Download Our Mobile App

Home Sports Will Russell Westbrook fit with LeBron, A.D. and the Lakers?

Will Russell Westbrook fit with LeBron, A.D. and the Lakers?

by Lewis hawkins
0 comment

If there’s been one consistent theme to Rob Pelinka’s tenure as Lakers general manager, it’s been a simple one that resonates deeply with the franchise’s history:

Get the talent. Figure the rest out later.

That was what the Lakers hoped would happen when LeBron James first arrived in 2018. When they swung the trade for Anthony Davis in 2019, many critics wondered if they had given up too much in return. Bringing in Dennis Schröder, Montrezl Harrell and eventually Andre Drummond last season was a play to build a talented roster; what failed during the 2020-21 campaign was the cohesion.

Now we’ve arrived at the latest act, one of the biggest gambles of all: Trading three role players (two of whom helped the Lakers win a championship in 2020) for Russell Westbrook, a player as polarizing as he is talented, which is to say “extremely.”

That philosophy meshes with the core of what the Lakers are about: bringing in big stars, and ironing out whatever extremely obvious wrinkles those situations present. And there’s little doubt that Westbrook – the NBA’s career leader in triple-doubles (184) and the 2017 MVP – raises the talent level of the roster to a quotient perhaps only matched by the Brooklyn Nets with Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving. But his presence raises big questions that the Lakers will have to answer in the coming season, many of which could be resolved once the roster is built around the Big Three.

How do James, Davis and Westbrook fit together? Here’s an early stab:

High-tempo playmaking and savvy passing

The fastest team in the NBA last season was the Washington Wizards, throwing the ball in the hoop quickly and surrendering points even faster. But Westbrook was an offensive engine, long one of the fastest end-to-end players in the league, and he led the NBA in assists per game (11.7 apg). The Lakers were on the receiving end of that fury in April.

It feels telling that the Lakers and Wizards both ranked in the top 10 in points in the paint (both at 50.1 per 100 possessions) last season, and at their best were generating easy looks at the rim,especially off of transition offense. While James has a tendency to be deliberate bringing up the ball, he also is one of the best in the NBA at look-ahead passes: Davis and Westbrook figure to be good targets, or you can flip that if Westbrook grabs the rebound (which he does a lot, in case you haven’t heard) and James is the one sprinting up the court.

As far as a backup playmaker to James, which has been a constant subtopic since he arrived in Los Angeles, you certainly can’t get any less prolific than Westbrook, who ranks 12th on the career assists list. Both James and Westbrook have a knack for threading the needle on passes with pace and all over the court. Schröder’s limitations as a playmaker were exposed during the first-round playoff series against Phoenix, when he couldn’t spread the ball to the weak side away from his actions.

Of course, this also has a downside: Both Westbrook and James were among the league leaders in turnovers per game last season (4.2), and for two of the top-20 usage players in the NBA last season, both have turnover ratios above 11%, which is high.

The spacing problem

For many observers, the first point of skepticism surrounds a foundational piece of the modern NBA: 3-point shooting. If you add the 3-point totals of James, Westbrook and Davis from lastseason, they shot only 32.8% as a trio (Davis’ 26 for 100 mark drags down the average, but still). Add to that issue that two pretty good 3-point options in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (41%) and Kyle Kuzma (36.1%) are headed out the door in the Westbrook trade, so how can the Lakers stretch the floor? Last year, it did not go well.

More to the point: Westbrook has a reputation as a gunner who can shoot his teams out of games, especially games that matter. In four of his last fiveplayoff appearances, he’s shot below 40 percent from the field. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that in all of those instances, his team lost in the first round, including teams with Paul George and Bradley Beal. Westbrook will at times get hot and nail midrange shots and 3-pointers, but even when he’s ice-cold, he’ll fire up those same shots with the same brash confidence.

I’m not going to be one to talk you out of skepticism about that challenge. It is a doozy. But the glass-half-full Lakers thinking goes like this: Who needs 3-pointers when you have three stars who can get two-pointers whenever they want?

With Davis, Westbrook and James, the Lakers now have three players who can kill defenses in isolation, and are switching nightmares. When healthy, it’s hard to keep any of them from getting to the rim because of their strength and speed. What Durant, Irving and Harden are to jump-shots, the Lakers’ trio is to driving to the rim. If you have one defensive specialist, you’re going to have to make very tough decisions about who guards who: Does Draymond Green guard Davis, LeBron or Westbrook?

It’s probably also instructive that the Lakers are the new employers of David Fizdale, who was on the Miami coaching staff that found a way to make a really good offense out of Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and James when James was the only strong 3-point shooter among the three of them. If you take the tack that opposing defenses will pack the paint, you have to at least consider that Davis and James are pretty solid midrange shooters when they’re actually healthy and can punish sagging defenders.

Will it be tough, and will it require the Lakers, who now only have 36-year-old center Marc Gasol under contract for next season, to sign some wings and guards who can shoot? Of course it will. But it’s not impossible, and the Lakers’ response to that challenge is to flip it on its head: Try and guard us, and then see what happens.

Defensive roles

If there’s one area where having Coach Frank Vogel grants confidence, it’s on defense. The Lakers lost Davis and James for large chunks of last season, without a doubt their two most experienced, most versatile defenders, and still managed to grit their way to the top of the league’s defensive ratings.

The Lakers will tell you that their defense is a system that limits one-on-one exposure, that individuals don’t stick out as much the way they prefer to play. Vogel has created a system that relies on interior players to help support perimeter guards, and James and Davis are versatile components that help erase mistakes and create game-changing turnovers and stops.

Westbrook is, at his best, a capable defender. Washington’s bad defense was slightly less bad (plus-0.6) when Westbrook was on the court, and his athleticism helps make him a threat to pluck out steals (1.7 spg for his career). Where Westbrook takes a turn is when he is too focused on individual matchups (see: Rubio, Ricky in the 2018 playoffs) and tries to “win” a one-on-one at the cost of the overall team scheme.

If there are any two stars in the league who can help Westbrook stay accountable, James and Davis figure to be the ones. But it shouldn’t be ignored that some of this calculus is that Caldwell-Pope, one of the team’s best perimeter defenders, is headed out the door, and Kuzma, who was greatly improved on that end last season, is gone as well. Those three players will be foundational for whatever the Lakers’ defense looks like next season, and they should be solid, but they likely won’t be working with a supporting cast that’s quite as capable.

The Dance of Egos

If this superstar alliance is successful, there is going to need to be a lot of looking in the mirror early in the season. Westbrook is, by all accounts, a tireless worker and a ruthless competitor, so don’t expect work ethic or soft play to be an issue. But for James, Davis and Westbrook, they’re all going to have to ask themselves a question about their role and fit on a title-winning team. This is how I imagine some of those internal monologues going:

For James: Am I ready to cede control? James will turn 37 in December, has shown human limitations when it comes to injury, and has to be recognizing that his signature drive-and-kick game doesn’t have an infinite shelf life. He’s worked on developing a step-back shot that he can hit reliablyenough, but with Westbrook, he will have to give up some control of possessions that he typically rules with an iron fist. The Lakers have sought, year after year, to find ways to give him rest off the ball. With Westbrook, he has a peer in a dynamic playmaker, but he has to hand over the reins here and there.

For Davis: Am I ready to play more center? For two years, one of the central tensions of the Lakers’ roster has been that their best center doesn’t play the position much. Davis has played center at crunch-time during the postseason, and Vogel typically looks to Davis-at-the-fivelineups to close tight regular-season games. With the addition of Westbrook, Davis potentially becomes the key to getting space. Lineups with a traditional center and Davis don’t really hold water with Westbrook, a poor shooter with elite rim-driving ability, needing room to operate effectively. It was such a pronounced problem in Houston that the Rockets traded away Clint Capela to go smaller. Davis can be the cheat code, allowing the Lakers to retain size but still giving Westbrook space to attack. But Davis has to be willing to bang with the bigs more often.

For Westbrook: Do I have to be the star every night? Westbrook navigated a version of this in Houston, when he took a lesser offensive roleto James Harden and the duo found a formula to win games. But that was cut short in part by a quadriceps injury that slowed him, then by internal strife within the organization that led to Westbrook wanting out. The Southern California native is famously uncompromising, hewing strictly to routine, which has included blocking in teammates who took his parking space at the practice facility. He also has a habit of seizing the spotlight by seeking out the big shot, or gambling for the big steal. On the Lakers, Westbrookis arguably the third-best player – he will have to give up the big shots to James or Davis and play his prescribed defensive role without gambling. He’s on his fourth team in three years, and has limited playoff success on teams without Kevin Durant. Westbrook has to embrace the idea that he is the one who is often limiting his own ceiling.

It’s a big move, one that should be seen as the profound gamble that it is. We know that it will be a must-watch season, but for James, Davis, Westbrook and Pelinka, it’s a must-win season, too.

You may also like