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Russell Westbrook has unfairly been made the Lakers' scapegoat

Russell Westbrook has unfairly been made the Lakers' scapegoat

The continuous struggles of the Los Angeles Lakers didn’t come to an end when they faced the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday night. The Lakers lost 111-104 in yet another disappointing fashion, and much of the blame was once again directed toward Russell Westbrook. 

While it is undeniable that Westbrook is in quite a bit of a shooting slump, the unexpected happened when he was benched in the fourth quarter during their final push to win the game.

"[I was] playing the guys that I thought were going to win the game," Lakers head coach Frank Vogel said following Wednesday's loss when asked about Russ not being on the floor to finish the contest.

Speaking with ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski on Friday morning, Westbrook reacted to Vogel's choice.

"Surprised, yes," Westbrook said in the exclusive interview. "I was disappointed I didn't go back in, but I'm more disappointed that we lost the damn game... I want to be able to be on the floor to help my teammates and be able to help our team win in games like that — but that was a decision that was made."

Westbrook went on to reflect on the Lakers' status at the moment, and being considered a disappointing team.

"Ultimately, you have to be okay when sh** doesn't go well, and I'm okay," Westbrook said in the interview. "I've done everything that's been asked of me here [in L.A.], and I'll continue to do so and ride this out as long as we can toward our ultimate goal — and that's to win a championship... We obviously haven't been fully healthy, but I'm committed to making this thing work. The communication is there with everybody in the organization to make this thing work, to make this team we all want it to be in the future.

"I have accepted everything that has been asked of me and tried to do it to the best of my ability," he continued. "I'm not the ultimate decision-maker of if it's working, or if it's not working. I'm okay with sacrificing some of the things that I've been able to do in this game to win, because that's the most important part of this game. I've done everything they've asked me to do to this point."

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With much of the chatter the past couple of days being centered around criticisms of Westbrook and calls for him to be moved by the Feb 10. trade deadline and run out of L.A., I wanted to have a more nuanced discussion on the topic. 

On The Collision: “Where Sports And Politics Collide,” me and my co-host Dave Zirin had an in-depth discussion about Westbrook, and if the criticism he's been receiving this season has been warranted.

Etan Thomas: Okay, so Russell Westbrook was benched in the last five, six minutes of the game. They lose to the Indiana Pacers. There’s been an ongoing criticism of Westbrook's play for a while now. What’s your assessment of Westbrook in the midst of all of this criticism?

Dave Zirin: "The first thing we have to recognize is that Russell Westbrook is a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer and arguably the most dynamic point guard of his generation and, in my opinion, a top-five all-time point guard in the NBA. He is a titanic talent, the likes of which you get once in a generation. It is also true that while it may be a dream for Russell Westbrook to go home to Los Angeles — played at UCLA, play for the Lakers — there's a historical error happening here.

Etan: Break it down for me. 

Zirin: "I don't think it's a good spot for him, and ironically, right across town I think if he was on the Clippers, he'd already be being celebrated as an MVP candidate there."

Etan: Oh really?

Zirin: "Factor it all in, like Kawhi being hurt, Paul George being hurt. Because for Russell Westbrook to be Russell Westbrook, he needs to be able to cook. He needs to be able to do the Russell Westbrook things that he does, and there's probably one player in the entire NBA who is so good all around that it sort of upsets the balance of what makes Westbrook, Westbrook, and that's LeBron James.

"I love LeBron, I respect LeBron, but look at LeBron's career. It's like he needs a certain type of player and a certain mindset around him to be the LeBron who we want to see and who can thrive. And Russell Westbrook, that's less his game; [he doesn't do] spot-up three-pointers, 3-and-D, a lot of defense. I don't think it's a very good fit at all, the two of them, from everything I'm watching. Russ looks at times tentative, but then he'll pull something out of the bag and dunk on Rudy Gobert, almost from the foul line right in the middle of the game. 

"So all the athleticism is still there. All the amazingness is still there, it's just he needs the opportunity to make it happen, and right now it's not happening. But it's not that he's terrible. I'm looking it up right now. He's averaging 18.5 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists. For a lot of players, that would be a dream season. For Russ, it's significantly down."

Etan: I understand what you're saying as far as the cohesiveness between him and LeBron, but it's almost as if Westbrook has to be the scapegoat because they're not going to blame LeBron, they're not going to blame Anthony Davis. So the only other person to be able to blame for the Lakers not achieving the level that everybody thought that they would achieve so far is Westbrook.

Zirin: "Yeah, which to me just also an incredible advocation of leadership with the Lakers, and that's the other thing that's going on here. There have been a lot of leaks to the media that are clearly coming from inside the Lakers that are, I think, meant to undermine the presence of Westbrook on the team and Frank Vogel's coaching. Vogel could be gone at the end of business [this week], for all we know. The rumors are that hot and heavy, but I don't think Frank Vogel's necessarily done anything "wrong." But I do think that for the benching of Westbrook...

"And let me say something about this too, for people who didn't see the game [Wednesday] night. With about eight minutes to go, [Caris] LeVert — who's a really good player, big, athletic — beat Westbrook off the dribble and hit a layup. Big deal, it happens. A member of the L.A. coaching staff leaked to the media that [that particular play] is what soured Vogel on Westbrook; they had told him to guard LeVert a certain way and it didn't happen, and that's why he was getting pulled from the game.

"LeVert in the fourth quarter [Wednesday] night went 8 of 9 with 22 points. He was cooking on everybody and to me, he's a great player — injury-plagued, brilliant player who will be a superstar and an All-Star if he gets in the right situation and gets his health on point. So it's no shame giving up a layup to Caris LeVert for goodness sakes if you're Russell Westbrook.

"But the idea that they would leak to that the press is strange. It's weird... it also doesn't quite fit because Westbrook stayed in the game another three minutes before he took him out. Then, there’s all these leaks about how there are all these people in the front office who didn't want to bring in Westbrook, but LeBron and Rob Pelinka (who's obviously very close to LeBron) insisted upon it. So this is my belief and please Etan, please disagree with me on this.

"I think the problem at its root level... I don't think it's coaching. I don't know about the Westbrook-LeBron dynamic being able to work together, particularly without a healthy Anthony Davis to erase all mistakes with people coming towards the hoop. Now what? Can you see Russ and LeBron working with a different coaching style, format, motivation? Do you like the combo?"

Etan: You know, we talked about this a few weeks ago with my guys from Chopping it Up with G and Z. One of the things that I suggested was having Rajon Rondo play a little bit more at the point and having Westbrook play more of the 2 and attacking, with Rondo doing more facilitating, and that didn't happen at all. I mean, Vogel didn't even play Rondo at all and they traded him to Cleveland.

So I thought that would have worked as a strategy, to be honest with you because I think that you... there are ways that you can utilize what Westbrook brings to the table. I mean, is he a spot up shooter, like you said, for LeBron to drive and then kick it out to Westbrook for the three? That wouldn't really be my strategy. Would that be a strategy if you were the coach?

Zirin: "Not at all."

Etan: Right. So I don't know if they're playing him to his strengths. But let me ask you this: What do you think about some of the people like Shannon Sharpe, who are constantly criticizing him publicly and kind of drumming up all criticism towards Westbrook? Or do you think Shannon's just echoing what everybody is already saying? Not him in particular, but just a lot of the media talking heads, because I'm hearing a lot of people pile on with Westbrook. And I know the Lakers are always in the spotlight, but it's a little bit extra this year with Westbrook it seems.

Zirin: "Yeah. The Lakers are the the closest things to the Dallas Cowboys in the NBA. They're America's team. So there's a ton of focus on the Lakers at all times. And L.A. is a city that loves stars. So it's like that affects the decision-making, like Buddy Hield would have been a better [fit]... they had to choose. They were going to get either Buddy Hield, or they could get Russell Westbrook. And Buddy Hield is not... just being very frank, is not one-tenth of the player that Russell Westbrook is.

"But Buddy Hield would've been a better fit. He’s like a 40% three-point shooter, plays defense. I think if the Lakers were the Cleveland Cavaliers, they would have said, 'Oh, of course we're [making a move for] Buddy Hield. That fits in with what we're trying to do.' But the Lakers... man, they're star-addicted. So they bring in Russell Westbrook, and Russell Westbrook in a lot of ways is like catnip for the L.A. media, and Shannon Sharpe is the L.A. media."

Etan: Russ was great in D.C.

Zirin: "He was amazing."

Etan: Everybody here loved him.

Zirin: "Oh, he was outstanding in D.C. I wish he was still in D.C. He was [putting up] 22/12/12 for the season. That's bonkers. And his stats, in terms of shooting splits, aren't really down from last year. So that's why I think it's total scapegoating. I don't think he's the best fit in LA. I think from a coaching perspective, you start [LeBron and Russ] both and you play them both at crunch time. But second and third quarter, stagger them. Stagger them in the game, [and] have Russ's team and then have LeBron's team, make it work like that."

Etan: So how do you think this ends? 

Zirin: "I think Vogel gets fired, and I think somebody comes in who tries to make it work in a better way, even though I do not blame Vogel for what's happening (except for this last game, where I think he was clearly trying to throw a little mischief in the mix). I think they get someone in there, fresh start, whole new ball game. Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, make a playoff run, make it at least to the Western Conference Finals. Boom, I'm throwing that down right now."

Etan: Okay. So you have faith think it can work with Russell Westbrook? And you're not hopping off the Westbrook train or anything like that?

Zirin: "Not even a little bit. You've got to make it work. You know, it's one of those things where it's like you got to play the hand that you're dealt. Would I, as a general manager, have combined these two incredible Hall-of-Fame talents? No, I wouldn't have, but you've got to make use with the talent that you have, especially when it's talent like Russell Westbrook. And I want to say this 'til the cows come home: He's 33 years old. Anybody who saw that dunk on Gobert knows Russ has not lost a step. At 33. So don't give me any of this, 'Oh, he doesn't have what he [used to].' Give me a break. He's in amazing shape. He takes tremendous care of himself. Nobody's more intense. I miss him on the Wizards terribly!"

Etan: I hear you Dave, and again, I was his teammate for a year, and it was a young Russell Westbrook. I have nothing bad to say about him. I mean, the intensity that he brought every single game and the way he brought it, the passion that he brought — I thought it was absolutely amazing. I still think it's a tragedy that OKC couldn't keep all those guys together (the young Thunder all together), but that's a whole different topic. Yeah, no, what he brings, I have a lot of respect for him — both on and off the court.

I interviewed him for my book, "We Matter: Athletes and Activism." He's speaking out about Terence Crutcher. He's speaking out for the community and for our people and against police brutality. He cares. 

So just hearing people pile on him like he's almost like a cancer to the team (as far as on the court and as far as in the locker room), and the media trying to set it up like he's now going to be a problem child because he got taken out the game is ridiculous. So I'm glad that you made these points.

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