When news first hit that the Lakers and Wizards had a deal in place that would send Los Angeles native Russell Westbrook back home, the first reaction from most was this was a move to help LeBron James.
Prior to Thursday, there had been multiple reports that the team was in the market for a “playmaker” and high-end point guard, namely in hopes to spell James from having to shoulder the majority of the Lakers’ offense once again.
The team had previously attempted to address this with the Dennis Schröder experiment this past season. However, between injuries, complicated contract negotiations and a so-so on-court fit, the rationale for finding an upgrade was understandable.
And among the potential players the team could have realistically added this offseason, Westbrook is assuredly one of — if not the best — option to allow James catch his breath.
Despite the widely discussed pitfalls that Westbrook’s poor 3-point shooting could introduce on the floor, when thinking in terms of someone who could be both an innings eater and also finally solve the Rubik’s Cube that is non-James’ minutes for a team, Westbrook passes the smell test with flying colors.
But while the interest is clear in terms of James and the Lakers’ reported checklist, not enough has been said about the potential positive impact Westbrook could have for the team’s other star, Anthony Davis, an impact that could arguably be even more substantial.
Take this play, for example:
Westbrook’s love/hate relationship with his jumper makes him a predictable player, which is limiting, but not always a bad thing.
Before his bags are packed and he is even seated, the Bulls’ defense already knows the destination on Westbrook’s plane ticket — the rim. As a result, they collapse into the paint to prevent him from landing. In the process, Westbrook lures eight eyes onto him, drives and then creates this open three out of thin air.
This is where Westbrook’s reputation is also a blessing. For as deafening as his flaws are, his strengths are just as loud. And his specific brand of talents are ones that Davis in particular can benefit from.
Davis’ past season was occupied in limbo. After an elongated playoff run that culminated in a championship, and an offseason that lasted as long as a pitstop at a dingy gas station convenience store, the big man spent most of the year either injured or trying to play catch up.
This was most visible on the court via a more complacent approach on both ends, leading to lots of turnovers and jump-shots. A whole lot of jump-shots.
According to Cleaning the Glass, Davis had the lowest shot frequency percentage at the rim of his career last year (down 10% from the previous season), his highest mid-range frequency, and also was assisted on less makes than ever before.
Westbrook could potentially aid in all those areas, helping reel Davis in, both metaphorically and figuratively, in the upcoming year. Or, if nothing else, simply make his looks easier. Because behind all the gaudy numbers and stat padding slights still lies one hell of a point guard. One who is arguably among the best in NBA history at rewarding his big men.
As the clips above illustrate, Westbrook possesses the ability to carve out space even if it’s previously sealed shut. Between his explosive first step and underrated upper body strength, Westbrook simply overwhelms defenses en route to the rim, which often creates these assist opportunities to a cutting or patently waiting big in the dunker spot.
In the past five seasons, Westbrook’s 1,647 helpers sit only behind James Harden in terms of the most assists at the rim. And when considering assist points overall, Westbrook is decisively at the top, with 1,067 more than the next closest player. That is easily an upgrade over the team’s previous point guard in terms of facilitating.
For Davis in particular, Westbrook’s inclusion potentially helps make more of his buckets assisted ones. Schröder and Davis had a midseason exchange where an injured Davis asked Schröder to throw him more lob passes when he got back. Such conversations won’t be necessary with Westbrook.
And for all the uproar about the spacing limitations that come with adding a player with Westbrook’s shooting resume (which is fair), there is also no denying the benefits of his ability to put pressure at the rim. That skill was a staple of the Lakers’ recent championship, and for the Bucks this year as well. It’s also an area where arguably no guard is better than Westbrook.
According to the Bball-Index, last season Westbrook ranked in the 99th percentile in their database when it came to “getting to the rim rating,” the 99th percentile in box creation (an estimate of open shots carved out for teammates by drawing defensive attention) and the 99th percentile in “high value assists” (3PT, rim, free-throws). All of it proves that even at his advanced age of 32, Westbrook can both still get to the cup and dish it out at an absurd level.
With Davis, Westbrook is presented his most dynamic big man dance partner ever, and a skillset that the point guard could fully push to the limit. Especially in the open floor. Because if Davis makes the effort to run, Westbrook is damn sure going to find him.
As seen above, the old saying “if you give someone an inch they’ll take a mile” does not really apply to Westbrook, because he takes every mile he can, every time. Due to his historic rebounding ability for a guard, every defensive stop has the potential to instantly turn into a transition chance at the drop of a dime. Which should also help jumpstart what was a stale running game for the team last season.
Through his exceptional outlet passes and lightning speed, Westbrook surveys and storms through freeway traffic with ease and grace. His eyes are always up, canvasing the floor for his big that leaked out, if they have a seal on their man, if there is an advantage he can exploit. He is always hunting, always the hunter.
This is where the Westbrook/Davis tandem can thrive and terrorize the most, while also making Davis’ scoring chances drastically easier compared to the face-up jumpers in the half court he fell too in love with last season.
It will take a certain level of buy-in from both sides to ultimately get the optimized version of this partnership. Fortunately, with the report that Davis is up for playing more of his optimal position of center this season, it sounds like at least from his end, that compromise is already happening
In the upcoming days, weeks and even months, there will be plenty of analysis on why the Westbrook move might not work. And to be clear, it will all be a fair perspective, and perhaps an even correct one. This is undoubtedly a gamble. But there is also plenty to be optimistic about for those on the fence. Especially when it comes to the potential benefits Westbrook’s arrival could have for both of the team’s stars in different but equally important ways.
And when Westbrook puts on his Lakers uniform for the first time, and snatches that board from the clouds while locking eyes with Davis ahead of him, there is a good chance that even the most skeptical will hold their breath, and reveal a smile.
Because basketball is supposed to be fun, and for all is faults, Westbrook is unquestionably just that. Fun. And if his tandem with Davis is as mutually beneficial as it looks on paper, we’ll all be having a lot of it.