Westbrook Always Plays With Stars. But Will They Align on the Lakers?
Russell Westbrook is coming off one of his best seasons, having recorded a career high in rebounds and another in assists that was enough to lead the NBA. double digit numbers in points, rebounds and assists. Before Westbrook, it seemed almost impossible to average a triple-double once, let alone multiple times.
But those numbers weren’t good enough to get him into the All-Star squad last season, the first time the 32-year-old had not been selected since 2014. Part of that was because his Wizards Washington weren’t very good. But the Wizards barely qualifying for the playoffs were a perfect microcosm of the general debate over Westbrook’s legacy: It’s not a sure thing that Westbrook’s style of play is conducive to winning basketball, even with its garish numbers.
And now Westbrook is with the Los Angeles Lakers, traded for the third time in three years. Former MVP winners like Westbrook typically don’t play for four different teams in successive seasons while still posting numbers comparable to when they won the honor.
Westbrook will once again have superstar teammates, this time LeBron James and Anthony Davis in a so-called unequivocal super-squad. On paper, this new iteration of stars assembled to chase a championship should easily compete with teams like the Milwaukee Bucks, the defending champions, and the Nets, who both have their own all-star lines.
This will probably be the best chance Westbrook has had to win a championship.
These Lakers are better than the Oklahoma City Thunder squad that Westbrook helped advance to the final in 2012 alongside youngster Kevin Durant and James Harden, where the three future MVPs were surpassed by the super-team. directed by James Miami Heat. These Lakers are more talented than the 2017-18 Thunder team with Carmelo Anthony and Paul George, who lost in the first round of the playoffs. When Westbrook reunited with Harden – now a bona fide star – in Houston in 2019-2020, James’ Lakers easily sent them to the second round of the playoffs. And it goes without saying that the current Lakers squad are better than last season’s Wizards, even though Westbrook was playing with Bradley Beal, one of the league’s top scorers.
Westbrook hasn’t been short of star teammates, but he hasn’t had the success expected of them, and that can be an indictment against his style of play: high score, low shot and rebound. elite that is devalued in favor of shooting. Part of that is also an indictment from the lists Westbrook has played with. The 2017-18 Thunder team had an ill-suited Anthony, who struggled to adjust to a lesser role. In Houston, the Rockets traded center Clint Capela and went for a small ball, which had limited effectiveness. In Washington, the Wizards have faced injuries from key players, like Rui Hachimura and Thomas Bryant, and have been hampered by a coronavirus outbreak.
But if Westbrook can’t figure out how to win next to James and Davis, who won a championship with some of the players the Lakers traded for Westbrook, it will be a blow to Westbrook’s legacy.
After Durant left the Thunder in 2016, Westbrook became the focal point and the Thunder were eliminated from the playoffs in the first round for three consecutive years.
Much of the problem with Westbrook is that he has been an ineffective goalscorer for much of his career. His career real shooting percentage – which represents free throws and 3 points – is 52.8%, while the league average is around 55%. And he takes a lot of possessions to score his points accordingly.
His defense is also suspect.
This is where his joining James and Davis creates a fascinating and potentially dangerous situation. Two of the players the Lakers traded for Westbrook – Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope – were helpful defensively and with floor space. This meant they didn’t need the ball in their hands to make their presence felt on the ground. Kuzma shot 36.1% of 3 last season, while Caldwell-Pope was 41%. Westbrook’s career average from 3 is 30.5%. A useful data point at Westbrook: Kuzma shot just 31.6% out of 3 in the Lakers’ championship year.
The adjustment with Westbrook, James and Davis will be a crazy experience. Westbrook needs the ball in his hands to be effective, while James generally leads his team’s offense. James’ best teams have been tasked with shooters to throw the ball as it enters the paint. Davis is one of the most skilled offensively big men but, like Westbrook, he’s inconsistent by 3, at 31.2% for his career. Even James is a career shooter 34.5% deep – average.
This means the Lakers are likely to start three players who aren’t the most reliable shooters in today’s NBA, which is so dependent on an effective gap-generated attack. The Lakers have a few counters with their other additions: Kent Bazemore, Anthony and Wayne Ellington – all of whom shot better than 40% of 3 last season.
Westbrook’s career utilization rate – how often he uses his assets – is 32.51%, just behind Michael Jordan in NBA history. James is fifth with 31.55%. If Westbrook is using more assets than James next season, something has gone horribly wrong. For the Lakers to be at their best, Westbrook will need to take a step back, and some players – Allen Iverson thinks – don’t adapt well to that because their skills and egos don’t allow them to.
Players have regularly complimented Westbrook as a teammate. But does he know he will have to watch the ball a lot more than he is used to? With the Wizards last season, according to league tracking numbers, Westbrook’s use percentage with Beal on the ground was around 26%, compared to 33.9% when Beal was off. For Beal, his rate was around 29.8% with Westbrook on and 38.2% without him. But the Wizards didn’t have a third player of Davis’ caliber.
Westbrook will be useful if he exploits his strengths. He’s a relentless slasher and because of his ball handling and penetration, he’ll create easier shots for James and Davis. He also pushes the quick break. The Lakers were 21st in pace last season, making them one of the slower teams, while the Westbrook Wizards were the fastest. Westbrook plays every possession like he’s trying to outrun a vengeful lightning bolt, and that’s if he’s not the lightning himself. It will help the Lakers add a new dimension to their offense: Westbrook and James are some of the best quick-break players the league has seen.
Westbrook’s days with an average triple-double are probably behind him. Davis and James are exceptional rebounders and playmakers, leaving Westbrook less to put on his plate, at least statistically. But the addition of Westbrook to the Lakers, along with that of Dwight Howard and Anthony, makes it one of the most intriguing roster builds of the past decade.
But if Westbrook is unable to confuse himself with his latest batch of star teammates, the Lakers could end up being an ill-fitting and unmissable mess.
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