Virtually every single rumor leading up to the night of the 2021 NBA draft indicated that the Lakers were looking for a playmaking point guard to shoulder some of LeBron James’ load after the Dennis Schröder experiment ended in disaster for both sides. So when the Lakers were presented with a chance to trade for Russell Westbrook, they killed a separate deal for Sacramento Kings sharpshooter Buddy Hield at the last minute in order to reroute those players to the Washington Wizards for Westbrook.
And for as neatly as Hield’s skillset would have fit next to James and Anthony Davis, both James and the Lakers’ front office reportedly preferred to add a playmaker all along. Once Westbrook voiced his desire to play for the Lakers after James, Davis and Jared Dudley went to his house to recruit him, the deal came together quickly.
Now, it’s up to Westbrook to prove he was worth it and give James — who will turn 37 next season — less playmaking responsibilities as well as remain useful off-ball when James is still running the offense, something the shooting-deficient Westbrook isn’t exactly known for. Still, the nine-time NBA All-Star is confident he can help, and is putting an emphasis on doing so.
“My job is to make sure that I’m able to make his game easy for him,” Westbrook said at his introductory press conference. “And I’ll find ways to do that throughout the game. As it pertains to ball handling and all that, it really doesn’t matter. There’s many different ways you can impact the game without having the ball in your hands. And I’ve been able to do that for many years and I will figure it out.”
Westbrook was preemptively responding to the “there’s only one ball” line of criticism that tends to crop up whenever a team has multiple ball-dominant stars like himself and James. However, that criticism can be often misplaced — James Harden and Chris Paul nearly reached the NBA Finals with the Houston Rockets in 2018, Harden and Westbrook had Houston’s offense humming with a small-ball attack in early 2020 before the season was suspended due to COVID-19, and the Harden/Kevin Durant/Kyrie Irving trio on the Brooklyn Nets thrived when all three could get on the court at the same time.
That said, adding Westbrook to the Lakers’ core duo of James and Anthony Davis will definitely require some adjustments from all three. James, Westbrook and Davis were all finished among the NBA’s top 25 leaders in usage rate among all players — James finished 11th with a 31.0 USG%, Westbrook finished 19th with a 29.5 USG% and Davis finished 24th with a 28.7 USG%. Those marks are even more eye-popping when considering the fact that all three veterans dealt with significant injuries throughout the unique 2020-21 season. In theory, then, the “there’s only one ball” argument could actually work in the Lakers’ favor — the presence of a healthy Davis and especially Westbrook should allow James to take many more breaks from initiating the offense over the course of the season.
The Lakers had a similar goal in mind when they had Rajon Rondo and Lonzo Ball during LeBron’s first season in L.A. and used it as their logic behind the bizarre signings of players like Lance Stephenson, whose days as a useful playmaker had long been over. Obviously, that approach did not work out then. But a lot has changed in three years, and Rob Pelinka has done a much better job of filling out the Lakers’ roster with shooters than Magic Johnson’s mind-boggling free agency spree in the summer of 2018. James is also close friends with Westbrook, and hopefully that friendship will translate into a snug on-court fit, as well as James’ fifth championship and Westbrook’s first ring.