Russell Westbrook’s acclimation process with the Lakers has largely been focused on his need to blend in offensively, with not as much discussion about the other end of the court. For a team that has hung its hat on defense in recent years, Westbrook’s integration on that side of the floor is just as important as his offensive contributions.
Westbrook’s early adjustment period has led to mixed results on that end of the floor. However, as with the team as a whole on Sunday, Westbrook took a step forward in that regard against the Rockets.
Westbrook detailed some of those adjustments and how he’s handling them following practice on Monday.
“It’s a concept where you rely a lot on bigs,” Westbrook said. “Just kind of figuring out a way of being able to chase guards and send them to the bigs, and I’m more accustomed to sometimes going down and chasing down blocks and pursuing for steals... Which is something I’m good at as well, but I can get steals with the way that we play defense now, just making sure I’m in the right places on the weakside and on the ball. Especially on the weakside, making sure I’m there to be able to help guys with boxing out and things of that nature.
“But (it’s) nothing that I haven’t seen before, just obviously now I’m getting a lot more accustomed to doing it, and Frank has been a hell of a defensive coach and coach in general, and he knows what he’s doing. My job is to make sure that I fulfill the things that he’s asking me to do.”
Back-to-back contests against the Warriors and Suns to start the season presented two of the toughest defensive matchups of the season in Steph Curry and Chris Paul. After rough performances in those outings — in which he had a 111.3 defensive rating — Westbrook has rebounded nicely, sporting a 104.3 defensive rating over the last five games, ranking middle of the pack for the Lakers.
But while finding their groove defensively will be an ongoing matter for the team, the good news for Lakers fans and head coach Frank Vogel is how coachable Westbrook has been as he continues to learn a new scheme.
“He’s trying to do what we’re asking him to do, and it is a little bit different for him,” Vogel said. “I think for a lot of our guys, Bron, AD, Melo, Russ, a lot of their careers they’ve had a lot of dirty work guys around them, and now they all have to support each other in that way. Really commit to guarding their own man and executing our scheme, and I feel like Russ has done a good job of that.”
If the team can find success defensively, it would allow them to get out in transition, as was the case on Sunday, and there isn’t much explanation needed as to how that could lead to success for Westbrook and the team as a whole.
And as much as the Lakers will need to figure out how to make Westbrook, James and Davis co-exist offensively, the defensive end of the court will determine their ultimate success. So for now, it’s encouraging that Westbrook and the team are starting to turn a corner on that end. If it sticks, it could be huge for the team’s ceiling.