Russell Westbrook didn’t speak, but he didn’t have to.
His presence at Patrick Beverley’s introductory press conference was a statement in itself: I’m still here.
Westbrook isn’t the same player he was, but he’s still the same competitor, now determined to say he’s not going to disappear because everyone wants him to.
This was not compliance.
This was by no means Westbrook disproving the popular opinion 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 that he is not a malignant presence.
He was one of the few players at coach Darwin Hamm’s unveiling. He spent time on the bench for the Las Vegas summer team. And on Tuesday, he was on the sidelines of the Lakers’ practice media room as Beverley answered questions about his return to Los Angeles.
Westbrook’s commitment praised Ham, who noted, “It starts with buy-in.”
But this is only the beginning of the market.
The investments players make in their teams are not counted in the number of press conferences or summer league games they attend.
In Westbrook’s case, the buy in will be playing without the basketball in his hands. The market will be a defensive game.
In other words, the market will require him to accept that he can’t play the way he played the previous 14 seasons of his Hall-of-Fame career.
As Beverley said, “Everybody wants to go to the bank and make, make, but you’ve got to give something too to be [successful] club. So what are you going to give up?’
Westbrook needs to quit being Westbrook.
That might not be fair to the 33-year-old Westbrook, or even likely, but that’s what Hamm challenged the former MVP to do soon after being named Frank Vogel’s replacement. And for good reason: Absent a trade, that’s the only path to victory for a team with LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Westbrook. The Lakers can’t win with Westbrook playing like he did last season.
As much as Hamm 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 backfield, Ham replied: “If they play defense.”
Beverley is as much a pest as a colony of fire ants. He will play defense. Hamm 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 as training camp approaches. Westbrook must know that 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 ordeal facing Westbrook is as old as sports itself, a once-dominant player discovering his place in the game as his powers wane with age.
Often, the athlete is betrayed by the same indomitable spirit that made him great, his dogged determination preventing him from taking the step back necessary to go two forward.
That was the fate of the late Kobe Bryant, who ended his career by shooting the Lakers into a hole from which their only escape was to hand the franchise over to James.
But there are also times when something clicks, like with, say, Clayton Kershaw or Albert Pujols. Kershaw learned how to throw at a reduced 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 as he did in his prime, relying on his fastball and slider. Pujols was a below-average hitter during his last four years with the Angels. The failure led them to consider other options.
Westbrook experienced that kind of setback last season when his homecoming dream turned into a nightmare.
How will he now channel his competitive drive?
Will he use it to prop up his ego and keep banging his head against the wall? Or will he use it to face harsh truths and try to reinvent himself as a player?
The choice is his.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.