NBA

How Frank Vogel’s late-game benching of Russell Westbrook shows Lakers’ desperation

At this point, we should all be able to agree that Russell Westbrook isn’t working out for the Lakers. It’s not a surprise. Westbrook has been a pretty harmful player for a while now. He burned the Rockets. The Wizards were happy to pawn him off on the Lakers, whose season might be nearing a breaking point as Frank Vogel’s coaching seat has risen to the temperature of an active volcano

With no more time to cater to the delicacies of a former star’s ego, Vogel finally made the move to bench Westbrook with the Lakers trailing the Pacers by seven points late in the fourth quarter on Wednesday, inserting Malik Monk for the final three minutes and 52 seconds. 

It didn’t work. The Lakers lost. But Vogel had to try. There’s a season of evidence working against Westbrook, who was 5 for 17 from the field when he was yanked and has taken too many awful shots at the worst possible time this season to be trusted in the clutch. 

This is not something that happens lightly in professional sports, benching a player making north of $44 million. The politics of such a move run deep. Everyone, even the head coach who theoretically should have the final say on playing time, has a boss to whom they answer. 

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To that point, Vogel, according to a report from ESPN’s Dave McMenamin, was given the green light by Lakers’ management to “do what you got to do” with regard to Westbrook. When asked what fueled his decision to bench Westbrook, Vogel pulled no punches.

“Playing the guys that I thought were going to win the game,” he said.

It really is as simple as that, even if it’s not in actual practice. Allocating playing time to former stars based on the player they have become, rather than the player they used to be, is only as easy as the player makes it, and Westbrook does not in any way appear ready to concede to such a demotion. It took Carmelo Anthony a long time to accept. Same for Dwight Howard

But both those guys came around, and if Westbrook is a pro, he will too. Or, at least in the short term, he’ll get the message and start playing better. Either way, Vogel can’t afford to wait around, and GM Rob Pelinka shouldn’t be too comfortable, either. He’s the one who traded for Westbrook in the first place. He’s the only who saddled Vogel with a misfit roster, which, to be fair, Vogel hasn’t been perfect in handling; some of his lineup decisions have been head-scratching. 

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Everyone is in job-saving mode as the Lakers are 22-23, three losses beneath the play-in line. Vogel might be one more bad loss from getting canned. The Lakers play in Orlando on Friday to start a six-game road trip that includes games at Miami, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Charlotte and Atlanta. That is a tough stretch. This could get ugly very quickly. 


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