Two roads diverged on the purple and yellow hardwood
One with Buddy Hield, and the other, with Russell Westbrook
The Lakers chose the one less traveled by. Will it even make a difference?
This is, of course, a Robert Frostian interpretation of the Lakers’ trade for Westbrook, a move they made official in a press release on Friday:
Rob Pelinka, in part, on Russ:— Harrison Faigen (@hmfaigen) August 7, 2021
"It takes a special mentality of competitiveness to take on the role of point guard for The Los Angeles Lakers." pic.twitter.com/FH1Q1VYkWK
Westbrook, now on his fourth team in as many seasons, finds himself as the beneficiary of the Los Angeles Lakers’ latest star turn. Instead of opting to rejuvenate the Lakers’ existing roster with a couple of minor tweaks, this team has gone and done what they always have throughout their illustrious history: Grab the biggest star available, and remodel everything around him in the process.
But this is not your typical, plug and play Big 3. Take Brooklyn, for example. It was easy to imagine how Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving would complement each other well on a basketball court before they ever even stepped on the floor together. Despite the group’s real and imagined defensive limitations, their shared abilities of shooting, shot creation, and isolation scoring had a resonant effect on one another. In the rare occasions when all three found themselves healthy enough to play together, one star went to work against a compromised defense still attempting to account for the potential danger of one of the other two unguarded away from the ball. KD ball denials enabled Kyrie layups and Harden step-backs as easily in reality as they did in theory, each star taking turns at slicing through the defense like a hot knife through butter.
At first blush, it’s unclear as to how handing over the keys to the Lakers’ offense to the Russell Westbrook Experience makes the NBA’s most potent pairing of stars any better, if not worse. Instead of trading for Buddy Hield, a guy that Zach Lowe recently called one of the greatest shooters in NBA history, they’ve taken on perhaps the very worst. Among players who have taken at least 3.5 3-pointers per game across at least 300 career games, Westbrook has made them at a rate worse than any other player: 30.5%.
While that obviously limits the mouth-watering potential for expanding the floor around a LeBron-AD pick and roll with shooting gravity, Russell Westbrook brings a handful of other unique talents which could provide a boon to the Lakers, especially if they find a way to mitigate some of his more glaring flaws — including his abhorrent shooting.
Before examining Russ himself, it’s worth acknowledging the glaringly obvious new team-building strategy the Lakers have employed in filling out their roster around their newly formed triumvirate.
Exploding off the block and into free agency, the Lakers impressively managed to sign — borrowing from LeBron’s own parlance — not one, not two, and not three, but four wings who shot over 40% from beyond the arc in a matter of minutes (despite not contacting any player or their agent about a potential deal until after the moratorium was lifted). The Lakers’ free agency mission counterbalanced the addition of a miserable shooter in Westbrook to a Laker squad coming off of a season with the eighth-worst 3-point shooting percentage in the NBA at just 33.4%.
As the distant third-best player on this team, Westbrook will need to first internalize that fact, and then find a way to make himself useful when either of the Lakers’ two superior stars has the ball. For a model of inspiration, he needs to look no further than Dwyane Wade, LeBron James’ first super-duper-star teammate.
Prime Wade, an even worse career 3-point shooter than Russ (29.3%) — albeit on lesser volume (1.8 3PA per game) — found a way to effectively cohabit Miami’s halfcourt offense with LeBron, another balky shooter at the time. Wade’s ability to shed his defender along the baseline and present himself in the slightest windows of space thrived synergistically next to LeBron’s unparalleled playmaking. Crucially, it turned him into a threat in the halfcourt without the ball in his hands, even when ignored from beyond the arc.
If Westbrook is to optimize his offensive fit on a Laker team with James and Davis, he will need to spend more time off the ball than ever, and he will need to make the most of those minutes. Most importantly, he has to cut down on the ill-advised chucking that has turned him into one of the game’s most polarizing players. However, as the LA Times’ Broderick Turner reported on the heels of the trade’s announcement, Westbrook yearned to play for his hometown team beside James and Davis, culminating in a conversation between the trio hammering out how they might make the move a reality. During their several-hour discussion, the trio purportedly agreed to sacrifice some of the offensive share they might each have as respective leaders of lesser teams.
Further, it is worth noting that Westbrook’s played with just one player arguably as good as either member of the Lakers’ core duo (Kevin Durant), and he’s never played with a passer as dynamic as LeBron James.
While James Harden is a tremendous facilitator in his own right, his array of offerings is limited by the extremely particular offensive construction he prefers to play within. Harden makes a living off of coaxing defenses into a disadvantage and then exploiting said disadvantage by the optimal selection from his package of step-backs, drives, lobs to bigs, and kick-outs to shooters. At the expense of their on-court cohesion in Houston, none of these offerings particularly enhanced Westbrook’s talents. Instead, Houston’s offense took the shape of a “Your turn, my turn,” succession of pick and rolls and isolations alternating between the two stars.
LeBron, however, possesses a Magic Johnson-esque arsenal of passes, capable of slinging the ball through the slightest slivers of space at a seemingly infinite number of angles. Laker fans can only hope that Russ’ new reality of relatively lesser superstardom, the decreased offensive load he’ll be expected to carry, and the opportunity to receive those passes encourages him to move more often without the ball by setting screens and back-cutting unsuspecting defenders.
Also worthy of note is that although Russ is largely a terrible shooter from distance, much of his ineptitude comes down to his shot selection. Even though Westbrook took mostly wide-open 3s last season — he was more open than 84% of the league, per the Basketball Index — he shot 28.3% on pull-up 3s, but a much more palatable 35.6% on catch and shoot 3s. Even better, he was a 40.6% 3-point shooter from the corner.
If Westbrook is willing to mostly limit his attempts to those that come off of passes from the Lakers’ other playmakers, especially from in the corner, he could reinvent himself as an efficient offensive weapon. If he continues to chuck 30-footers after walking the ball up the court with Anthony Davis and LeBron James just watching, or stand idly by when the other two go to work, he’ll torpedo the Lakers’ potential in the halfcourt.
At 32 years old and 14 seasons deep into his career, Westbrook — the hooper — is largely a finished product. Nonetheless, any modicum of newfound discretion would be a boon for the Lakers this coming season.
When James joined Wade’s Heat, they eventually made good on their championship promises by first and foremost dominating teams defensively and in transition. Even without a full-time rim-protecting big, those Heat teams caused chaos on the perimeter with their superlative athleticism and collective IQs, like the second coming of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen’s 1990s Bulls teams. Steals and stops turned into demoralizingly easy, highlight-reel finishes on the other end, weaponizing the Heat duo’s infamous chemistry on the fastbreak.
Although Westbrook has been lambasted for his glaring lapses on the defensive end, on the whole, some metrics suggest he’s a much better defender than many give him credit for.
2020-21 Point of Attack Defenders with 1,500+ minutes— Cranjis McBasketball (@Tim_NBA) August 4, 2021
X-Axis: Advanced on/off defensive impact
Y-Axis: Box score defensive impact
Kendrick Nunn is dead center on this graph. He's no elite defensive stopper, but his impact was fine on defense last year.
Also, peep Russ! pic.twitter.com/TStsjQwzcd
When directly engaging a ball-handler, Westbrook is one of the league’s better defensive players. However, it’s the gambling in passing lanes, unwillingness to chase shooters around screens, and bouts of lethargy that undermine his overall defensive impact. While guarding primary ball handlers, Russ ranked in the NBA’s 74th percentile, but fell to below average (36th percentile) when guarding shooters coming off of screens. Most glaringly, he ranked in just the sixth percentile in terms of 3PT contests per 75 possessions, and the 10th percentile in rim contests per 75 possessions. His horrible habit of ceding advantages to attacking offensive players drags down his overall defensive impact to relatively unsatisfactory standards.
The catch-all defensive metrics derived from the combination between box score and on/off data disagree about Westbrook’s defensive efficacy, with Defensive RPM (C+) and D-LEBRON (A-) suggesting that he lies anywhere between above average and elite, while Defensive RAPTOR (F) considers Russ to be a downright liability.
But even if his exact defensive value might be hard to pinpoint, his poor habits undeniably cost his team a handful of points per game. Despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary in his past, it is possible that the possibly least demanding offensive role of his career helps him maintain enough energy to stay engaged on the other end throughout the game.
In transition, like Wade was in his prime, Russ should continue to be an absolute terror for the Lakers. After adding the most points per 100 possessions in transition in 2019-20, the older, slower, and less healthy Lakers’ transition offense plummeted to just the 19th-most effective last season. Russ’ ability to grab and go in transition should help the Lakers get out on the break more often to take advantage of LeBron and Anthony Davis’ finishing talents. Westbrook’s own Wizards were the 12th-best transition team last year, largely due to Russ’ willingness to sprint all 94 feet of the court at even the slightest window of space, or none at all.
However, the regularity of the Lakers’ transition game will be regulated by their ability to actually get steals and stops. A decade older than he was when he first arrived in South Beach, LeBron is no longer the Defensive Player of the Year-caliber, havoc-wreaking force he was in his physical prime. With the departures of Alex Caruso, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Kyle Kuzma, the Lakers have lost the level of defensive wing depth they maintained throughout their championship run. If the King-Brodie-Brow Lakers plan to sport an elite or even above-average defense to match their recharged offense, they’ll likely need a 28-year-old, healthy, and in-shape Anthony Davis to look like a switchier version of Rudy Gobert-lite for large swaths of the regular season, without substantive defensive improvements from the 2021-22 Lakers’ perimeter corps. If not, this team is going to give up a lot more points than it did over the past two seasons.
Broadly speaking, Russell Westbrook’s greatest boon to this team might just be his ability to eat innings in the regular season, taking some of the impossibly heavy load off of LeBron’s admittedly broad shoulders, and allow The King to save his best for when it matters most. By the time the playoffs come around, the Lakers will need LeBron healthy enough to play his best basketball into the postseason of his 19th year if they hope to make it out of the West or win another championship.
The acquisition of Buddy Hield may have made more sense to maximize the known powers of LeBron and AD, especially in the context of the previous season’s roster construction. However, by restocking the team with more shooting than LeBron or Russell Westbrook has ever played with, the Lakers are primed to blitz teams offensively throughout the coming regular season in ways more reminiscent of the ‘20-21 Nets than the previous iterations of themselves, dominating on offense to the point where regular season defense need not be compulsory. Hopefully, some of that ideological shift can help the Lakers reach the postseason without being as dinged up as they were last year, especially if they can find a way to ramp up the defense in the playoffs around Davis when they need to.
Trading for a third star whose style of play directly clashes with that of the team’s existing duo feels like an act of violence against a squad that won a championship when last healthy. Nonetheless, Brooklyn’s trio’s — presuming health and preeminence atop the Eastern Conference — moved the Lakers to seek out a drastic mode of redefinition. And it would be foolish to count the Lakers out after accumulating a mass of raw talent probably greater than any team in post-Hamptons Five NBA basketball, especially when led by one of the game’s greatest players ever (who paced the MVP race before his ankle injury just last season).
We will never truly know if the 2021-22 Lakers would have been better off with Westbrook or Hield unless the season completely falls apart. Undoubtedly, Westbrook will look electric at times, and frustratingly burdensome at others. It took the Heatles two seasons to reach the mountaintop, and a third after adding Ray Allen to reach their peak. The Lakers, led by a soon to be 37 years old LeBron James, don’t have that luxury. By choosing “The Road Not Taken” down Westbrook Drive, the Lakers made what is undoubtedly a gamble, albeit one that just might have given them their best shot at becoming champs for the 18th time.
When looking at this decision through the latter lens, it’s easy to channel one’s inner Russ and ask: “Why Not?”
Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley. No, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can follow him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.