The triple double extraordinaire is coming home.
Russell Westbrook is taking his act to Southern California to play for his hometown team, the 17-time NBA Champion Los Angeles Lakers. The 2017 NBA Most Valuable Player was born in Long Beach, California and played two seasons of college basketball for the UCLA Bruins. He was then selected fourth overall by the Seattle Supersonics franchise, who have since become the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The Lakers acquired Westbrook and two future second round picks in a draft day deal for Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and the 22nd pick in this year’s draft.
The 13-year veteran will join fellow multiple-time All-Stars LeBron James and Anthony Davis, forming the latest iteration of a “Big Three” in the NBA. However, unlike the trio of superstars playing for the Brooklyn Nets, which features Westbrook’s former Oklahoma City teammates Kevin Durant and James Harden plus James’ former running mate Kyrie Irving, the fit of the Lakers’ marquee players together is not as ideal on paper.
The pairing of James and Davis over the past two years has been most effective while playing alongside three-point shooters who can space the floor and give them room to operate. Westbrook, a 30.5% shooter from three, has never shot above 35% in a single season and will never be mistaken for a long range threat.
The Lakers even notoriously sagged off Westbrook when they faced him in the 2020 NBA Playoffs while he was still with the Houston Rockets.
Having Westbrook spot up on the wing while James and Davis operate their go-to pick-and-roll will shrink the floor for the Lakers, so they will have to play to his strengths instead. Actually, playing Westbrook off the ball may already be the first step in bringing out the best version of him.
The out-of-this-world statlines that Westbrook is known to produce often mask his inefficiency. He is a career 43.7% shooter from the field on top of his aforementioned paltry three-point shooting numbers. He also committed 4.8 turnovers per game last season and averages 4.1 over 943 career regular season games. Easing his load as a primary ballhandler and transitioning him into a tertiary option may be what’s best for him at this point in his career.
Davis’ reluctance to play center is seemingly a blessing in disguise for the Lakers now since they have grown accustomed to playing a non-shooter beside him. In their 2020 title run, JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard clogged the inside, while this past season, he had Andre Drummond and Harrell–all of whom would never be mistaken for James’ former Cleveland Cavaliers teammate Channing Frye.
Westbrook may have more utility to them in the dunker spot close to the rim, positioning himself on offense like the centers who have shared the floor with Davis. For his part, reports have surfaced that Davis has expressed a newfound willingness to play center to make the union with his new teammate work.
Although just 6’3, Westbrook’s rare explosiveness and strength will allow him to thrive in this possible pseudo-center role and feed off the open looks at the rim generated by the gravity of James and Davis.
At times, Westbrook can also swap in for either of his teammates in their two-man game actions. He has already proven his mettle as a pick-and-roll ball handler, especially in the three years that he played with the Thunder as the alphadog following Durant’s departure to the Golden State Warriors. The nine-time NBA All-Star averaged a triple double in each of those seasons.
His explosiveness off the dribble was on full display each and every night as he relentlessly attacked the basket. He proved to be a willing and effective passer as well, even with the greenest of lights to shoot the ball on every possession.
Westbrook will not have to dominate the ball with the Lakers the way he did with the Thunder, though on occasion, his ability to manufacture offense should help alleviate the playmaking load carried by James.
Point guard Dennis Schroder, a former teammate of Westbrook at Oklahoma City, was acquired by the Lakers before last season to play that role, but he found limited success. He is now an unrestricted free agent and his future in Los Angeles is highly uncertain with the arrival of his two-time NBA scoring champion ex-teammate – along with the fact that Schroder played so badly in the playoffs that the Lakers have no reason to pay him the rumored 100+ million dollars that he wants.
Westbrook also proved that he could be a lethal roll man while with the Rockets in the ‘19-’20 season. In his one-year reunion with Harden in Houston, the two former NBA MVPs took turns handling the ball and setting screens for one another, a ploy that forced slow-footed opposing big men off the floor.
He was so effective as a screener that it helped convince the Rockets’ front office to trade away center Clint Capela midway through the season and go all-in on what they called “micro ball”. This let Westbrook to take on the cudgels as their de facto center on offense, a role that he can relive on the Lakers as James’ partner in lieu of Davis.
Westbrook is a strong and active defender as well with a knack for probing passing lanes to jumpstart transition opportunities. He has averaged 1.7 steals per game in his career and will have plenty of opportunities to disrupt opponents’ offensive actions with Davis behind him covering the paint. His effort and hustle are unparalleled and will only bolster a Laker defense that led the league in defensive rating last season despite Davis and James taking extended periods of time off due to injury.
The competitive fire that Westbrook brings is arguably his best trait. It was something that Los Angeles sorely lacked in their first round exit against the Phoenix Suns, especially after Davis went down with a groin injury. The energy that he will bring every night will inject much-needed life into a Laker team that understandably looked burnt out following the abridged offseason break following their 2020 championship.
Having a player of Westbrook’s caliber around also serves as an insurance policy for Los Angeles in the likely case that the oft-injured Davis or the ageing James have to sit out.
Regardless of how awkward Westbrook’s basketball fit looks with the Lakers, acquiring a player with his resume and on-court abilities was too good of an opportunity for Rob Pelinka to pass up on. This is a franchise that plays in the league’s most glamorous market and has made its name throughout NBA history with its star power, so trading for one of the biggest names in the league is no surprise.
James is one of the smartest players in league history and head coach Frank Vogel has proved his worth on the sidelines, so it will only be a matter of time before this team figures out how to go about integrating Westbrook.
Some liken this to the Lakers acquiring an older Steve Nash and prime Dwight Howard almost 10 years ago in a desperate–and eventually failed–attempt to win one last championship with Kobe Bryant. It remains to be seen if this experiment will be any more successful, but if anything, it’s guaranteed that this team will be under the spotlight and intense scrutiny from day 1.
Now this is going to be fun.