Among the culprits for this disappointing Los Angeles Lakers season, Frank Vogel ranks near the bottom of most lists. While his performance was far from flawless, the general consensus is that he should not be blamed for the disastrous roster his front office put around him. It was not his idea, after all, to trade for Russell Westbrook. He didn’t decide to build a team with 10 minimum-salary players. Yet he is now drawing the blame for it. He was fired soon after the season ended, and according to The Athletic, his handling of the Westbrook situation played a big part in his ouster.
According to The Athletic, “there was a strong sense that it was on Vogel to make the Westbrook experiment work, and the fact that it didn’t led to questions about whether Westbrook had been put in a position to succeed.” This logic doesn’t hold up under any degree of scrutiny. The Lakers knew coming into the season that Westbrook was a poor shooter and lazy cutter and that he would therefore struggle when playing off of the ball next to LeBron James. They knew he was a poor defender as well, and asking him to slide into Vogel’s defense-first culture was always going to be difficult. The Lakers, to put it simply, are blaming Vogel for doing things no other coach has been able to get him to do.
The cynical explanation here is that the front office decision-makers who laid off Vogel were fighting to save their own jobs and needed a scapegoat. But if you follow the breadcrumbs here, you might find yourself wondering why the Lakers would bother leaking pro-Westbrook sentiment. There are a few possibilities, and some are more encouraging than others.
The best-case view for the Lakers is that they are attempting to drum up some degree of leverage. Stories like this can’t hurt their negotiating position when seeking possible Westbrook trades. The Lakers want other teams to believe they’re comfortable keeping Westbrook in the hopes that such belief allows them to escape a Westbrook trade without sacrificing meaningful draft capital.
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The alternative here is that the Lakers have already made the decision that they are unwilling to use significant draft capital to move Westbrook, and they are using the media to prepare fans for the possibility that he is indeed back next season. Further supporting that notion, according to Sam Amick, is that former Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who has had a voice in team matters in recent years and is involved in the current coaching search, is a fan of Westbrook’s.
The Lakers cannot credibly bring Westbrook back next season and expect to win a championship. If their goal is to win right away, Westbrook must be dealt. If he’s back, it’s a signal that the Lakers are just running out the clock on the LeBron James era and waiting to rebuild with their leftover draft capital and the cap space their expiring contracts will bring.