Russell Westbrook was a Lakers fan from childhood, and he skipped school to attend their championship parades. After he became close friends with Kobe Bryant, they spoke about the responsibility and honor of playing for this decorated franchise.
Yet even after Westbrook became an NBA superstar with the autonomy now available to basketball’s best players, he figured the timing would never be right to suit up for his beloved hometown team — let alone alongside two fellow superstars with a real chance to win his first championship.
“Some of these dreams don’t come true for people like myself,” Westbrook said.
After spending the last half-decade racking up spectacular numbers for teams with little chance of major success, Westbrook is joining the Lakers for his 14th NBA season. Los Angeles general manager Rob Pelinka pulled off a spectacular trade to team Westbrook with LeBron James and Anthony Davis on a reconfigured Lakers roster designed to win rings now.
When it came together over the past week, the 32-year-old Westbrook said he repeatedly found himself at a loss for words.
His broad smile said plenty when he held up his gold No. 0 jersey Tuesday alongside his parents and brother.
“Being from LA, you always wish that you could play for your home team,” Westbrook said. “That’s definitely something that always circled around in my mind. Maybe one day? But I always would come back and be like, ‘Ah, that probably won’t happen.’ I just had to wait and see. But now that we’re here, I’m going to take full advantage of it.”
The Lakers believe they can take full advantage of both James and Westbrook, a pairing that seems potentially difficult. Westbrook famously is among the most ball-dominant players of his generation, while James has become an exceptional offensive initiator and point guard alongside his innumerable other skills.
Westbrook, who has several eponymous auto dealerships in the Los Angeles area, is ready to play a complementary role to keep the Lakers on the road to a title.
“LeBron is one of the best players to play this game, and his ability to do everything on the floor allows me to just figure it out,” Westbrook said. “I’m coming to a championship-caliber team, and my job is to make his game easy for him, and I’ll find ways to do that. As it pertains to ball-handling, it really doesn’t matter. There’s many different ways you can impact the game without having the ball in your hands. I’ve been able to do that for a number of years, and we’ll figure it out.”
Westbrook’s confidence is echoed by coach Frank Vogel, whose recent contract extension underlines Pelinka’s faith in his ability to figure out how to win with this extremely talented, not-so-young roster. Along with Davis, Los Angeles will have three of the NBA’s top five active scoring leaders with James (first), Carmelo Anthony (second) and Westbrook (fifth).
“Anytime you have three great players like this, there is an element of sacrifice required, and we’ve all talked about that and are all-in on that,” Vogel said. “But these three guys can do it all. They’re all make-the-right-play players. It’s not just about scoring or being a one-dimensional player. They can all do it all. I’m most excited about seeing what the three of them on the court at the same time looks like.”
Westbrook’s ability to create opportunities for his teammates is unquestionable: The nine-time All-Star averaged a triple-double last season in Washington for the fourth time in the last five years, leading the NBA in assists for the third time in four seasons with a career-best 11.7 while adding a career-high 11.5 rebounds.
Vogel expects Westbrook’s ball-pushing ability to improve the Lakers on the fast break, where they were a below-average team last season while Washington was the NBA’s best. The Lakers’ defense also will change markedly after they had the NBA’s best last season.
But instead of keeping their core intact and hoping for better health after last season’s team foundered without the injured Davis, the Lakers made massive changes headlined by the departures of Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma and Montrezl Harrell to the Wizards.
“I think it was an opportunity to make an aggressive move that we felt like bettered our probability to bring the 18th title to the Los Angeles Lakers,” Pelinka said. “We felt like this was an opportunity to maximize our ability to do what we’re obsessed to do.”
Alex Caruso, Andre Drummond, Ben McLemore and Markieff Morris are signing elsewhere, and Dennis Schröder is on his way out after turning down a hefty contract.
In their places are Westbrook, Anthony, Dwight Howard, Wayne Ellington, Trevor Ariza, Kendrick Nunn, Malik Monk and Kent Bazemore. The challenge of building a championship team nearly from scratch is enormous, but Westbrook feels prepared.
“The roster is great,” Westbrook said. “A bunch of guys I’ve already known, which is even better. I’m always looking at the roster and figuring out how I can make other guys better, simple as that. I’ll find ways to do that with the roster. I’m really looking forward to getting with the guys and figuring it out.”