New Lakers head coach Darvin Ham has made clear what he wants from his starting point guard. He envisions a fierce competitor who spends much of his energy on the defensive end, who does some limited, secondary playmaking around LeBron James and Anthony Davis, but who remains a respectable threat even without the ball, by working smartly and relentlessly at moving, cutting, screening, running in transition, and in general by making hay in the spaces that naturally come open whenever James and Davis are doing their thing. As a description of the duties of a particular role, this makes a lot of sense. As a description of the duties of a role you intend to fill with 34-year-old Russell Westbrook, it might as well include “have wings” and “shoot lasers from your eyeballs.”
Westbrook seems disinclined to accept this role, and the matter appears to have played a role in Westbrook’s split from longtime agent Thad Foucher back in July. Coaches with a lot more equity and credibility than Ham have tried and failed to coax Westbrook into other habits and styles over the years, and in situations where Westbrook did not already feel mishandled, disrespected, and scapegoated by his teammates and his organization. Ham has given no public indication that he’s ready to abandon his vision—the question of how to use Westbrook was, after all, central to the Lakers’ interview process—but suffice to say he’s got some work ahead of him if he does in fact still intend to convince Westbrook to give it a shot. Trading Westbrook without sandbagging the next decade of Lakers basketball will be all but impossible, but suddenly turning him into Gary Payton II seems every bit as unlikely. It’s an unhappy situation.
But Ham may get what he wants from the point guard position all the same. Thursday the Lakers completed a trade with the Utah Jazz, finally shipping out their one young player and only realistic human trade asset, 21-year-old Talen Horton-Tucker. Horton-Tucker has been a source of frustration for Lakers fans over his three NBA seasons, but he also has an intriguing skill set for a guy built like an NFL outside linebacker. His role in the orbit of James and Davis has perhaps been even less natural a fit than Westbrook’s. Despite his unreliable play and unimpressive numbers, the Lakers have generally treated Horton-Tucker as an important asset and resisted trading him away. This week they finally packaged him up with the unwanted Stanley Johnson and shipped him off, not for a frontline starter or a sexy package of draft picks, but in exchange for 34-year-old Patrick Beverley.
It’s generally not great when your promising young rotation player fetches you a shrimpy journeyman on an expiring deal, but this is not a total disaster. Beverley makes a lot of sense for this top-heavy Lakers team, and not just because his expiring contract means the Lakers will have $34 million in space under the league’s projected salary cap after next season. He’s become a reliable spot-up shooter, he’s a steady caretaker with the ball in his hands, and he is generally regarded as a sound and pesky defender, if not exactly a difference-making one. He has made a career of expending all his energy on defense and otherwise riding around on the coattails of superstar teammates. He does quite a lot more yapping than this résumé would normally support, but he is a perfectly capable and respectable basketball player whose ego will suffer not at all in exactly the job that Ham has outlined. If Westbrook won’t do it, whether because he forces his way elsewhere or because he simply will not stop taking insanely bad mid-range jumpers, Beverley absolutely can and will.
Also, hilariously, Westbrook hates Beverley’s guts. This enmity goes all the way back to 2013, when a reckless move from Beverley nuked Westbrook’s knee, knocked him out of the playoffs, and cost him half of the following season. They picked up the beef the following season with more chippy play, in most cases instigated by Beverley’s signature goonery. In 2019 Westbrook went out of his way to call Beverley a fraud, famously explaining that Beverley tricks fans and the media into thinking he’s a good defender by running around and yelling a lot, a statement which earlier this year Beverley said “damaged my career” by changing the way people around the league looked at him. Beverley was taking unprovoked pot shots at Westbrook on Twitter as recently as February of this year, and fired off yet another not-mad Tweet after Westbrook poo-poo’d his Minnesota Timberwolves following a March game. These men are extremely not friends. If Westbrook wanted out of Los Angeles before Thursday morning’s trade, imagine how excited he feels about sticking around now that he’ll be sharing a locker room with the annoying pest who danced on his grave at the nadir of his brief time with the Lakers.
This may very well be Westbrook’s final go-round as a rotation player in the NBA. He’ll be paid $47 million this season, in all likelihood for a Lakers team that would prefer to play against him than with him. How miserable could this get? Well, that depends on how long it takes for the Lakers to accept that Westbrook should probably be Beverley’s backup. My God.