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Russell Westbrook’s poor play has been a problem for the Lakers this season. But that wasn’t THE problem.
And while national pundits point the finger at Lakers point guard and head coach Frank Vogel, NBA on TNT Charles Barkley isn’t buying it.
Speaking Thursday night before the network aired the Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks game, Chuck was fed up.
“The Lakers suck so bad,” Barkley said, admitting he would like to use more colorful language. “The way they tried to throw Russell Westbrook and Frank Vogel under the bus just pisses me off.”
“The people upstairs who collected this trash are running and hiding like cowards saying, ‘Oh, it’s Frank. It’s Russ. You put all those old morons over there – whoever runs that trash can over there…it’s ridiculous.”
The Lakers have been a huge disappointment primarily because of poor roster construction by general manager Rob Pelinka and the ownership’s reluctance to dig deeper into the luxury tax. Yet various scapegoats have been swapped to deflect blame in recent days.
Of course, they brought in Stanley Johnson on a 10-day contract, which paid off. But that’s basically part of the problem.
“Listen,” Barkley continued, “the best guy besides LeBron [James] in the past month has been who? Stanley Johnson. And for you all to bring in a guy who was on the street and have him become your second-best player…that’s ridiculous.”
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Coach Frank Vogel appeared to be the target when rumors he was in the hot seat surfaced earlier this week. Now the focus has turned to Westbrook, who was benched to close out the Lakers’ loss to the Pacers on Wednesday.
There’s no denying that Westbrook has had an extremely difficult year, but the rationale for this bench hasn’t quite passed the sniff test. According to Dave McMenamin’s ESPN report, the explanation given was that Westbrook didn’t follow up on the Pacers’ Caris LeVert scouting report:
The coaching staff had repeatedly pointed to the scouting report to take away LeVert’s right hand, and Westbrook, keeping LeVert atop the one-on-one key, failed to properly lean in to thwart the practice and gave LeVert easy access to the paint en route to the hoop.
Here’s the likely game in question, found by former NBA assistant coach and video coordinator Steve Jones.
So I guess it’s possession. It’s not a good defense. But scroll up. Moreover, it is legitimately the 4th possession since the return of Westbrook and the 2nd defensive. The previous one was LeVert hitting a 3 on an over assist from Reaves. pic.twitter.com/ulBfzcWjxc
— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) January 20, 2022
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LeVert had a big game, dropping 30 points in the Pacers’ win. Also, Westbrook’s defense on this play was poor. But he wasn’t the reason LeVert exploded against the Lakers.
That game in question was the only one where LeVert scored with Westbrook as the primary defender. LeVert was guarded for most of the game by Avery Bradley, Stanley Johnson or Talen Horton-Tucker. Other players, such as Austin Reaves and Carmelo Anthony, also had defensive breakdowns which led to easy scores for LeVert. Still, Westbrook was singled out for his only mistake on LeVert, despite undress him a few possessions later on a help mission.
Jones then noted other incongruities in the coaches’ bench explanation. Westbrook was reportedly fired for not stopping LeVert from going to his right. However, some of the Lakers defensive coverage throughout the game appeared to be intentionally pushing LeVert in his right hand.
LeVert was also wide open sometimes due to questionable schematic decisions, such as not changing screens. And during the times when other players like Avery Bradley pushed LeVert to his lefta lack of ball pressure allowed LeVert to go where he wanted on the floor.
Westbrook was benched for the final four minutes of the game, and LeVert then made all three shots after that outing. The Lakers defense also performed statistically worse during this part of the game without Westbrook.
It’s fair to question Westbrook’s defensive intensity, which has risen and fallen both with the Lakers and throughout his career. He is by no means a defender anymore. Part of the precipitous fall from the No. 2 defense team last season to No. 22 this year by Cleaning the Glass can be attributed to him. But the whole team defended badly. Look to 28 of LeVert’s 30 points as evidence. To isolate Westbrook, the big picture is missing.
Westbrook has essentially been a net neutral by on/off numbers at Cleaning the Glass. Advanced stats like most-minus rated also rank him as a fundamentally average NBA player in terms of impact at this point in his career. Where the Lakers get killed is having to play so many of their minutes with players picked by Pelinka who didn’t contribute anything.
The real reason the Lakers look broken is because of the lack of depth on the roster and the plays they haven’t fitted well. There were also other options available, but this is the route Pelinka chose.
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Pelinka shipped Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Kuzma and the No. 22 first-round pick to the Wizards to acquire Westbrook. Kuzma improved his all-around game, Caldwell-Pope was solid and Harrell recovered. The Lakers could really use that depth.
Pelinka’s movements around the bangs were also crippling. Malik Monk and, to a lesser extent, Carmelo Anthony, were good recruits for the team. Stanley Johnson played well as a hardship bye addition. But choosing Horton-Tucker over Alex Caruso feels like a huge mistake right now.
The Lakers also needed to nail their minimum signings. Instead, they missed them. De’Andre Jordan and Kent Bazemore are no longer in the rotation. They have already moved on from Rajon Rondo, who was traded to the Cavs. According to Dan Woike of the Los Angeles Times, management seems to think playing Jordan more alongside Dwight Howard will solve some of those issues. Spoiler: It won’t.
Westbrook is an expensive and easy target. There are 44 million reasons to point the finger at it. But benching him won’t get this team back on track. The Lakers need to add depth. With the roster built as it is, they don’t have a lot of ways to make it by the trade deadline. It’s a Pelinka problem. The franchise may continue to point fingers at other sources, but eventually the team will continue to struggle and there will be no one else to point to.
Why Charles Barkley is right to blast the Lakers for scapegoating Russell Westbrook, Frank Vogel
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