The speculation regarding the two stars of the Brooklyn Nets has been the centerpiece of offseason discussion, but its hold on the discourse has been broken.
Nets General Manager Sean Marks released a statement indicating that the organization has come to terms with Kevin Durant after the GM accompanied coach Steve Nash and the owners on a trip to Los Angeles to meet with the star and his agent.
For a while, it was evident that there was never really any viable trade that could be executed to acquire Durant, who has four years remaining on his deal. At this point in the offseason, this news came as little surprise.
In fact, the day before Durant rescinded his trade request, Shams Charania of The Athletic reported that the Nets intended to keep Irving, noting that he’d been “working out with teammates and holding constructive dialogue with the organization” amid these summer months.
Being the guy who lured Durant to Brooklyn in the first place, Monday’s confirmation regarding Irving just cleared the runway for the following day’s headlines.
So the Nets drama is finally over, fizzling out into a nothing-burger as many had guessed. But people might be wondering what the hell this has to do with the Kings.
Well, let’s look at the guy who apparently spoiled any deal between LA and Brooklyn, who arguably played the biggest role in spoiling the Lakers’ season last year, and who could very well do the same this year: Russell Westbrook.
It was just in June when the Nets had allowed Kyrie Irving to explore potential trade scenarios and the Los Angeles Lakers emerged as the lone suitor for the 30-year old point guard.
According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, after some resistance to the idea, the Lakers were willing to offer both their 2027 and their 2029 first-round draft picks, which would have been approaching the realm of acceptable return in the eyes of the Nets. However, there was one single yet massive issue: the Lakers wanted to send Russell Westbrook over as part of the exchange.
Brooklyn could not have been less enthused with that prospect.
Los Angeles is therefore stuck with Westbrook.
One of the big questions for the Kings is are they good enough to be a playoff team? That remains to be seen, of course, but the issue can be reduced to another, more digestible question: Is there a chance for a play-in spot?
Answer to that is most certainly a yes.
There is, in fact, a chance for a spot because, realistically, all the Kings need to do is be better than one of the following teams: the Pelicans, Trailblazers, and/or Lakers.
Up top, in any order, the top six spots as well as the top play-in spot is likely taken by the Warriors, Grizzlies, Suns, Nuggets, Mavericks, Clippers, and probably even the Timberwolves (only because Minnesota was a playoff team that acquired one of the best centers in the league—how it works out remains a mystery, though).
Likewise, it’s probably not insane to write off the Rockets, Thunder, Spurs, and Jazz from any contention. So that leaves behind the Pelicans, Trailblazers, Lakers, and Kings hypothetically battling for the final three play-in spots.
It’s probably a tricky task to argue Sacramento is better than New Orleans. On the other hand, there is plenty of room to argue that the Kings are better than the Blazers, and vice versa, which will be interesting to watch play out when the season begins.
The Lakers, however, make for a less compelling discussion. Of course, if they’d gotten Kyrie Irving and reunited him with LeBron James and put him alongside a talent like Anthony Davis—barring excessive missed time—then that would be a more formidable challenge. But they didn’t, and worse, they still have Russell Westbrook.
With Westbrook on the Lakers, that may be enough to show their inferiority on paper to the Kings.
It’s important to note that’s not overhyped optimism regarding the Kings—they have plenty they need to prove. Rather, it is a realistic assessment and condemnation of Westbrook himself.
The Lakers acquired Russell Westbrook from the Wizards last offseason in a trade after coming extremely close to pulling the trigger on a similar deal to snag Buddy Hield from the Kings.
They felt they’d found their guy. Reason being it seemed like another installment of pairing superstars together to form super teams and championship contenders, but it ended up being a comical burlesque of that trend.
As Lakers writer Cooper Halpern declared in hindsight at the end of this past season, as the “toxic core of the Lakers’ collapse,” Westbrook “must be excised if they hope to build a contender again.”
The former walking triple-double factory had his most underwhelming season of his career, scoring 18.5 points (.444 FG%, .298 3P%), posting 7.1 assists, and grabbing 7.4 rebounds per game.
His statistics barely begin to tell the full story, though.
Recall that the song “Cold As Ice” by Foreigner is banned from the Golden 1 Center because of Westbrook.
He was such a detriment on the floor that Frank Vogel considered benching him.
In terms of Westbrook’s relationship with his head coach, it was well known that there were problems that stemmed from the ostensible lack of respect Westbrook had for him.
A source told The Los Angeles Times that “Russ never respected Frank from Day 1.” Vogel nevertheless tried to make it work, as rookie Austin Reaves alluded to a few months ago, saying the two never let their sour relationship “seep into the locker room.”
There’s nothing to disprove that in regards to Vogel, but with Westbrook it’s rockier. More than not respecting his head coach, the point guard had little to no respect for anyone.
Perhaps the best way to sum up the central reason for Westbrook’s decline and singlehanded self-destruction of his team is his ego and rejection of any constructive feedback, from journalists to coaches.
“Jousting with reporters in press conferences is apparently not the lone source of pushback these days from under-fire guard Russell Westbrook,” Stein wrote. “There has been no shortage of defiance behind the scenes, I’m told, when coaches and teammates have tried to broach changes in role or approach with the former MVP.”
Later in March, Westbrook was asked by reporters about the final push for the play-in and about what will change in the team’s approach. Westbrook was immediately uninterested in any sudden self-reflection, and said that “nothing” will. Then, like some dramatic turn in a play, the point guard flipped the question around, asking the LA Times reporter what he thinks should change before standing up to walk out of the room with the professionalism of an adolescent, displaying his disinterest in taking any accountability.
In April, during a group film session with assistant coach David Fizdale, Charania reported that Westbrook’s shot selection—a major issue all year—was called into question, resulting in “an animated exchange” between the two.
Evidently, Westbrook made things worse for his team’s culture, and it’s made worse because he doesn’t often pick up any of the slack on the floor. Say whatever about Kyrie Irving, but he can still impact and change a game. Westbrook, however, is turning 34 early into the season and has proven nothing other than the fact he’s on the decline.
Of course, Vogel’s gone and things could be very different if Anthony Davis can stay healthy. LeBron James is still LeBron James, albeit at 37 going on 38 in December. And newly hired head coach Darvin Ham pinpointed the word “sacrifice” as a key area of focus for Westbrook this season, signaling optimism about the situation.
Who’s to say a change in coaching staff and a new season can’t offer Westbrook a fresh opportunity to adjust to his abilities at his more advanced age?
That’s fair, but it has to be noted that Westbrook was reportedly humble and ready to accept any role in his conversations with LeBron and AD ahead of the trade.
“When Westbrook met with James and Davis prior to the blockbuster draft-night trade last year, sources say the league’s all-time leader in triple-doubles assured them he would accept any role given to him and be willing to adapt based on critique,” Shams Charania wrote at the time. “The outcome of the season shows a common ground was not found.”
Yeah, “accept any role” and “willing to adapt based on critique.” Hilarious.
Why would this year be any different?
The Kings have a lot to prove, and a journey to the playoffs, let alone the play-in, won’t be a cake walk in any way, shape, or form, but the same exact thing can be said of one of their main sources of competition.
The Lakers could very well crumble beneath the same sort of dysfunction as last season under a first-year head coach, especially if their stars aren’t on the floor very much.
Simply put, Russell Westbrook—if he indeed stays on their roster between now and opening night as it seems he will—could provide a lot of favors for some Western Conference teams (not named the Lakers) that are trying to compete for a playoff spot.