National Basketball Association
Russell Westbrook's next move: What NBA execs and scouts expect
National Basketball Association

Russell Westbrook's next move: What NBA execs and scouts expect

Updated Jan. 26, 2023 11:32 a.m. ET

By Ric Bucher
FOX Sports NBA Writer

Whether Russell Westbrook realizes it, he has this season to prove that he is not Carmelo Anthony. 

Not the Carmelo Anthony that he played with last season in Los Angeles — the Carmelo Anthony he played with in Oklahoma City five seasons ago.

That Carmelo Anthony arrived in Oklahoma fresh off 10 consecutive All-Star appearances, a year removed from receiving an All-NBA third-team vote. (Westbrook is one year removed from receiving an All-NBA first-team vote and MVP consideration.) 


Anthony was 33. (Westbrook turns 34 this fall.) 

That Carmelo Anthony was not ready to hand over his Franchise Star card for a Supporting Cast one. (Westbrook said of last season, "I was never given a fair chance just to be who I needed to be able to help this team.")

After one season with the Thunder, Anthony found himself valued for nothing more than cap space, traded twice and waived twice in the span of seven months. And then, he was out of the league entirely for nearly a year.

After one season with the Lakers, Westbrook appears to be on a similar brink. And it may already be too late to stop it all from coming full circle.

Could Westbrook accept a new role earlier than Anthony did? And if not, is another team looking for a reclamation project?

Here is how Westbrook is currently viewed around the league according to NBA insiders, from how he could potentially salvage his time with the Lakers to potentially moving elsewhere.

A new role in LA?

Rival executives and scouts reached by FOX Sports were nearly unanimous that Westbrook and the Lakers would be best served if he led their second unit, even though Westbrook hasn’t come off the bench in an NBA game since Nov. 28, 2008, a month into his rookie season with the Thunder.

"It’s hard to see him as anything but a backup for the Lakers," one Western Conference scout said. "It’s hard for him to play with [Anthony Davis] and LeBron [James]. It might be OK if they let him go with the second unit. He has to play the only way he knows how unless he can miraculously learn to shoot."

While an Eastern Conference scout also said he sees Westbrook ideally coming off the bench, he believes the biggest question is whether he is ready to accept it. 

"It is not what he has left, it is: How he will accept that he is not the player that he was?" the scout said. "It’s similar to Carmelo. I’m not sure Russ has the awareness to accept a lesser role."

Based on Westbrook’s statistical production last season, the idea that he’s no longer a starter might seem absurd. He was still 10th among NBA point guards in scoring (18.5 points per game), 11th in assists (7.1) and fourth in rebounding (7.4). While his errant shooting was roundly mocked on a frequent basis, his field-goal percentage last season (44.4) was higher than the year before with the Wizards (43.9), his career percentage (43.8) and both Anthony’s (44.1) and then-teammate Talen Horton-Tucker’s (41.1).

The problem, to the Western Conference scout’s point, is who else is in the Lakers’ starting lineup. James isn’t about to operate off the ball, especially at this stage of his career; his usage rate last season was the highest it’s been in the last eight years. Davis had the fourth-highest usage rate for centers behind only Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokić and Karl-Anthony Towns. Westbrook, meanwhile, saw his usage drop to the third-lowest in his career. Synopsis: If Russ needs more touches to make more of an impact, he’s not going to find them as a starter.

The Lakers have yet to indicate what role they expect Westbrook to play this season.

They’ve actually said some nice things about him over the last few months, largely to buttress the blame heaped upon him for last season’s sorely disappointing 11th-place finish. Lakers owner Jeanie Buss said he was the team’s "best" player, then revised it to "most consistent," perhaps after receiving a text message from agent Rich Paul, who represents both James and Davis. First-year head coach Darvin Ham said he was "thrilled" to coach Westbrook, that it was one of the reasons he was "excited" about the job. James responded to a social media post about the excessive Westbrook criticism by saying, "Can’t wait for him to go off this season!"

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Who he might go off for is the question, because the Lakers’ actions don’t quite align with their words. League sources say the Lakers have made it readily known Westbrook is available for trade. James reportedly had particular interest in dealing Westbrook to reunite with a former teammate, Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving. And then two weeks ago, the Lakers traded Stanley Johnson and Horton-Tucker to the Utah Jazz for point guard Patrick Beverley.

[Why a KD trade could still happen, and Lakers' interest in Kyrie]

While acquiring Beverley makes a lot of sense for a team that needs defensive help, physical toughness and someone who can contribute without needing the ball, it makes no sense for a team that still has Westbrook.

Beverley and Westbrook do not like each other. At all. For a long time. It began with Beverley inadvertently submarining Westbrook in the 2013 playoffs, resulting in a meniscus tear that ended Westbrook’s season and forced him to miss a game for the first time in his career. Heated on-court exchanges have been a regular part of their meetings ever since. Three years ago, Westbrook told reporters that Beverley had tricked them into thinking he was a good defender, which Beverley said damaged his career. It also inspired him to clap back at Westbrook last season, saying, "I remember when someone said all I do is run around and trick y’all. Well my boy is The Real Magician this year."

Their awkward interaction at Beverley’s introductory news conference on Tuesday was a Class A exhibit in forced civility. 

Asking Westbrook to embrace coming off the bench would be hard enough; asking him to come off the bench behind someone he both dislikes and doesn't respect would require one of the greatest ego checks of all time.

"It all depends on how they start," an Eastern Conference GM said. "If Darvin gets them to buy in the first 20 games and they go 15-5, they could be all right. Below .500 and there could be problems."

How Westbrook handles that request, should it come to that, has as much to do with next season as it does this one. Anthony, after rebelling at the idea of coming off the bench for the Houston Rockets, was out of the league until the following season when the Portland Trail Blazers signed him to a non-guaranteed minimum deal. Duly humbled, they brought him back for a second season as a sub, the same role he played this past season with the Lakers.

Westbrook's Lakers future uncertain with arrival of Patrick Beverley

Skip Bayless shares his thoughts on Westbrook-Beverley situation.

Next destination?

Westbrook may never get that chance. The rumor making the rounds in NBA circles is that the Jazz might be willing to take Westbrook’s contract if the Lakers throw in a first-round pick or two. The Jazz would then waive him, making him available to any team at a prorated veteran minimum’s price.

Even then, team executives and scouts could only come up with one potential landing spot: the Miami Heat. Team president Pat Riley has a history of cultivating fiery competitive players, from Alonzo Mourning to Brian Grant to Jimmy Butler. He hoped that point guard Kyle Lowry would be the finishing piece to another championship-caliber team last season, but after posting the best record in the East, the team lost to Boston in the conference finals. Lowry, plagued by several nagging injuries, played in only 10 of their 18 postseason contests and was a shell of himself, averaging 7.8 points on 29.1 percent shooting. Depending on how this season goes for the Heat in general and Lowry in particular, Westbrook might be a worthwhile gamble.

"It makes sense," an Eastern Conference executive said. "Miami believes they can rehabilitate anyone."

All that, of course, depends on Westbrook recognizing that he needs to be rehabilitated, that he needs to shift his perspective on who and where he is in his career.

He could start by promising himself this: I am not Carmelo Anthony.

Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, "Rebound," on NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with young onset Parkinson’s, and "Yao: A Life In Two Worlds." He also has a daily podcast, "On The Ball with Ric Bucher." Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.


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