August 12, 2022

After Russell Westbrook played a starring role in the massive 2021-22 Los Angeles Lakers disappointment, Darvin Ham sees him going nowhere.

The newly hired Lakers coach spoke to reporters at an introductory press conference on Monday. As Westbrook watched around the room, Ham was asked about the playmaker’s form going forward. He spoke with gusto.

“Absolutely,” Ham said when asked if he saw Westbrook staying with the team. … “Make no mistake. Russell is one of the best players our league has ever seen. And there’s still a ton left in that tank. I don’t know why people tend to try to write him off.

“I’m going to approach it like I do with all the players I’ve met. We’re going to talk about our running habits with the ball, without the ball.”

Darvin Ham touched on several topics during his introduction to the Lakers, including what to do with Russell Westbrook. (Gary A. Vasquez/Reuters)

Can Darvin Ham resolve adjustment issues with Russell Westbrook, Lakers?

A nine-time All-Star, former league MVP and owner of four of five seasons with an average triple-double in NBA history, Westbrook is without a doubt one of the most dynamic players the league has ever seen. never seen. No one questions his professional credentials. It is his place in this Lakers team on the decline of his career that raises doubts.

While Westbrook still fills the stat sheet (18.5 points, 7.4 rebounds, 7.1 assists per game), his poor shooting and lack of efficiency grounded the Lakers last season as they missed the playoffs. LeBron James has thrived when surrounded by shooters who can consistently convert his point guard abilities. Westbrook is not that guy.

Instead, he is another player dominating the ball alongside James and one of the worst shooting keepers in the league. His 29.8 percent 3-point percentage ranked 10th among Lakers players who played at least 20 games and attempted at least one 3-point shot per game last season. Meanwhile, his 3.8 turnovers per game ranked among the worst on the team.

SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH – MARCH 31: Russell Westbrook #0 of the Los Angeles Lakers in action during the first half of a game against the Utah Jazz at Vivint Smart Home Arena on March 31, 2022 in Salt Lake City, Utah.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that by downloading and/or using this photograph, user accepts the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)

Will Russell Westbrook prove to be a better fit for the Lakers under Darvin Ham? (Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)

Westbrook will be 34 next season. These are not areas for improvement at this late stage in his career.

Ham preaches defense

Ham focused on defense on Monday. He said in his press conference that “we have to engage on the defensive side of the ball, otherwise we have no chance of doing anything.” He then told ESPN that he expected Westbrook to have significant clout on that side of the ball.

“I want him to be a defensive pit bull again,” Ham said. “Everything else is going to flow from there. We’re going to put in place different running habits that I think will benefit him and different areas of the ground that he can attack from.

“I want him to set the tone defensively for our team. Get back to guard, guard, guard. … I want him to return to guard at championship level.”

Hamm is right. With Anthony Davis injured and James injured and aging, the Lakers crumbled on defense last season, where they ranked 21st out of 30 teams in defensive ratings. It was a stark contrast to the team that two seasons prior had placed third in the league in the same category en route to an NBA championship.

Can Westbrook improve his defense at this stage of his career?

Expecting Westbrook to pick up the pace as a leader in defense seems optimistic. In his prime, Westbrook was a good defender but never played at the All-Defensive team level. At his best with the Oklahoma City Thunder, he received All-Defensive Team votes. That was in 2015. His defense has been on the decline since he turned 30. In 2021-22, Westbrook ranked 386th in the league in defensive efficiency, four spots behind James Harden.

Does Ham hold the keys to reigniting Westbrook’s defensive engine at 34? It’s possible. But ousted Lakers coach Frank Vogel is one of the most respected defensive minds in the game, and he couldn’t turn Westbrook into a player he hasn’t been in several years.

The reality here is that Ham needs to make the most of what he has. With Westbrook owing $47 million guaranteed next season, he’s not going anywhere. Neither team accepts this contract in a trade. Ham faces a host of challenges amid the expectations that come with the Lakers and training James. Finding a fit for Westbrook will be one of the most important.