The questionable acquisition of Russell Westbrook in the most recent offseason has been unsuccessful at best for the Lakers, but that does not mean it is as impossible to solve as it seems.
As the Los Angeles Lakers enter the All-Star break, they’re 27-31, ninth in the Western Conference. Their championship aspirations are on life support and it’s looking like they’ll have to make their way out of the play-in before trying to make a run in the playoffs.
I won’t be the first to admit that I didn’t think the Lakers acquiring Russell Westbrook was an intelligent move, especially considering all the other moves available to them.
At one point in the offseason, the Sacramento Kings and Lakers agreed on a deal that would’ve sent Buddy Hield to LA for a package including Kyle Kuzma and Montrezl Harrell. This move would’ve kept Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in a Lakers uniform.
Additionally, they could’ve matched the Chicago Bulls’ offer for Alex Caruso as opposed to paying Talen Horton-Tucker. Not only is Caruso a better player, he would’ve been worth more on the trade market if LA wanted to move him at the deadline.
Even taking the option of paying Dennis Schroder $100 million over four years would be better than two years of Westbrook at $44 and $47 million respectively, the latter if he opts into next year’s player option. I have a feeling he will take the money while it is there.
A lineup consisting of Caruso, Hield, KCP, LeBron James and Anthony Davis is better than the West’s ninth seed at the All-Star break.
At every intersection this past offseason, the Lakers made the totally wrong turn, driving away from championship contention and straight into a pit of despair.
But here we are. So where to from here?
Two seasons ago, I wrote an article etailing the immense success that Russell Westbrook was finding on the Houston Rockets as their de facto centre on offence
Head coach Mike D’Antoni leaned all the way into small-ball basketball, enlisting 6’7” PJ Tucker to defend centres on one end, and 6’3” Westbrook to play centre on the other.
With P.J. Tucked away in the corner (it had to be done) and three other shooters spread out around the three-point line, Westbrook had the space to feast on slow-footed big men and often underprepared defensive units.
After writing the piece on Russ’ Houston experiment, he maintained his string of high-scoring games before succumbing to a hand injury (and the pandemic stopped the season short).
This formula for an efficient Westbrook in the modern NBA is quite a simple solution in theory, but there are significant barriers for the Lakers and their personnel for it to work.
The first barrier is Westbrook himself. On the season, he’s averaging 18.3 points and 7.5 assists while shooting a dismal 44 percent from the floor, 30 percent from behind the arc and 67 percent from the charity stripe.
He’s simply not the player he was even just two years ago and the scouting report is out on his lack of a reliable jump shot.
Sources close to the Lakers have told Dave McMenamin, ESPN that the coaching staff have worried about not playing Westbrook in late-game situations due to the possible impacts it could have on his mentality. The report comes after some late-game benchings for Russ.
One member of the front office reportedly told the coaching staff “you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do”. At least the front office and coach are on the same page…
Their worries have become reality in the past few games leading up to the All-Star break, with Westbrook looking “tentative, indecisive and overmatched” before being benched for the final 15 minutes in a recent game against the New York Knicks as per Bill Oram, The Athletic.
Carmelo Anthony, a former superstar reclamation project, has noted that the team needs to “help [Westbrook] figure it out”. Anthony knows all about what it takes to make sacrifices that you were once unwilling to make as an all-world talent in the sport.
However, I would argue it took Anthony four years to make such a transformation, and Westbrook only has about four weeks.
His poor shooting compounded with his poor defence makes Russ a tough fit in his current form. What he has going for him is his incredible motor and insatiable appetite for driving to the basket and using his elite athleticism.
This seems like the only situation that won’t require Russ to do anything except stop shooting jumpers. A seemingly simple request if we disregard the fact that Westbrook has refused to do anything of the like in his entire career.
If we do get something close to ‘Houston Russ’, the other Lakers will have to fall in line around him.
The second and arguably more important barrier to success for the Lakers is Anthony Davis’ unwillingness to play and defend the largest man on the opposing team. This is more important because it will work even if the Westbrook experiment doesn’t.
For years now, Davis has refused to take on the task of defending the (sometimes) bruising centre of the opposing unit, often leaving that task to ring-ins such as Marc Gasol, Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan. His lack of willingness to play the five even stretches back to his New Orleans tenure.
It took until Game 6 of the 2020 Finals for Davis to face Bam Adebayo and secure the title for the Lakers, luckily for them, it wasn’t too little too late. To my knowledge, every NBA pundit since the bubble has begged Davis to do what he is made to do, always to no avail.
Davis and the Lakers are in no position to do what they prefer at the moment, they need wins now. Davis needs to defend bigs and Westbrook needs to defend literally anyone for longer than three seconds. Lineup flexibility around the ageless LeBron James will be key to going on a necessary run.
A lineup of Westbrook, Malik Monk/Austin Reaves, Avery Bradley/Carmelo, LeBron and Davis will provide the maximum amount of shooting while not sacrificing the talent of their three max players.
‘Waving the white flag’ has been the calling card for members of the NBA cognoscenti when describing the Lakers’ response to this Westbrook situation, but I firmly believe that not every avenue to fix this situation has been acknowledged or attempted.
Do I think it will happen? No.
Do I think this is their only chance? Yes.
If Russ can recover any kind of his Houston form with a better-equipped roster around him than currently constituted, the Lakers may be able to turn around. If not, they will drive straight into the pit of despair they punched into their GPS all those months ago.