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How Russell Westbrook can supercharge the Lakers as a cutter

Before his turnover-laden fourth derailed what once looked like a Lakers blowout, Russell Westbrook flashed some off-ball activity that could unlock his potential next to LeBron James when the latter returns.

Charlotte Hornets v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

In adding Russell Westbrook, the Lakers exchanged depth for talent, and security for stardom, betting that a new Big 3 would carry them further than they’d be able to go with only LeBron James and Anthony Davis. But given those construction choices, the Lakers’ success this season has become even more dependent upon the full health and availability of all of their three stars come playoff time.

That being said, the Lakers wouldn’t have, and still can’t even think about championship aspirations without a healthy LeBron. As long as he’s out, Westbrook will have to continue shouldering the bulk of the playmaking responsibilities, a challenge he’s taken on with mixed results. While at times breathing life into the otherwise stalled-out Lakers with a burst of energy, he’s also been apt to force things, culminating in the four-turnover and one-technical fourth-quarter meltdown on Monday night against the Hornets.

So far, the advanced stats on Westbrook’s time at the helm of the Lakers’ offense paint the picture of an almost entirely unproductive player. In lineups featuring Westbrook sans LeBron, the Lakers are being outscored by 10.6 points per 100 possessions according to Cleaning the Glass ($$$). With an offense and defense in the bottom quarter of the NBA, Westbrook’s Lakers are losing to just about everybody.

At best, Westbrook’s solo show can be considered a work in progress. For now, we will just have to wait and see if some improved complementary guard play from impending returners Talen Horton-Tucker and Kendrick Nunn can ease his burden. Also, as we’ve seen for much of Westbrook’s career, it often takes him half a season before dialing in a level of efficiency worthy of All-NBA consideration.

Nonetheless, it’s important for Russ to start figuring out ways to thrive with and without LeBron, even before LeBron returns. Even with the most drastic minute staggering, Westbrook will spend around 20 minutes per game alongside LeBron on the full-strength Lakers, the only version worth considering when thinking about their ceiling as a team.

And despite his frequent maximalist foibles on both sides of the ball, Westbrook’s offered fleeting moments that are potentially reflective of a shift in mindset that may help improve the Lakers’ firepower with both playmaking superstars on the floor. So far, the Lakers have maintained an average half-court offense with Westbrook and LeBron on the floor (92.9 points per 100 possessions, 55th percentile), an area that must improve for the team to make good on its ultra-dynamic potential.

Great passing often begets off-ball movement, a trend we’ve yet to see pay off with Westbrook working off of LeBron. Last season, Russell Westbrook cut away from the ball just 23 times, 20 of which were towards the basket (per Synergy). However, twice on Monday, Russ flashed an uncharacteristic willingness to move without the ball physically in his hands in order to get it back, basket cutting to create open dunks on both occasions.

In the first instance, Westbrook’s best-in-class straight-line burst enabled him to take advantage of Terry Rozier’s overplay, making something out of an otherwise meandering offensive possession. While Synergy didn’t technically classify this play as a cut, Westbrook’s movement is clearly what creates the advantage on this possession.

Apparently emboldened by the success of his first foray into off-ball action, Westbrook again used his speed to carve an open lane to the basket later in the second quarter. This time, he gets the ball back for a wide-open dunk. Despite blowing the bunny, this is a good shot, and a great way to deploy Westbrook’s talent without asking him to make a play from scratch.

This play creates an opportunity to weaponize Westbrook’s speed in the same way he did in an impromptu manner on the first one. Like his brief foray into screen-setting as the roll man in inverted pick and rolls with LeBron, anything that gets Westbrook involved in the offense without requiring him to do the heavy lifting is a good thing for the Lakers.

These kinds of actions help some of the league’s most prolific offenses make the most out of even more limited offensive players than Westbrook. For example, the Nets have created a screen-and-rolling offensive center out of the 6’4 Bruce Brown. The Warriors have also done something similar with Gary Payton II, utilizing his speed and bounce to make money out of his otherwise hyper-limited offensive arsenal.

Curry’s unparalleled shooting gravity necessitates being guarded at the logo, therefore facilitating freedom of movement unseen on any other team. Still, Westbrook’s speed and LeBron’s vision may help make up what the Lakers lack in structured space. Carmelo Anthony’s inability to miss at Staples Center would make him an overqualified floor spacer in this action as well. Also, AD has proven a more than capable interior passer, as evidenced by the play leading to Westbrook’s blown dunk above.

Westbrook too has actually done this before, even if it hasn’t been all that often. Check out the first and third plays from this short highlight reel of his time with the Thunder. He’s not quite the vertical leaper he once was, but he’s stronger, nearly as fast, and plenty bouncy to make it work if he commits to cutting hard like he’s proven he can in order to open doors for LeBron’s dimes.

The Lakers cannot, should not, and will not turn Russell Westbrook into a pure roller, but the above actions represent ways for Westbrook to positively impact the game without the ball at times, something that has to happen for the Lakers to get the most out of his pairing next to LeBron James.

With only one credited cut on Tuesday, leading to the blown dunk, Westbrook is still cutting on just over 2% of all possessions. On the bright side, that’s a rate that’s more than double his average from last year! If Frank Vogel can convince him to squeeze in a couple more of these per half, Westbrook might be able to attract a touch more off-ball gravity, create a bit more offense for himself and others, and start to eke his on-court efficiency numbers in the right direction, especially following the eventual return of The King.

Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley. No, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can follow him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.