Russell Westbrook’s fit with the Lakers and LeBron James will be the topic of much discussion leading up to and throughout the upcoming season. While his acquisition gives the Lakers a third star, it comes with the caveat of being a potentially unnatural fit alongside LeBron James, the center of gravity for the Lakers.
The questions that arose were instantaneous and persistent. How does a non-shooter like Westbrook — a career 30.5% 3-point shooter — fit alongside James, a ball-dominant force of nature who is still a tick below average from the 3-point line himself at 34.5%?
Westbrook is a force of nature guard that is at his best with the ball in his hands. And none of the above analysis factors in Anthony Davis — who has sported a usage rate only marginally lower than James’ in each of the last two seasons — into the equation either. The answer to the equation is that each will be forced to sacrifice, something they appear willing to do.
But sacrificing touches doesn’t solve the issues of fit. The general consensus right now is that defenses will dare Westbrook to shoot and beat them from behind the arc. Fans of the purple and gold should be more than familiar with the concept: It’s the basis of the defense the Lakers themselves played against the Rockets in the playoff inside the bubble in 2020 which worked to great effect.
However, so much has changed both in the NBA and around the world over the last 18 months that it’s easy to forget how good Houston looked leading up to the league’s shutdown in mid-March of 2020. However much We Believed such prognostications were misguided at the time, there was a reason many experts picked the Rockets to defeat the Lakers in the playoffs.
In the months prior to the league coming to a halt, it was Westbrook, not James Harden, that was the catalyst for the Rockets. As Houston pushed all its chips into its small ball philosophy, Westbrook flourished despite playing alongside a ball-dominant force of nature in Harden. Defenses ignored Westbrook behind the 3-point line, and he made them pay. If there’s a place Lakers fans can look to see how Westbrook can find success in Los Angeles, taking a look at how he looked dominant at times in Houston could be a first step.
Westbrook’s start in Houston was not good. From the beginning of the season through December, he averaged 24.2 points on 42.7% field goal shooting and shot 23.1% on 3-pointers on 4.9 attempts per game. He struggled to find a rhythm, even if the Rockets sat at 23-11 at the turn of the new year.
Then, things began to click because Westbrook entirely changed his approach. From January until March 10, the Rockets’ final game before the league’s multi-month shutdown, Westbrook was one of the league’s best players. He averaged 31.7 points on 52.7% field goal shooting, a jump in field goal percentage fueled by Westbrook simply not taking 3-pointers anymore. There was a positive regression to the mean as he shot 31.5% on his long-range efforts, but took just 2.3 per game.
Defenses had ignored Westbrook behind the arc through the first half of the season. Of his 147 3-pointers through December, 135 of them were classified as open or wide-open. Westbrook was trying to make teams pay behind the arc and it wasn’t working. That he only took 54 3-pointers over the next 23 games is a sign of how his mindset shifted.
Instead of trying to make teams pay for leaving him open, Westbrook chose a different way of attacking, opting to eat up the space between him and his defender. Watch Westbrook as he catches the ball in the clips below and notice how he’s already attacking when he receives the pass:
Westbrook is still a supreme athlete, one of the best in the league. Give him a runway to get up to speed and defenses can’t react quickly enough to stop him at the rim. From January through mid-March, Westbrook shot 64% at the rim on 297 attempts, ranking in the 73rd percentile in efficiency and 100th percentile in frequency, per Cleaning the Glass.
But he didn’t only attack the rim to score. In that span, Westbrook still averaged 6.8 assists per game and was still terrific at finding the open man, particularly under the basket. It’s another reason to believe this could be a monster season for Davis.
Again, notice how Westbrook is in an attacking mindset when catching these passes.
Westbrook’s reputation as a stat-padder does a disservice to his actual incredible skillset as a passer and overall basketball player. The Rockets began to figure out how to get Westbrook into open space more often, occasionally using Westbrook as a screener for Harden.
Teams would often happily leave a second defender on Harden, and Westbrook happily took the 4-on-3 situations and made teams pay.
There perhaps isn’t a more translatable sequence from those Rockets games to the Lakers than this sequence. James often uses guards as a ball screener to search for a mismatch. With Westbrook as the screener, this will most often either force the defense to switch a weaker defender onto James, or allow Westbrook a 4-on-3 scenario.
Ultimately, defenses will continue to sag off Westbrook, as it is the simplest solution to a complex problem. But the Lakers are a team built on putting pressure on the rim and Westbrook has been relentless in doing so throughout his career. Since 2016-17, only Giannis Antetokounmpo and Harden have taken more free throws than Westbrook, a product of his constant attack on the rim.
While 3-point shooting can be an inconsistent solution to defenses sagging off, attacking the rim is not a results-based solution. It’s an always-available option to defenses sagging off, particularly for a player with Westbrook’s commitment to getting there.
The Lakers will likely experience some of the same growing pains this season that the Rockets did early in their season as James, Westbrook and Davis figure out how to play off one another. But Westbrook not only has a baseline of playing next to a ball-dominant star, he has a big sample size of success in those situations.
So while Westbrook may not be perceived as a perfect complement to James as a knockdown shooter, writing him off as a bad fit is not fair analysis, either. Westbrook (with Harden) and James (with Dwyane Wade) have been here before in their respective careers, so don’t be surprised if they figure out how to become a dominant force together for the Lakers this season.