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Some thoughts on Russell Westbrook

Russell Westbrook fitting in with the Lakers has proven to be more complicated than previously expected, but there are still glimmers of hope that this can eventually work.

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Memphis Grizzlies v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

Why not?

It’s the mantra of someone who has achieved things they never thought were imaginable for someone who looks how he looks, and grew up how and where he did. It’s the idea that, regardless of obstacles, there’s always a path towards accomplishing the thing you’re chasing. It’s a state of mind reflecting a certain stubbornness and obstinance towards whatever outside limitations are being placed onto you.

Why not?

This two word phrase not just a marketing slogan for Russell Westbrook. It’s at the root of who he is. A description of how he lives. Fittingly, it’s as much a question as it is a statement, as much defiance towards what others think as it is an acceptance that what they think actually does influence the perception of him to begin with. Westbrook is a player who has done things his way and reached unbelievable heights, all while being second guessed and told that those heights actually aren’t that high at all.

And, in a way, neither of those last two perspectives are necessarily wrong. A league MVP, perennial All-Star and All-NBA player, and member of the league’s 75th Anniversary team, Westbrook’s credentials as an individual talent are unimpeachable. And, as a player who is on his fourth team in four seasons, traded to one franchise after another after struggling to elevate his teams to the top of the sport as was hoped, the indictments of how much those credentials translate to team success are embedded into the fabric of his legacy.

This is the baggage that comes with investing in Russell Westbrook. As a superstar in this league, he is both legend and laggard, the epitome of both what is possible with dogged determination, and the limitations of those possibilities when that same determination bumps up against inflexibility in the face of adaptation.

And now, Westbrook is a Laker. He’s ours. And with that comes a reconciling of what we hope he can be, what he’s been to this point, and whether the bridge between the two exists anywhere but in the minds of the people who are most inclined to want to believe in him in the first place. Belief that, if we’re being honest, is being tested of late.

Westbrook is currently in a terrible shooting slump, even by his efficiency-strapped standards. In his last three games he’s combined to hit only 8 of his last 40 field goal attempts. He’s yet to make a 3-pointer since the calendar turned to 2022 (0-12). And, if you were thinking this is only a problem with his jump shot, in Wednesday’s loss to the Kings, he shot 1-7 in the paint, mostly on point-blank shots in the restricted area. These are not numbers that can be spun or contextualized away (even if there is context; but, more on that later).

So, I’m not here to tell you Westbrook is playing well. He’s doing some things well, for sure. His rebounding numbers remain strong. He’s been great at cutting his turnovers down (4 total over his last 4 games). His passing and shot creation for teammates has been very good. But he’s not playing well. He’d be the first to tell you this, too. Though, when he did, he’d probably point to the team’s 21-21 record, or the fact that they’ve lost two consecutive games, and not his inability to buy a basket.

Though, he’ll tell you about that, too. You see, as defiant and stubborn as Westbrook can be, he’s not oblivious. He’s fairly self aware, both in how he’s viewed as a player, and in how much his contributions (or lack thereof) matter towards winning and losing. He’s clearly pressing now as he tries to figure out how to play the style the team needs from him in the shifting environment of this new roster with LeBron James as his main partner now, and Anthony Davis preparing to return to the lineup in the coming weeks.

Does this absolve Westbrook from some of the depths he’s scraped in recent games? No. But it does help explain some of his struggles, and contextualize why getting back on track hasn’t come as easily as anyone would hope.

Brooklyn Nets v Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers’ new Big 3 might eventually work, but there have been too many nights where they aren’t all in uniform to know for sure.
Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Anytime a new player comes to the team you root for, there’s a learning of their game in ways that just isn’t possible when you watch them from afar. This is true even in the days of league pass, and just as true of the superstar players around the league whose games appear on national TV dozens of times a year.

Westbrook is no different. I knew his game, but I didn’t really know, you know?

Through 42 games, though, I do have a better idea of him now. I get that his successes are determined by circumstances that are narrower than I’d thought. He doesn’t only need shooting around him, but a viable roll threat to help occupy the big defenders who can disrupt him at the basket. There’s a flow and tempo and pace that gets the best out of him, and unless the game is tilted in that direction as a default, his own effectiveness can sputter and hitch as the pace slows down.

I also get that his weaknesses are exposed in very specific ways, particularly through a combination of length and strength that allows an individual defender to not only lay off him and encourage jump shots, but to challenge him at the rim should he still get to the paint anyway. Of late, teams are often defending him with forwards — something they’re more able to do with LeBron playing more center, and with the team starting two other 6’3 guards next to him — and we’re seeing the limitations of his individual strength and speed when the players who defend him are more equipped to deal with both.

This all leads me back to Anthony Davis, and how much Russ truly misses him. Because if there’s one other thing that has become clear over the Lakers’ first 42 games, it’s that Westbrook is not only no longer a No. 1 option, he’s also not really a true No. 2 anymore either. Westbrook needs Davis to slot him back into the appropriate-sized role, to be the partner he needs in lineups both with and without LeBron that better position him to play to his strengths.

Lineups with Bron and AD mean that it’s less likely you can put a big and physical defender on Russ, since those types of defenders are a necessity to defend those other two. Lineups with both also mean more possessions where double teams go towards one (or both) of them, giving Westbrook more space to roam and cut into the creases of the defense rather than needing to create most of his scoring chances himself. There’s a slotting element that combines to both get the most out of him and make the team as dangerous as they can be under this type of roster construction.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that none of this may work in the end. This team has championship aspirations, and acting as though that best case scenario is likely simply isn’t intellectually honest.

That said, the team constantly bringing up that they haven’t been healthy all year when explaining away their struggles in postgame interviews isn’t inaccurate; this team truly hasn’t had much a chance to show what they can or cannot be. Especially not in the style they’re clearly invested in playing now. For all the talk of fit and what works or doesn’t, LeBron, AD, and Russ have appeared in 15 total games together.

Per the NBA’s stats site, the most-used lineup that those 3 have played in together has tallied 47 minutes and featured DeAndre Jordan and Kent Bazemore — two players no longer even in the Lakers rotation, and who the team is reportedly trying to dump at the deadline. Needless to say, this lineup isn’t representative of an ideal deployment of their three stars.

On the flip side of that, per Cleaning the Glass, if you remove Jordan, Bazemore, Rondo, and Dwight from lineups that feature the Westbrook, LeBron, and Davis trio (aka true small-ball groups, but without guys no longer in the rotation or, in Rondo’s case, on the team at all), those groups have a +17 net rating. Similarly, if you take lineups that feature Westbrook and Davis, but don’t have LeBron or the aforementioned Jordan, Bazemore, or Rondo (true Russ/AD lineups that can skew big with Dwight or smaller without him), those groups have a +3.4 net rating.

I don’t provide these numbers as some sort of “gotcha” to the non-believers. But, these sorts of stats are the context that point towards a path where playing with Westbrook can equate to actual success. Are these lineups where he’s the star? Not necessarily, no. In fact, in some possessions, he won’t even be one of the central figures of how the play unfolds.

And, honestly, that’s just fine by me. Because, in the end, it’s understood that Westbrook has his flaws. Just as it’s understood that mitigating those flaws will take a combination of how much his teammates can help him and how much he can fit into the structure of what it means to be a true third option. This is really the only way. And it’s narrower than any of us would like, precisely because Westbrook makes it that way.

But, if they really can come together and find a way to navigate those difficulties, when you ask me whether this team can actually make a real run the answer just might have to be... why not?

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Darius on Twitter at @forumbluegold.

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