Nineteen years ago, Gary Payton made an epic decision. He had been in Seattle his entire career before being traded to Milwaukee at midseason the previous year, and was a free agent. He chose to sign on with the Lakers, joining another future Hall of Famer, Karl Malone, along with Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.
That team fell short of a championship, losing to the Pistons in the 2004 NBA Finals after a controversy-marred season that included charges of sexual assault against Kobe Bryant and a contract dispute with the team and Shaquille O’Neal. Throw in a knee injury to Malone that flared up in the championship round and it was a near-miss.
“What people don’t understand,” Payton told Heavy, “I’m the only one who played 82 games and we were still in the Finals. We went to the Finals and had a chance to win it. We were still hurt but we made it to the Finals.”
Thus, he does not see much by way of parallels between that group of Lakers and this year’s star-studded bunch, which featured six likely future Hall of Famers but flopped so badly that the coach will be fired and the team won’t even earn a spot in the play-in tournament.
Much of the blame for that has fallen to point guard Russell Westbrook, acquired in the offseason from Washington. But Payton sees it differently. The Lakers’ problem, he says, was not that they had too much Westbrook, but, rather, that they did not have enough.
“I think Westbrook should come back,” Payton said. “And they should just let him play basketball. And that’s it.”
Payton: ‘Don’t Put No Restrictions On’ Westbrook
Payton said that the Lakers brought in Westbrook and immediately tried to corner him into a No. 3 role, and that with ball-dominant guys like Anthony Davis and LeBron James on hand, that was never going to work.
“How do you correct it?” Payton said. “You have to get LeBron some help, take some pressure off LeBron if you want him to play two more, three more years so he can play with his son. I think that starts by letting Westbrook be Westbrook. Don’t put no restrictions on him. Let him play like he’s been playing when he was with other teams.”
Payton said getting Westbrook back to a comfortable, prominent place in the pecking order will help right the team. That place is not as a third option, and it could be better to reduce the reliance on Davis and James rather than on Westbrook.
“I hate that, when the guy who was used to being the No. 1 or 2 guy, and then you try to put him into be the No. 3 guy, and do something he doesn’t do,” Payton said. “Westbrook is not a shooter. He’s a quantity player with the quality of everything. He has to have the ball, he has to attack, he has to do it in rhythm. You can’t put this guy on the side and just say, ‘Hey, shoot it when I give it to you,’ or shoot it with this and that and that. It can’t be done that way, can’t be done.”
Lakers Could Be Stuck Trying to Incorporate Westbrook
Indeed, Westbrook has a $47 million player option on his contract for next season and is expected to opt into it. The most likely way for the Lakers to move him is to work out a buyout agreement, but that will leave a huge swath of dead money on the books.
To Payton, the way to handle this year is to tuck it away, move on, and find better ways to adjust the pieces on the roster.
“They tried something that didn’t work,” Payton said. “Everybody is so used to the Lakers being here and especially with Lebron, I think LeBron had probably the greatest season I ever seen him play at the age of 37. But he needed help. I think there was a lot put on this team, an older team they put together and people got hurt. People got down and it just didn’t work.
“I think Jeanie Buss is mad and she wants to make changes, she wants to get these superstars back. To me, I’d say, it happened, over, move on.”
Payton Involved in Grants for Small Business
Payton is coaching at Lincoln College in Oakland but has been able to keep tabs on the league despite his involvement in a number of personal ventures, including his marijuana business, CannaSports. He has also been involved with Hennessy’s Unfinished Business program, which has teamed with the NBA to provide funding to 350 Black, Asian and Latinx-owned businesses around the country.
‘The idea is to get some money into these businesses and get things going back to normal,” Payton said. “You know, we give these grants and it trickles all with everybody else, trickles, trickles. If they have the money, they are going to hire somebody. It’s more employment here, you can do this, and someone else gets a job. So that’s what we try to do get it back to normal.”