Column: Will Russell Westbrook’s attitude crush the Lakers?


He smiled. He scowled. He was sweet. He was curt.

Russell Westbrook treated his first Lakers news conference Tuesday at Staples Center like he has treated virtually every NBA game since he joined the league 13 tumultuous years ago.

He was all over the place.

Dishing out disparate answers while dribbling through varying narratives, he was difficult to corner and impossible to read.

Is he going to be a savior or destroyer? Couldn’t tell.

Will his attitude be conducive to a championship or collapse? No idea.

Was it really smart for Rob Pelinka to bring such a strong, ball-dominant, shoot-from-the-hip personality into a team that really only needed health? Tuesday offered no answers.

In one breath, while dressed in a Hollywood pin-striped short-pants suit and white high tops, Westbrook lapsed into the neat sentimentality of returning home to play for his childhood heroes. He assembled his family in the front row of the Chick Hearn press room, grinned down at them during the questioning and then warmly posed for pictures with them afterward

“It’s surreal,” said Westbrook, 32, later adding, “Being a Laker fan and being from LA… everything coming full circle for me, it’s a blessing … a lot of things I can’t put into actual words because some of these dreams don’t come true for people like myself and I’m truly blessed and thankful for this opportunity.”

Yet in the next breath, he confirmed the difficult reality of his dream, the molding of his game into the championship résumés of LeBron James and Anthony Davis. This is the main worry of the many in town who questioned the trade that sent Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Montrezl Harrell to the Washington Wizards for Westbrook.

“There will be ups and there will be downs,” Westbrook acknowledged. “That’s normal, that’s OK, but we’re going to figure out how to play the best way that we want to play to be able to win a championship.”

Um, James and Davis already have it figured out. They’ve won championships. Westbrook hasn’t. It’s up to him to do the figuring. He offered few clues as to whether he will.

One minute he said he’s open to letting James control the ball.

“’Bron is one of the best players to play this game and his ability to be able to kind of do everything on the floor allows me to be able to just figure it out … I’m coming to a championship-caliber team and my job is to make sure that I’m able to make his game easier for him and I’ll find ways to do that throughout the game,” Westbrook said. “As it pertains to ballhandling and all that, it really doesn’t matter. There’s many different ways you can impact the game without having the ball in your hands and I’ve been able to do that for many years and we’ll figure it out.”

The next minute he said he will never really change an overbearing style that, while it made him the greatest triple-double machine ever, has also resulted in him playing for four teams in four years.

“One thing I always have done and always will do is stay true to myself,” Westbrook said. “I think you can never waver — and I could never waver — in this league. … I always want to stay true to who I am, and with that, making sure that I’m able to listen and be all ears because I’m coming to an unbelievable organization and team and players that I’m able to learn from.”

Russell Westbrook holds up his Lakers jersey after being introduced to the media as one of the newest Lakers by vice president of basketball operations/general manager Rob Pelinka and head coach Frank Vogel during a news conference at Staples Center on Tuesday.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Perhaps the most interesting signal came from a subtle exchange between coach Frank Vogel and Westbrook after Vogel was asked his one and only question of the brief session.

Vogel was queried as to how Westbrook would work with James and Davis, and, typical of the team-building coach, the first sentence out of Vogel’s mouth contained the word “sacrifice.”

“I think any time you have three great players like this, there is an element of sacrifice required,” said Vogel. “And we’ve all talked about that and are all in on that.”

Westbrook heard this and slightly nodded. So that’s good. Or is it? Maybe Westbrook thinks James and Davis are the ones who must do all the sacrificing? As of yet, who knows?

Incidentally, congrats to the underrated lame-duck Vogel for scoring a contract extension last week. Enjoy the new job security. With this aging madhouse, you’ll need it.

The reshaped roster is a truly bizarre bunch of guys chasing rings or reputations. Good thing they have both a Monk (Malik) and a Nunn (Kendrick) because it’s going to take a deity to sort this all out.

They have the eminently likable Carmelo Anthony, 37, searching for his first title on his last legs.

Russell Westbrook is greeted by his dad, Russell, after receiving with his new Lakers jersey.

Russell Westbrook is greeted by his dad, Russell, after receiving his new Lakers jersey and being introduced to the media as one of the newest Lakers during a news conference at Staples Center on Tuesday.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

“I like when people talk about the age, it gives a better story,” he said.

They have the eminently frustrating Dwight Howard, 35, returning after a season-long sabbatical in Philadelphia, challenging those who note that the Lakers will have the league’s oldest team.

“They calling us the old Lakers … we ain’t old, we just experienced,” he said.

They’re also celebrating the return of Trevor Ariza, 36, former Lakers champion and local kid who had the best reason for coming home.

“The biggest recruiter, if you want me to be honest, was my children,” he said.

Nobody in this crazy mix works if the bristly Westbrook doesn’t work. Nothing fits if he doesn’t fit. The Big Two must become a Big Three, or the Lakers will dissolve into a Big Zero.

So I asked Westbrook if he has something to prove.

“No, I don’t,” he said. “I’ve been blessed and thankful to be in this league so long, and lucky to be able to play and be healthy when I got drafted in the NBA. That was me proving people wrong. When I was able to go to UCLA from the inner city, that was me proving people wrong. Just to make it out the hood, I was proving people wrong. I don’t need to do that anymore. I’ve been able to … impact people all around the world with this platform that’s been given to me. And I’ll continue to do that. Obviously, I want to win the championship, but the ultimate goal is to reach communities with what we have, impact others around you.”

Thus summed up Russell Westbrook in his first appearance as a Laker.

Inspirational, yet defiant. Huge heart, yet steely stare. Smiling like this could be the best move ever. Scowling like this could be the worst.