No sooner than the moment the Lakers traded for Russell Westbrook did the questions begin about how he would fit next to LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Westbrook’s reputation as a poor outside shooter and high-usage lead guard preceded him, and it doesn’t take the biggest basketball brain in the world to see how that player archetype might have issues integrating with two other high-usage player stars who not only need the ball to thrive offensively, but space to do so.
Solving this riddle would involve adjustments and sacrifices by all, but none more so than Russ. He’d need to play off the ball more often, he’d have to cut more, set more screens, and (simply) yield more possessions to his superstar teammates. Through seven games, these adjustments — not just by Westbrook, but by LeBron and AD — are a work in progress.
But, in Tuesday’s win over the Houston Rockets, we saw the Lakers pull out an action on offense that hinted at some of what the team is capable of when seeking ways for all three to thrive on the same offensive set — especially in an action where Russ isn’t the primary playmaker or initiator.
First, the set up: There’s 6:40 left in the third quarter, and the Lakers were trailing by 10. The team has the ball and sets up in the familiar alignment to run a pick and roll between LeBron and AD. Russ, Austin Reaves, and Avery Bradley share the floor with those two.
Where things get interesting, however, is where each of those three players are positioned.
With LeBron and AD positioned near the left hashmark to begin the action, Reaves is parked in the strong-side corner. Bradley, meanwhile, is cross-court and standing deep in the right corner. Normally, if the fifth player on the court is a guard, that player would also be standing outside the 3-point line, spacing out above the break and serving as an outlet via a skip pass once the action begins.
Russ, however, is not a normal guard. As a non-shooter, he does not provide “gravity” by standing behind the arc. So, instead, he’s positioned himself like a big man and is standing in the right side “dunker’s spot” — the space between the short corner and the lane line:
Again, Russ standing here is not an accident — but more on that in a moment. As the play unfolds, we see the LeBron and AD work as they’ve done many times before to set up this go-to action between them. Davis sets the initial screen, but doesn’t make contact as Bron’s defender gets over the top. Davis, smartly, comes to re-screen, forcing a switch, which triggers the point of it all: mismatches abound, with LeBron now isolated against Rockets’ big man Christian Wood and AD rolling into a post up chance against guard Kevin Porter Jr.
Right as the Rockets seem to recognize the attack points the Lakers are trying to exploit, however, Russ flashes up from the dunker’s spot and makes himself available for a pass. And this is where the symmetry and connection points between the Lakers three stars happens. Bron hits Russ in the pocket at the elbow, Russ slithers towards the rim, AD cuts off Russ’s defender and shields off his own defender at the same time, and Russ gets a layup. So simple, but so beautiful at the same time:
This is just sound strategy. From an X’s and O’s standpoint, it leverages the strengths of each of the Lakers’ stars and puts them in positions to threaten the defense in their own way: LeBron as a trigger man and decision maker, AD as a potential finisher on the roll or in the post after his dive, and Russ as a finisher in the paint or as a connective passer should the defense collapse around him after catching the ball.
Further, by positioning Russ in the dunker’s spot, the Lakers use the opposition’s want to help off of him in a way that is less useful to them. Consider that if Russ is beyond the arc, his man instantly becomes the roamer and tag man that will try to gum up the action while leaving Russ to float around the perimeter — where he’s less likely to hurt you even if he does get the ball. With Russ down low, however, it turns his defender into the low man who has responsibilities to help on Bron’s drive or on AD after the roll occurs. Then, when Russ does end up with the ball, it’s in a spot where his own man has issues recovering and stopping him from getting to the rim.
Big picture, I look at this in a couple of different ways. First, while I’m guessing there will be calls to go to this action more than the one possession we saw it vs. the Rockets, but my focus is more on the fact that the Lakers have shown they have this in their bag at all (as they should) and that they were successful when they called on it. The Lakers, like any team that hopes to go deep into the playoffs, need a baseline attack that is their “bread and butter,” as well as a series of counters and adjustments that they can turn to when opponents start to try to take their fundamental actions away.
Second, and this is related, the Lakers need continue to show even more diversity in their counters and find ways that incorporate their three stars to work together and overwhelm defenses. Remember, in the Memphis game the Lakers ran several P&R’s where Russ screened for LeBron, ultimately using the play to set up some really good (and, at times, not as good) offensive possessions. Since that game, we’ve seen nary of of that action at all.
Some might be discouraged by this, but, again, I am not. The Lakers are never going to be the team that relies on Russ in the dunker’s spot, or Russ screening for LeBron as a main approach to their offense. Sure, over the course of a full game, we might see the Lakers spam a certain play or action that a team is having trouble stopping.
But, in the big picture, Frank Vogel has preferred to find ways to simply get his stars the ball on places of the floor they’re most effective and then let them go to work in order to compromise the defense. This is not a team that is going to run a bunch of controlled plays every time down. Vogel has always given his stars more agency to be improvisational than that — and with stars as creative as LeBron, Westbrook and AD, who can blame him?
For this team, then, we’re very likely to see less “formal” play calls if favor of them going to standard P&R’s for Russ to get downhill, post-ups for Bron and AD, and some other pet actions that are meant to either get a good shot for one of those stars or put them in position where they’re able to compromise the defense in a way that allows them to set up a teammate for an even easier shot. A core tenet of what Vogel (seemingly) preaches on both sides of the ball is “this is what we do, can you stop it?”.
The Lakers, at their best, are always going to be a blunt force attack that overwhelms you with their combination of physicality and skill. But, even in acknowledging that, having small tweaks to their main actions — particularly ones that involve ball screens where either LeBron or Russ are initiating — are going to be important for late game situations and as counters for when teams start to load up to take their main actions away, especially in the moments where the two normally ball-dominant initiators share the floor.
Because the Lakers will need both if they’re going to go as far in the playoffs as they hope to, and plays like this are one way they can make everyone as effective as they need to be.