that Los Angeles acquiring him raised eyebrows, and we’re all now seeing just why and how it doesn’t work.

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