LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and the Los Angeles Lakers’ tumultuous season, in their own words

New Los Angeles Lakers are typically brought to owner Jeanie Buss’ second-floor office overlooking the practice floor at the team’s training facility. And with good reason: On a specially designed credenza under a wide window sit 11 Larry O’Brien trophies — the centerpieces of the building and the sources of constant motivation — in full view of the courts.

In late August, shortly after the Lakers acquired him in a blockbuster trade with the Washington WizardsRussell Westbrook became the latest in a long line of stars to make their maiden trip inside.

“I’m so happy that you’re here,” Buss told the 2017 MVP in a moment that was captured for the cable television show, “Backstage: Lakers on Spectrum SportsNet.”

As she launches into what must be an all-too-familiar speech, Buss tells Westbrook about her father, late owner Jerry Buss.

“My dad bought the team in 1979, and his first year of owning the team was Magic [Johnson’s] rookie year and they won a championship that first year. And his goal in buying the Lakers was to someday surpass the Boston Celtics. So we’re now tied with 17 titles …”

“We know what we need to do then,” Westbrook said, jumping in.

“We’re kind of obsessed with 18,” said Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka, who had brought Westbrook to see Buss.

That day and those sentiments are a hazy memory as the Lakers limp to the finish line of the regular season with a 31-45 record and an 11th place standing in the Western Conference, trying to claw their way into the last play-in tournament spot. But it’s a reminder this was a team the highest levels of the organization believed was championship-worthy.

The season’s dreams and its spirit have drained in a long road of disappointment, discontent and bad luck for the 2021-22 Lakers. Here is how it unfolded, in the players’, the coaches’ and management’s own words:

Aug. 4: LeBron James tweets about Lakers’ offseason moves

“Keep talking about my squad, our personnel ages, the way he plays, he stays injured, we’re past our time in this league, etc etc etc. Do me one favor PLEASE!!!! And I mean PLEASE!!! Keep that same narrative ENERGY when it begins! That’s all I ask.”

  • Within a few hours the tweet was deleted. But it was never forgotten.

Aug. 10: Westbrook’s introductory news conference

Pelinka: “When an opportunity like that comes, you’re thoughtful, you analyze it, you look at the pros and cons and you make a decision. That’s what leaders are tasked to do.”

  • With this statement, Pelinka made clear trading for Westbrook was his call and owned the decision. ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne reported James and Westbrook had been talking about playing together for weeks. Pelinka had lined up the framework of a trade to acquire Buddy Hield from the Sacramento Kings but reversed course on draft day when Westbrook asked the Washington Wizards to trade him to the Lakers.

Lakers coach Frank Vogel: “We’re going to be an extremely dynamic fast-breaking team and can play off all three guys in many ways. I think we’ve got a real chance this year to do something special. … Motivation for us is that trophy, not for what people are saying.”

  • Vogel was pushing back on the concept that the Lakers, who had put together the oldest roster in the league after acquiring six players in their 30s, four of them older than 34, couldn’t compete. He has been proven to be right about the fast-breaking; the Lakers have soared from 21st in pace last season to seventh this year. But it has come along with a disastrous plunge from the No. 1 defense last season to No. 23 this year.

Westbrook: “Being able to be with my kids all the time, being able to see my mom and dad and my wife all the time, to me is the best thing you can ask for. Not having to have them travel everywhere is a blessing for me.”

  • Family was an important factor for Westbrook from day one when arriving in L.A., and was an underappreciated reason for his desire to come play for the Lakers. The previous two seasons when he played in Houston and Washington, he felt the strain from not having his wife and three young children around him full time. In the dark times ahead amid immense criticism of his play, Westbrook would often lean on being with his family, not his performance, as the source of his happiness.

Sept. 27: The start of Lakers training camp

Before practice began, Pelinka spoke to the team, which was later shown on “Backstage: Lakers.”

Pelinka to team: “You could say this room has the greatest basketball talent assembled on a team in recent history. You could say that. But without the proper mindset as a team, that amounts to jack s—, and we know that.”

James to the media: “It was exciting helping put this team together this summer. Understanding what I felt and we all felt was going to make us a title-contending team. … I watch enough basketball to know what I need to do to help the ball club depending on the acquisitions we make per year. So I’m very cerebral about what I need to do for our team to be as great as we can be and to be the counterpart to what Russ brings to the table. … I always figure it out.”

  • Confidence about the Lakers’ championship chances remained sky high within the organization. Notably, James backed up the reports about his role in assembling the roster, taking ownership of the decisions, and particularly the Westbrook trade.

Oct. 22: Drama on the bench

During a timeout in an eventual 10-point loss to the Phoenix SunsAnthony Davis approached Dwight Howard on the bench. They spoke, and Howard stood up to confront Davis, who grabbed Howard’s arm. They were separated by teammates as Davis pointed and yelled at Howard.

Howard: “We’re good. We squashed it. He’s my brother.”

Davis: “We left it in the locker room at halftime.”

  • The players’ issues stemmed from a defensive coverage problem, the first very public signs of more internal problems to come. As was this: The Lakers started 0-2 with both losses at home for the first time in team history.

November: Tales about the Lakers’ offseason begin seeping out

Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard, on Nov. 3: “[James] painted the picture to me that if I were to leave, the situation could look like this. He didn’t tell me to come to L.A., and he didn’t say anything to me that I didn’t already know other than what it could look like.”

Chicago Bulls guard Alex Caruso, on Nov. 9: “Essentially we got that [Chicago Bulls four-year, $37 million] offer, went back to L.A., asked if they could do the same, they said no. Asked for something else that was a little less, they said no. So I said, ‘OK, if that’s what it comes to, I’m ready to go to Chicago and start the next chapter.'”

  • Pelinka addressed Caruso’s departure in September: “Alex was tremendous here, he’s a championship player and we’ll forever be grateful for his contributions and his growth. He had choices and he chose another team.”

Bulls guard DeMar DeRozan, on Nov. 15: “I felt like going to the Lakers was a done deal and that we were going to figure it out. I was going to come home. The business side of things just didn’t work out.”

  • Lillard and DeRozan spoke to Yahoo, and Caruso told his story on JJ Redick’s podcast, “The Old Man and the Three.” The interviews and reveals came in quick succession as the Lakers were off to a disappointing 9-10 start and Westbrook was struggling, while the Bulls with Caruso and DeRozan were off to a 10-4 start.
  • Lillard and DeRozan both talked about how James was their point of contact, each meeting with him at his home in Brentwood, California, underscoring James’ role in the Lakers’ offseason moves. The San Antonio Spurs and DeRozan’s agent, Aaron Goodwin, had worked out a functional sign-and-trade deal that would’ve gotten DeRozan to L.A., but ESPN’s Shelburne later reported a possible sticking point was the Lakers’ not wanting to guarantee a third year for the 32-year-old DeRozan. It didn’t matter, as the Lakers pivoted to the Westbrook trade and DeRozan got three years and $82 million guaranteed from Chicago.
  • Caruso indicated the Lakers’ initial offer was two years and $15 million. The team focused on re-signing Talen Horton-Tucker for three years and $31 million, and declined to sign Caruso for less per year. They had the rights to both players and could have signed both, but luxury-tax concerns likely played a role in choosing one.
  • All the details aside, the bottom line was the Lakers’ other options were telling their stories, and the option L.A. chose, Westbrook, was failing.

Dec. 6: Vogel comes under fire as losses mount

Vogel: “There’s going to be criticism with this job. It’s something we’re all accustomed to. And I’ve been a coach for 10 years, I’ve seen it all.”

James: “Criticism comes with the job, you know. Frank is a strong-minded guy. He has a great coaching staff. We’re a team and an organization that don’t mind some adversity, that don’t mind people saying things about us, obviously, because it comes with the territory.”

  • The Lakers had given Vogel a contract extension over the summer, as he became the first Lakers coach to get one since Phil Jackson. But it had become known that it was a tepid, one-year extension through 2023 despite the Lakers having won the title in 2020. By comparison, the Milwaukee Bucks gave Mike Budenholzer a three-year extension after winning the title in 2021. That undercut the team’s confidence in Vogel and, with the Lakers off to a 12-12 start, speculation about his job security increased.

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