When the Lakers added a third superstar in Russell Westbrook to their pre-existing star tandem of Anthony Davis and LeBron James, the same predictable questions about fit arose that come up every time multiple stars come together.
Will they all be willing to sacrifice?
Will the team have enough spacing?
There’s only one ball!
Etc., etc. All of those queries have yet to be fully answered at this point, but the Lakers’ 2-3 start to the season has certainly given plenty of ammunition those who held skepticism about the team’s offseason overhaul. Both on the outside, at blogs like this one, but also within the league, where debate has raged all summer and into the opening weeks of the season about whether or not this can work.
In that spirit, Sam Amick of The Athletic asked a few executives around the NBA for their thoughts on Westbrook’s fit and the team overall, and a few of them agreed with our own Jacob Rude, and said it wasn’t quite time to panic yet:
One rival front office executive took the measured approach, saying he wanted to see what this version of the Lakers looked like after 20 games. Another said that Russ “should be fine with his breakneck style as long as he actually gets to do things as opposed to just (standing) there and stretch the floor (which he can’t do).”
But this trade is an NBA Rorschach test to a unique degree even among the always much-debated transactions that so many seem to follow the league just to argue about, a move where everyone interprets the same picture differently, and so it is unsurprising that one of the execs Amick polled was a far, far less optimistic than the other two:
Another had this to say …
“Fit wise, it will probably be a struggle all year, especially when everyone is healthy, because LeBron needs to get the ball, AD needs to get the ball and Russ especially needs the ball in his hands to be effective since he is a non-shooter when playing off the ball and just not that good at it. You add in ‘Melo, who needs his touches too and you have four guys who all want/need the ball to do what they do best. Plus, Russ just isn’t going to shy away from taking the shots he wants to take.”
Another exec, right below that one, said they think Westbrook will be better off as a Sixth Man. But I don’t even want to waste much time considering that for now since it’s never going to happen, so let’s take the points above one at a time.
For one thing, this executive is at least partially right about a lot of this. The Lakers’ new Big 3 will struggle to fit sometimes this year. We’ve already seen that in some moments, and there will surely be plenty more negative possessions and hiccups before they fully solve this equation, if they ever do. Two ball-dominant playmakers like James and Westbrook figuring out how to play off of each other was always going to take time. Whether those issues actually last the whole year is anyone’s guess, but there will certainly be struggles. The team itself is surely well aware of that.
The executive’s conclusion from that point, however, is where we diverge a bit. Are James and Westbrook more effective individually in terms of statistics with the ball in their hands? Absolutely. But Davis does not “need the ball” in the same way, and is often better served playing off of another playmaker who allows him to utilize his unique big-man talents as a versatile and skilled roller and finisher.
And while Westbrook is not a good shooter, the Lakers have been experimenting at helping him fit with James by utilizing him as a screener in big-small pick and rolls, something that could make him extremely effective. In addition to the other benefits Westbrook brings — both as a usage sponge who can capably soak up possessions when James is on the bench or sitting out entirely, and the way he can also help James conserve energy as an effective off-ball player more often as he ages — there are tangible basketball reasons to think the Lakers could figure this out, given a bit more time. Maybe they won’t, and it might always be a bit clunky at times, but it could work, that can’t be ruled out yet.
And the last part, lumping in Melo needing the ball, as an aside, is sort of laughable. Melo has flaws at this stage of his career, to be sure. The 37-year-old is an almost staggeringly bad defender and at-time inefficient scorer, but he can also be a valuable and potent source of offense off the bench on some nights, and if there is one thing the happily screening, spotting-up and play-finishing ninth-leading scorer in NBA history has made clear he does not need every single night at this stage of his basketball life, it’s a ton of touches.
But lazy Melo point aside, this executive is not alone in their takes about this Lakers team. Far from it. Some of you reading this probably feel similarly. Or some of you might vehemently disagree. That’s the polarization this move inspires, and it’s not set to go away anytime soon. But that’s the thing about sports: They’re just like our society in the internet age. Eventually one side will be proven right, and one side will be wrong, but neither will agree with that conclusion, and come up with hindsight reasons why they weren’t really wrong, and others who agree with them. But either way, we won’t know for a while which way this is headed, even if that reality won’t stop us from arguing about it incessantly all season.
In that way, these anonymous NBA executives who fire off takes like this to reporters are just like us: They just want to talk some shit and argue about basketball behind the veil of internet anonymity. Even if we don’t agree with all their conclusions, that in and of itself makes them pretty relatable.