One of the many, many points of contention between Russell Westbrook and Frank Vogel was Westbrook's usage late in games. On a few occasions, Vogel benched Westbrook for crunch time thinking other players had earned the right to close for the Lakers. Westbrook didn't like that. "I earned the right to be in closing lineups," he after one such incident. Vogel lost his job. The only reason Westbrook is still on the team is that nobody else wants him.
It therefore shouldn't surprise anyone that Vogel's replacement, Darvin Ham, has been empowered to use Westbrook as he sees fit. According to The Athletic's Jovan Buha, Ham "will have more power to bench Westbrook down the stretch of games," and that power "could eventually extend to removing Westbrook from the starting lineup." Reports last season indicated that Vogel could have taken that step, but that he feared doing so would risk losing Westbrook's commitment entirely.
All signs point to both Westbrook and the Lakers seeking a split. The Lakers have openly shopped him in trades, most notably for Kyrie Irving. Westbrook split with his longtime agent, Thad Foucher, due to irreconcilable differences. Foucher afterward that he believed Westbrook should accept Ham's offer to buy into a new role as a more defensive-oriented starter. That suggests that Westbrook would rather continue to play his typical style on another team. To this point, it is not clear if any team would be interested in giving him such control.
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Strategically speaking, there is a compelling argument in favor of benching Westbrook from the get-go. The Lakers have built a roster almost entirely devoid of shooting. There is not a career-38 percent 3-point shooter to be found on this team. Kendrick Nunn is no marksman, but he's at least a decent enough shooter to draw defenders away from LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Westbrook is not. If that isn't evident today, it will be early in the season.
That assumes that Westbrook is still on the team. For now, the Lakers are in a holding pattern. Until the Kevin Durant situation is resolved in Brooklyn, there is nothing they can do to force an Irving trade. Once the dust settles on the Nets, we'll have a clearer idea of what the Lakers will look like. But even if Westbrook is back, it's looking like he'll have to earn his role on next season's roster.