Russell Westbrook didn’t speak, but he didn’t have to say anything.
His presence at Patrick Beverley’s introductory news conference was itself a statement: I’m still here.
Westbrook isn’t the same player he used to be, but he’s still the same competitor, now determined to make a point that he won’t disappear because everyone wants him to.
This wasn’t compliance.
This was defiance, Westbrook pushing back against the popular view that he was responsible for the Lakers’ disastrous season last year.
He could be here when the Lakers start their season, or he could not, but as he awaits his destiny, he seems driven to show he isn’t the malignant presence he was made out to be.
He was one of a handful of players at coach Darvin Ham’s unveiling. He spent time on the summer league team’s bench in Las Vegas. And on Tuesday, he was on the side of the media room of the Lakers’ practice facility as Beverley answered questions about his return to Los Angeles.
Westbrook’s commitment was praised by Ham, who pointed out, “It starts with the buy-in.”
Except this is only the start of buying in.
The investments players make in their teams aren’t measured in the number of news conferences or summer league games they attend.
In the case of Westbrook, buying in will be playing without the basketball in his hands. Buying in will be playing defense.
In other words, buying in will require him to accept that he can’t play the way he did in his previous 14 seasons of his Hall-of-Fame career.
As Beverley said, “Everybody wants to go to the bank and take out, take out, but you have to give something also to be a [successful] team. So what are you gonna give up?”
Westbrook has to give up being Westbrook.
This might not be fair to the 33-year-old Westbrook, or even possible, but that’s what Ham challenged the former MVP to do soon after he was named as Frank Vogel’s replacement. And for good reason: Short of a trade, this is the only route to victory for a team with LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Westbrook. The Lakers can’t win with Westbrook playing how he did last season.
As much as Ham has complimented Westbrook, there are doubts in his head about whether the player can adjust.
Asked if the 6-foot-3 Westbrook and 6-1 Beverley could start together in the backcourt, Ham replied, “If they play defense.”
Beverley is as much a pest as a colony of fire ants. He will play defense. Ham was obviously talking about Westbrook.
The question now is how Westbrook responds to his coach’s veiled threats and reports of how the team continues to shop him with training camp approaching. Westbrook has to know he is the most expendable of the Lakers’ three superstars and that he would have been traded by now if not for the team’s reluctance to part with future draft picks.
The test Westbrook faces is as old as sports themselves, a once-dominant player figuring out his place in the game as his powers decline with age.
Oftentimes, the athlete is betrayed by the same indomitable spirit that made him great, his stubborn determination preventing him from taking the step back necessary to take two forward.
This was the fate of the late Kobe Bryant, who finished his career by shooting the Lakers into a hole from which their only escape was to hand over the franchise to James.
But there are also instances in which something clicks, as it did with, say, Clayton Kershaw or Albert Pujols. Kershaw learned how to pitch with diminished velocity. Pujols accepted a role as a part-time player and mentor.
This process takes time. Kershaw initially tried to continue pitching for the Dodgers how he did when he was in his prime, relying on his fastball and slider. Pujols was a below-average offensive player over his last four years with the Angels. Failure led them to consider other options.
Westbrook experienced that kind of failure last season when his homecoming dream transformed into a nightmare.
How will he now channel his competitive drive?
Will he use it to prop up his ego and continue banging his head against the wall? Or will he use it to stare down hard truths and attempt to reinvent himself as a player?
The choice is his.