Buha: The worst may be yet to come in Russell Westbrook-Lakers saga

The dynamic between the Lakers and Russell Westbrook is becoming more untenable with each passing week as the two sides seemingly head for an inevitable divorce. The most recent development was Westbrook splitting with his longtime agent, Thad Foucher, who had represented him since he entered the NBA in 2008. Over that period, they were considered one of the stronger player-agent relationships in the league.

Foucher cited “irreconcilable differences” and indicated that Westbrook would like to move on from Los Angeles, despite the lack of a trade market for him, in a statement to ESPN last week. These three paragraphs were especially revealing:

“Now, with a possibility of a fourth trade in four years, the marketplace is telling the Lakers they must add additional value with Russell in any trade scenario. And even then, such a trade may require Russell to immediately move on from the new team via buyout.

“My belief is that this type of transaction only serves to diminish Russell’s value and his best option is to stay with the Lakers, embrace the starting role and support that Darvin Ham publicly offered. Russell is a first-ballot Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame player and will prove that again before he is retired.

“Unfortunately, irreconcilable differences exist as to his best pathway forward and we are no longer working together. I wish Russell and his family the very best.”

This is an unprecedented level of tea-spilling from an agent in real-time. It clearly speaks to a troubling dynamic behind the scenes, as the partnership evidently soured to the point that Foucher felt the need to get ahead of the report and publicly defend himself. According to league sources, the split caught several people around the Lakers off guard.

Every story has two sides, and we’ve yet to hear Westbrook’s recounting. The only communication we’ve seen from him so far is that he liked a tweet saying the split with Foucher had nothing to do with the Lakers. Considering Westbrook’s history with the media, he’s unlikely to address the matter until training camp, if at all.

That said, nothing Foucher stated seemed unreasonable based on Westbrook’s performance last season, Westbrook’s public comments — particularly his cringe-worthy exit interview in April — and the extensive reporting regarding his current market value. Foucher put his reputation on the line with such a bold and public statement against his biggest (former) client. There’s presumably a decent amount of truth in what he shared.

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In an earlier paragraph, Foucher mentioned that multiple teams had recently traded significant assets (multiple picks and players) for Westbrook (Houston, Washington, Los Angeles). He contrasted that with the current reality by acknowledging that the Lakers will have to attach assets to move Westbrook, as his contract and performance make him one of the league’s most difficult players to trade. As reported weeks ago, the current asking price to take on Westbrook is the Lakers’ 2027 or 2029 first-round pick, at a minimum, according to multiple league sources.

Foucher also mentioned that if Westbrook is traded, he’d potentially be bought out and have to find a new team, where the market would still be tough for a soon-to-be 34-year-old point guard who can only thrive under specific circumstances. Remaining in Los Angeles, and adapting to the asks of the Lakers’ coaching staff and front office, is the best path for Westbrook to rehab his perception.

Another trade would mean Westbrook has played on five teams in five years. At some point, that amount of movement for a star player suggests the player is the problem, fair or not. Westbrook’s go-to defense that he’s continually misunderstood can only last so long.

Furthermore, Foucher hinted at Westbrook’s lack of self-awareness regarding his situation. Westbrook hasn’t accepted that his prime is behind him and the limitations in his game make it difficult for him to be a part of a team that has higher aspirations than losing in the first round of the playoffs.

The subtext to Foucher’s language was that Westbrook doesn’t want to adhere to new coach Darvin Ham’s vision for him: Westbrook becoming a defense-first point guard who plays more off the ball than he did last season (and of any season of his career). This, of course, isn’t surprising, as the Lakers used similar framing with Westbrook’s projected role last season and it never came to fruition. Westbrook has no interest in role-player tasks.

The Lakers have been publicly propping Westbrook up because that is in the franchise’s best interest. It maintains Los Angeles’ perception as one of the most star-friendly organizations in basketball. Additionally, making it seem as if Westbrook is going to return and is a critical part of the Lakers’ future is a leverage tactic intended to make them appear less desperate in negotiations. But that hasn’t worked so far. It’s obvious to the rest of the league how awkward of a fit Westbrook has been in L.A. and how much better off the Lakers would be by moving him — even for lesser players.

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This all comes on the heels of Westbrook’s awkwardly chilly non-interaction with LeBron James at NBA Summer League, which propelled the widespread notion that James is pushing to trade Westbrook.

There have been other perceived slights toward Westbrook recently. On a recent episode of his YouTube show “The Shop,” James mentioned how much it bothers him when he doesn’t feel his teammates want to win as badly as he does: “I’m obsessed with it. With win or bust. And what makes me have sleepless nights is when you don’t have everyone that feels the same way on your club.”

For what it’s worth, Westbrook made multiple nonchalant comments brushing off the Lakers’ struggles and how they affected him last season.

Even Jeanie Buss’ cryptic tweet about missing Kobe Bryant seemed to be a reference to Westbrook’s player-first mentality. (Buss told NBA.com that she merely missed Bryant after thinking of him so much recently due to the forthcoming Lakers documentary on Hulu.)

Further complicating matters is that the trade market has cooled with the increasing likelihood that Kevin Durant remains in Brooklyn, and that Kyrie Irving appears likely to stay in Brooklyn, at least for the time being. Indiana is still a wild card depending on its appetite for rebuilding and asset accumulation. There is a growing possibility that all of this uncertainty lingers into training camp, with Westbrook remaining a Laker for at least two more months.

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Westbrook is an ironclad first-ballot Hall of Famer, but this is becoming one of the saddest post-prime superstar runs in NBA history.

The only other comparison among players of similar stature is Allen Iverson. There are some surface-level similarities between the two: their fearless personas, competitive fire, jaw-dropping athleticism and polarizing playing styles. But their struggles to adapt to non-star roles, unlike contemporaries like Paul Pierce and Vince Carter, might be their greatest similarity.

Both players were best with the ball in their hands, and as they aged and began to play with teammates who were better primary options, they failed to develop their off-ball skills, accept their limitations and adjust to what their teams needed from them. Part of the stubbornness that made them so great simultaneously hurt them as they dealt with their basketball mortality.

The moment Westbrook steps foot on an NBA court next regular season — assuming he does so — he’ll pass Iverson in longevity by playing in his 15th season (Iverson played 14 seasons). But if he’s traded at some point before the February 2023 trade deadline, he’ll have bounced around more than Iverson did at the end of his career (Iverson played for four teams in his final four seasons, including playing for Philadelphia twice).

Westbrook’s breakup with Foucher likely hurts the Lakers’ leverage in future trade talks, only adding to the perception that Westbrook is becoming increasingly difficult to deal with. It certainly doesn’t help their position.

If it’s true that Westbrook isn’t willing to accept the role Ham is asking of him, then the Lakers need to strongly consider alternative options if they can’t trade Westbrook, including the drastic scenario of sending him home and paying him $47.1 million to stay away from the team. No Westbrook is better than last season’s inefficient and ill-fitting Westbrook.

This situation seems like it will only get uglier. Barring an unprecedented increase in self-awareness by Westbrook and a willingness to adapt his game, it’s become even more clear the Lakers are better off without Westbrook next season.

(Photo of Russell Westbrook: Darren Yamashita / USA Today)

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