SPORTS DIGEST: Lakers need to admit Westbrook was a mistake

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By Don Wanlass

Contributing Writer

In August 2021, the Lakers completed a complicated five-team trade in which they acquired one-time NBA most valuable player Russell Westbrook and three second-round draft picks from the Washington Wizards.

As part of the deal, the Lakers sent Isaiah Jackson, their first-round draft pick out of Kentucky, to the Indiana Pacers and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma and Montrezl Harrell to the Wizards.

It was the third time in two years that Westbrook had been traded, which should have been a warning sign to general manager Rob Pelinka.

At the time, Westbrook was supposed to be the missing piece the Lakers needed to get back to the NBA Finals. Here was a former MVP who could reduce LeBron James’ workload by running the offense and teaming with James and Anthony Davis to give the Lakers three superstars.

But that didn’t happen. Davis was in and out of the lineup — mostly out — due to injuries, James was limited by old age and injuries to 56 games and the Lakers missed the play-in tournament by one game, finishing 33-49.

To Pelinka’s credit, he tried to trade Westbrook — and his $47 million contract — this past offseason. There were no takers.

Every team demanded at least one of the Lakers’ upcoming first-round draft picks — in 2027 and 2029 — to take Westbrook off their hands. Pelinka said no and here we are, three games into the 2022-23 season and the Lakers are 0-3 and wondering what to do with Westbrook.

New head coach Darvin Ham wanted to bring Westbrook off the bench, figuring his energy could help the Lakers’ second unit and would give him the chance to run the offense when James was resting on the bench. But Westbrook claimed coming off the bench in a preseason game caused him to tweak his hamstring because he wasn’t properly loosened up when he entered the game.

So the Lakers are stuck with Westbrook until his contract runs out at the end of the year and are still trying to figure out how to win a game. It would be easy to say put Westbrook at the end of the bench and let him sit there all year.

The problem is, the Lakers don’t have anyone better than Westbrook at the point guard position. Patrick Beverley, who has been sharing time with Westbrook, is best known for his defense and for being a thorn in the side of the opponent. He doesn’t shoot any better than Westbrook.

Dennis Schroder, who can also play point guard, is out after thumb surgery. He, like Westbrook, is more of a drive-to-the-basket scorer than outside shooting threat, which is what the Lakers need.

The Lakers could play James at point guard and add another wing player to the starting lineup but Austin Reaves, in his second season, is still too inconsistent, Kendrick Nunn is getting his game legs back after missing last season with a knee injury and Scottie Pippen Jr. and Max Christie are untested rookies.

Lonnie Walker IV, who is in his fourth season, has been the team’s third leading scorer so far, averaging more than 15 points a game, but the Lakers need more offensive help than that.

Westbrook’s weaknesses were on display in the last few minutes of the Laker’s game against Portland Oct. 23. The Lakers led 98-91 with under two minutes to play and lost.

With less than 30 seconds to play and the Lakers up by one, Westbrook took — and missed — a jump shot with 18 second remaining on the shot clock. Damian Lillard went the other way and hit a shot to give the Trailblazers the lead and ultimately the win.

James’ reaction to Westbrook’s misguided shot was all you needed to know about the Lakers’ problems this season.

The sad truth of the matter is that Westbrook is no longer the player he was in 2016-17 when he was averaging a triple double — more than 10 points, rebounds and assists per game — and 31 points a night.

In those days, Westbrook ran the offense for Oklahoma City and he had Kevin Durant helping him out.

With the Lakers, James runs the offense and Westbrook has to work for his shots. He has always been more of a scorer than a shooter, but his shooting percentage so far this season is .289, a good batting average in baseball, but a lousy shooting percentage in basketball.

Even in his MVP season, Westbrook only shot .425 from the field. And when Westbrook isn’t scoring he often loses interest on defense, although he did play well defensively against Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers Oct. 20, recording five steals.

The Lakers have to make a decision on Westbrook soon, before the season gets away from them. If they can’t trade him, then do what the Houston Rockets did with John Wall last season: pay him to stay home.

LOAD MANAGEMENT: Four games into the new season, the Clippers are already load-managing Kawhi Leonard. He has missed two of the first four games of the season as he recovers from knee surgery and the Clippers are, not surprisingly, 2-2 on the season.

Leonard is averaging 21 minutes and 12.5 points a game in his first two appearances and is expected to miss his third game out of five when the Clippers play the Oklahoma City Thunder Oct. 27.

The Clippers’ goal is to have Leonard completely healed and ready to play 30 minutes a game by April, when the playoffs start. But they are going to have to get more out of the rest of the squad while Leonard builds back his strength and endurance.

Paul George is carrying the load right now, averaging 36 minutes and 23.7 points a game. John Wall, an offseason acquisition working his way into shape after sitting out all of last season, also is being load-managed by the Clippers’ coaching staff.

He has already sat out one game and is averaging 21.7 minutes and 14.7 points a game.

Norman Powell, who played well for the Clippers at the end of last season after being acquired from Portland, is off to a slow start, shooting only 27% from the floor. He needs to step up his game while coach Tyronn Lue figures out how to keep all of his players happy on what is a deep roster.

The Clippers have championship aspirations this season and they will need Leonard and George healthy at the end if they are going to fulfill those aspirations.

COLLEGE FORECAST: Both UCLA and USC have important games this week.

The Trojans face Arizona in Tucson at 4 p.m. Oct. 29 and the Bruins face Stanford at 7:30 p.m. at the Rose Bowl.

The Bruins fell to 12th in the Associated Press football poll after being thrashed by Oregon, 45-30 Oct. 22, ending a nine-game winning streak dating back to last season. The Bruins can ill afford losing to 3-4 Stanford if they want to stay in contention for the Pac 12 Championship game in Las Vegas.

Stanford likes to run the ball and the Cardinal got a good look at how to do that against the Bruins last week as Oregon ran up 262 yards on the ground while averaging 7.4 yards a play.

The Bruins hope that last week’s game was an aberration defensively. Oregon scored on its first seven possessions. The Bruins managed to keep up until the Ducks were successful on a surprise onside kick in the second quarter. That helped them build a 31-13 halftime lead from which the Bruins couldn’t recover.

The Bruins won’t have to contend with Bo Nix this week. The Oregon quarterback beat up the Bruins with both his arm and his legs.

USC had a week off to lick their wounds from their first loss of the season to Utah Oct. 15. They will play Arizona without leading receiver Jordan Addison, who hurt an ankle against Utah.

The Trojans moved back into the AP Top 10 during their week off, finding themselves currently tied with Wake Forest at No. 10.

CLASSIC RIVALRY: Mater Dei and St. John Bosco may be the Southern California high school football game that draws the most attention, but there is nothing like the rivalry between Garfield and Roosevelt high schools.

The two Eastside schools have been battling for close to 100 years now. The renewal of the East Los Angeles Classic Oct. 21 saw Garfield win 16-8 in a game that was held at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum this year instead of Weingart Stadium on the East Los Angeles College campus.

Weingart Stadium is usually filled to capacity with between 20,000 and 25,000 spectators for the game.

This year’s game at the Coliseum sold 27,000 tickets as of two days before the game. Total attendance — sparked by a halftime showing featuring the Black Eyed Peas performing with both schools’ bands — was estimated at somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000.

 

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