The Russell Westbrook acquisition by the Lakers this summer was a controversial move for a number of reasons. For one, it came at the expense of the Buddy Hield trade that was being discussed simultaneously. In a similar vein, the fit of LeBron James and Russell Westbrook was seen as a poor one, especially when compared directly to a potential fit between James and Hield.
However, Westbrook’s arrival in Los Angeles was purposeful for the Lakers and general manager Rob Pelinka. With LeBron James entering his 19th year in the league, the team didn’t want to put as much on the veteran forward’s sculpted shoulders, no matter how much he continues to fight off Father Time.
In the latest episode of Spectrum SportsNet’s “Backstage Lakers,” Pelinka confirmed that lessening James’ load was the main thinking behind acquiring Westbrook:
“I think in kind of building the roster in the offseason, obviously we made a big trade for Russell Westbrook to get another playmaker... We knew that as LeBron journeyed towards Year 19 in the league and then Year 20, we couldn’t rely on him as the sole engine for our team, so we made that trade really wanting to dimensionalize the roster with a combination of versatility, guys that could shoot and also defenders.
“The way this season started, with Talen being out for a couple months, we still haven’t had Trevor Ariza play (Editor’s Note: Pelinka said this before Ariza returned to the lineup) and Kendrick Nunn hasn’t played in a game yet... Those were all players that we saw in our top eight, and so getting them healthy and back will really I think be critical in us being able analyze how the puzzle fits together once we have the whole team.”
To the point of reducing the playmaking responsibility on James, his usage rate reflects that change this season. For the first time since his sophomore year in the league, James’ usage rate is under 30% this season. Coincidentally, Westbrook’s usage rate of 27.6% is the lowest of his career since his second year in the league as well. They’re very much sharing the creative burden for this roster, and both doing less in the process.
The team’s move to protect its most valuable player in James for the long term is one that can hardly be argued against, and it’s as goal they have long looked to accomplish. Acquisitions of Rajon Rondo, Dennis Schröder, Lance Stephenson — along with the presence of Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram in his first season — throughout James’ Lakers tenure all made clear the Lakers’ intent of easing James’ burden and not be so reliant on him to be the sole creator.
The Lakers are clearly aware that asking James to play at an MVP level and be the team’s focal point on offense night in and night out as he’s set to turn 37 is not a sustainable strategy, particularly once the playoffs come around. Westbrook’s arrival came with lots of questions, and we won’t have an answer as to whether it was ultimately the right call until we see the end result. But it was done to serve a distinct purpose that, and — at least early on this season — the move has paid some of the specific dividends the Lakers were looking for.