BY THIS POINT in the season, Russell Westbrook has his routes to and from Crypto.com Arena choreographed perfectly. He leaves home at the same time every day, takes the same route, warms up at the same time, in the same way, ending with the same corner 3. Leaving the arena and heading back to his wife and three children at their house in Brentwood, California, follows a similar structure -- which Westbrook has long since decided is essential to his life.
Last Wednesday night, that carefully constructed structure was upended.
Just an hour or so earlier, Los Angeles Lakers coach Frank Vogel had yanked Westbrook from the game with 3:52 remaining, benching him for the end of L.A.'s 111-104 loss to the Indiana Pacers, the Lakers' fourth defeat in five games. To that point, Westbrook had shot 5-for-17, attempted zero free throws and had too many defensive breakdowns to count. "Playing the guys that I thought were going to win the game," Vogel said after the game on the decision to bench the nine-time All Star.
It was a jarring move. Future Hall of Famers don't get benched in unceremonious fashion very often. But future Hall of Famers don't often find themselves in the position of Westbrook and the Lakers.
For weeks, the staff had considered benching Westbrook at a moment like this. Team sources said there was always concern as to how he'd react to such a move. Would he get defensive, as he often had when he felt like he was being singled out in film sessions? Would it erode the confidence that is so important to his game?
When Vogel finally did it, it was as understandable as it was stunning.
"Frank ripped the Band-Aid off," one team source said.
No one was quite sure what would happen next. But the time had come for drastic action. The experiment of teaming Westbrook with LeBron James and Anthony Davis has been a flop -- more awkward and clunky than even the skeptics predicted over the summer, when the Lakers traded Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell and the 2021 No. 22 pick for Westbrook and his $44 million contract.
The Lakers' offense has been poor, ranking No. 24 in the league despite having four players recently named to the NBA's list of the 75 best players of all time.
And the Lakers' No. 19-ranked defense is unrecognizable from the top-rated defense in the league last season -- and from the No. 3 defense that formed the backbone of the 2020 NBA championship team.
Westbrook, as usual, seems to be at the center of every cause and potential solution to the dysfunction.
He certainly isn't the Lakers' only issue. L.A. has gotten very little from DeAndre Jordan, Trevor Ariza, Kent Bazemore and Wayne Ellington -- veterans brought in by Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka to support the Lakers' star trio -- not nearly enough from youngster Talen Horton-Tucker and nothing at all from Kendrick Nunn.
But Westbrook is the most polarizing. And because the Lakers traded away virtually all the assets they had to improve the team to acquire the three superstars this team revolves around, this trio is stuck with one another. It's too expensive to get divorced. That it's even a conversation now, 47 games into the grandest of experiments, is an indictment itself.
As one Lakers insider said, "There is no light at the end of the tunnel."