Did We Judge LA Lakers' Russell Westbrook Trade Too Soon?December 8, 2021
As the Los Angeles Lakers (13-12) have struggled through the first 25 games of the season, Russell Westbrook has been the obvious scapegoat. He's the most significant roster addition, the team's highest-paid player at $44.2 million and a painfully inconsistent shooter.
Yet despite all the hand-wringing that the Lakers made the wrong decision to acquire Westbrook in a trade during the offseason, the veteran guard has begun to emerge as a consistently productive player. More importantly, the Lakers are starting to show signs of progress, notably with their 117-102 win over the rival Boston Celtics Tuesday night.
Is it unreasonable to allow Westbrook and the Lakers some time to learn how to play together?
Opponents aren't going to go easy, change is rarely comfortable and the NBA isn't as simple as setting a fantasy league lineup. The Lakers have not only lacked season-to-season continuity but also game-to-game continuity.
LeBron James has missed nearly half of the season (12 games) with various ailments and incidents: ankle, abdominal strain, suspension, false-positive COVID-19 test. Talen Horton-Tucker, the only other returning Laker outside of Anthony Davis and James, missed 13 games with a thumb injury. Newcomer Kendrick Nunn (knee) has yet to play. Every other player on the roster is earning a minimum contract, including Trevor Ariza, who hopes to make his season debut in the coming weeks.
And, initially, Westbrook wasn't especially impressive.
"I think in the beginning of the year, Russ was a little bit passive. He was trying to get guys involved, pass the ball," Davis said after the Boston victory. "We just try to tell him to be himself. 'Don't try to be anybody else. The more you're aggressive, the more it will open up for everyone else.'"
Westbrook may only have one setting. If he's looking to pass too often, he's going to overpass aggressively. But now he has a better understanding of how to use his aggression.
Per NBA.com, Westbrook has improved each month. Through seven games in October, he shot just 25 percent from three-point range, made 47.8 percent from the line and turned the ball over 5.1 times a game.
In November (16 games), his shooting climbed to 32.9 and 72.7 percent, respectively. His turnovers dipped to 4.5. And while he's only played in two December games, he's shooting 50.0 percent and 83.3 percent, respectively, with 3.0 turnovers.
"He's relentless in attacking the basket," coach Frank Vogel said. "How defenses guard him, they try to sag, and they try to get under, and he still finds a way. If he's touching the paint and making great decisions when he gets there, it gives us a lot of offensive support."
Westbrook is a career 30.6 percent three-point shooter. The Lakers were aware of his deficiencies when they sent Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrel and a first-round pick to the Washington Wizards in August. The team could have acquired a better-fitting shooter in Buddy Hield from the Sacramento Kings but believed Westbrook's playmaking skills and raw scoring ability would help relieve some of the burden on James.
The initial returns say Westbrook isn't enough to carry the roster without James, but the experience may have helped the All-Star find his footing.
He's reached at least 20 points in seven of his last eight games, with the Lakers winning five. And the goal isn't to beautify Westbrook's season stats but to get the team to the playoffs and beyond.
If the postseason began today, the Lakers wouldn't need to go through the play-in tournament as the sixth seed in the West. The Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns (both 20-4) may be difficult for the Lakers to catch in the standings, but a top-three or top-four seed is well within reach.
Both offense and defense are tightly connected. Poor shot selection and turnovers only fed their opponents' offense as the Lakers struggled offensively earlier in the year.
Dating back to the wild overtime win Nov. 21 in Detroit that saw James ejected after an incident with Isaiah Stewart, the Lakers have the 10th-best offensive rating in the league over an eight-game span at 112.8 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. The defensive rating has jumped even higher to joint-seventh at 108.1, while the net rating of 4.8 is good enough for eighth in the league.
That includes disappointing losses to the Los Angeles Clippers and Sacramento Kings (in triple overtime) at home. But the Lakers are playing a better brand of basketball, and it's not coincidental that it has matched Westbrook's increase in scoring.
"The game will always tell you what to do," Westbrook said. "I don't know the blueprint. All I know is that we won, so if that's the blueprint, then hell yeah, winning is the blueprint."
The team needs an aggressive Westbrook as a scorer, playmaker and defender, but now that he has more feel for what the Lakers need, he can better apply that aggression in the right direction.
Email Eric Pincus at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.