‘Not in the business of pointing fingers’: LeBron James, the Lakers and their tumultuous season

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 Wizards, Russell 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.”

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 Suns, Anthony 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.

Dec. 8: Buss backs Vogel

Buss: “Until we’re 100% healthy, I don’t think you can really make any judgment. … We’re as connected as any organization can be. I really don’t know what you’re looking for me to say. I would say until we’re 100% healthy, I won’t make any judgments about anything.”

  • These comments were made to at halftime of a win against the Boston Celtics in an effort to shut down the rumors over Vogel’s possible firing. Buss referenced injuries to Trevor Ariza, Horton-Tucker and James, who missed 10 of the team’s first 16 games because of injuries, as a nod to the adversity Vogel had dealt with.

Jan. 17: Westbrook trade rumors, Vogel firing rumors

Stephen A. Smith breaks down why it’s time for Frank Vogel to leave the Los Angeles Lakers.

Westbrook: “Every year, my name is in trade [rumors]. It never, never, never seeps into how I approach what I do. … Regardless of if it did happen or if it didn’t happen, nothing’s going to change my mentality or my purpose. I feel like I have a purpose that’s bigger than basketball, and I always keep that as my forefront regardless of what happens inside of pro sports.”

Vogel: “The coaching staff works tirelessly, OK, both in analyzing our postgame, meeting with our players individually to show them ways that they have to be better, to reinforce ways that they were great, and they work tirelessly in putting together game plans.”

James: “I didn’t like what was going to come out of my mouth. So I decided not to speak with you guys.”

  • Westbrook, who spoke to The Athletic after his name had surfaced in trade rumors, reiterates he isn’t fazed by talk of his involvement in the upcoming NBA trade deadline on Feb. 10. Multiple reports emerged that Vogel was coaching “game to game” after a humiliating 37-point loss at Denver. James declined to speak after that defeat, only tweeting a rare apology to Lakers fans, including a promise to improve. Davis had missed 14 games with a sprained knee at this point, and the Lakers were 6-8 in those games. The high hopes the Lakers had for the season were seriously fading as the team hit the midpoint at .500.

  • A narrative-halting win over the Utah Jazz cooled some of the heat around the 48-year-old coach, emboldening him and getting James to openly talk with the media.

Jan. 19: Westbrook benched during Lakers’ loss at home

Russell Westbrook discusses his benching late in the Lakers’ win, saying Frank Vogel did not let him know ahead of time.

Vogel: “[I was] playing the guys I thought were going to win the game.”

James: “I’m not in the business of pointing fingers or pointing blame or trying to put a quote at the … start of someone’s commentary of where Frank is or where Russ is or where I’m at. It’s not my lane. … I’m going to the movies with my wife, I gotta go.”

Westbrook: “Surprised, yes. I was disappointed I didn’t go back in, but I’m more disappointed that we lost the damn game. I want to be able to be on the floor to help my teammates and be able to help our team win in games like that, but that was a decision that was made. I have accepted everything that has been asked of me and tried to do it to the best of my ability. … I’m OK with sacrificing some of the things that I’ve been able to do in this game to win, because that’s the most important part of this game.”

  • Westbrook was benched for the final four minutes of a bad home loss to the struggling Indiana Pacers, a fourth defeat in five games. ESPN’s Dave McMenamin reported the coaching staff had been given the go-ahead by management to bench Westbrook if needed. Westbrook left the floor before the end of the game and left the locker room without speaking to the media. He made his comments the following day to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

Feb. 10: Lakers stand pat at the deadline, and an All-Star declaration

Pelinka: “Throughout this process we had different things we looked at, and like I’ve done in the past, had conversations with LeBron and Anthony about it, and I would say there’s alignment here. And that’s all that matters.”

Vogel: “It’s a new day. I think there’s just a natural reset energy to our group, knowing that the trade deadline has passed. This is the group that we put together to start the year. This is a group we believe in.”

James: “The trade deadline is over. A lot of people got an opportunity to move on and know this is what we have, we are going to be together and now we make a push.”

  • The Lakers stood still at the trade deadline, which Vogel believed relieved many on the team. James, however, did not seem to move on as he had said. Over the next 10 days there appeared to be a deterioration in his relationship with the front office. ESPN reported that James wasn’t on the same page with Pelinka about the deadline inaction, as the GM had implied. There were multiple reports the team refused to make its 2027 first-round pick, the only one it was allowed to trade, available for interested teams. That undercut a chance at a significant deal, especially involving Westbrook, who had become an undesirable trade target.

  • On Feb. 16, the day of the Los Angeles Rams’ title parade, James tweeted out a photo of Rams GM Les Snead wearing a shirt that read “F— them picks” in a reference to aggressive trades Snead had made to create a team designed to win immediately. James tweeted the phrase “Legend! My type of guy!!” in what looked like a blatant swipe at the Lakers’ front office for not trading draft picks at the deadline.

  • Over the All-Star Weekend in Cleveland, James said in an interview, “the door is not closed on that” when asked about coming back to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers. James qualified the remarks, but it didn’t stop significant backlash in L.A. While in Cleveland, he also praised Oklahoma City Thunder GM Sam Presti for his drafting, perceived by many as another shot at Pelinka.

  • Coming out of the All-Star break, L.A. Times columnist Bill Plaschke called for the Lakers to trade James, who is signed through 2023 and doesn’t have a no-trade clause. James’ agent Rich Paul and Pelinka subsequently had a meeting in an effort to cool down the media swarm.

  • The second game after the break, Davis went down again, this time with a foot sprain. That pushed the issue of a James exit to the background of growing problems for the Lakers.

March 8: ‘Westbrick’

Russell Westbrook vows to push back on “Westbrick” taunts at games.

Nina Westbrook: “When I’m being harassed on a daily basis over basketball games, and I’m having obscenities and death wishes for me and my family sent my way because you’re expressing your ‘truth,’ it’s hard for me to get on board with that.”

Westbrook: “I 100% stand behind my wife and how she’s feeling. This is just a game. When it comes to basketball, I don’t mind the criticism of missing and making shots. But the moment it becomes where my name is getting shamed, it becomes an issue.

“I’ve kind of let it go in the past because it never really bothered me. But it really kind of hit me the other day. Me and my wife were at teacher-parent conferences for my son. And the teacher told me, ‘Noah, he’s so proud of his last name. He writes it everywhere. He writes it on everything. He tells everybody and walks around and says, ‘I’m Westbrook.’ … And I kind of sat there in shock, and it hit me, like, ‘Damn. I can no longer allow people [to mock my name].”

Vogel: “He’s a part of our family. Anytime when a player is feeling any type of impact at home with his family, that’s of great concern and should be handled with care. I hope people can respect what he had to say.”

  • Fans had been booing Westbrook at home more frequently. In a series of tweets, his wife expressed her feelings about media members using the “Westbrick” moniker in addition to her being threatened. Westbrook said his son didn’t like hearing his name mocked when coming to Lakers games.

March 21: James says he’s having ‘the time of my life’

James: “I’m literally having the time of my life right now. The game is such a beautiful thing. … Yes, I get frustrated. I’m angry from losses and games we could have done better and things of that nature. But I mean, once I leave the arena and I get home, I’ll leave it there, and let’s move on to the next one.”

Vogel: “Every time the team is playing, he wants to play, unless there’s a reason for him not to play. … It doesn’t matter if he’s close to Karl Malone or looking at the bigger picture or not. For him to be doing that in his 19th year, I think is something the league needs as an example.”

  • The night before in Washington, D.C., James scored his 36,929th point to move past Karl Malone into second place on the all-time scoring list. And then after a victory in front of adoring fans the next day in Cleveland, where James scored 38 points and took over the lead in the season’s scoring title race, James admitted he has divorced the Lakers’ season results from his mindset. James’ comments were telling, as was Vogel’s praise, which seemed to be a little dig at players on other teams who sit out for rest at times.

March 31: Lakers fall to 11th place, in danger of missing postseason entirely

Vogel: “We have to stay in the fight, and we have to give ourselves a chance. If we’re able to get into the play-in game at full strength, we know we got a shot.”

Westbrook: “I mean, it’s self-explanatory.”

  • Vogel has been hitting this refrain for weeks, pointing out there still is a long shot of a chance. That is still correct but extremely daunting. Since getting to 24-24 with a win in Brooklyn on Jan. 25, the Lakers are 7-21. Davis has missed more games (39) than he has played (37). James has missed 21 games and the Lakers are 6-15 in them. The season has been one long boulevard of broken dreams.

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