It was in Minnesota and at the 7:28 mark of the first quarter when Russell Westbrook approached the scorer's table. At the whistle, he stepped onto the floor with an aim to not only topple the towering tandem of Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns, but also, the impermanence of professional basketball itself.
In his first regular-season outing as a reserve since his rookie year in 2008, Westbrook had come full circle. Like his baby-faced shadow he thought he left behind in Oklahoma City, Westbrook found himself once again having to prove he could fit in and that he belonged.
The choice to bring Westbrook off the bench was a decision that seemed inevitable. It is no secret that his tenure with the Lakers has not gone as expected, and outside of a trade or dismissal from the team happening, the next logical step was to start tinkering.
On paper, the lineup change makes sense for both parties. The glimpses of Westbrook that we have seen alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis continued to look as clunky as ever with the point guard still having trouble adjusting off-ball coupled with his negative impact on the offensive spacing.
Instead of trying to fit a square block into a circular hole, allowing Westbrook to come off the bench — and specifically staggered away from James — reintroduces the ability for him to be the team’s primary creator, a role that he’s traditionally had the most success with.
Although the end result of the game was yet another loss, Westbrook’s play, and more importantly buy-in, was an encouraging step in attempting to salvage this relationship.
“My hat’s off to him once again,” head coach Darvin Ham said after the game. “Came off (the bench) and shows the type of impact he can have in that reserve role and shoring up our bench and not just coming in and trying to maintain anything but coming in and taking it up a notch.”
A prime benefit of playing Westbrook off the bench, which Ham alluded to, is the added scoring punch he provides, which the club has lacked from its reserves to start the season. In their first four games, the Lakers’ bench averaged just 22.8 points per contest, which ranked 28th in the league.
Behind Westbrook, the team’s reserves not only doubled that scoring output with 47 points, but also saw each player finish the contest by being either neutral or positive in terms of their individual net ratings.
One of the notable ways Westbrook and the bench as a collective unit found early success was through their inverted screen game.
With Davis out, the team played the majority of its minutes against the Timberwolves without a traditional big on the floor. The lack of additional bodies in the paint not only allotted more space but also allowed Westbrook and the team’s other guards/wings to exchange screening duties, which helped create quick hitters like these against the Wolves’ slower bigs.
These types of actions not only help collapse the middle of the floor but also allow Westbrook and the team’s other connectors to leverage their ability to read and react within a half-court setting.
For Westbrook individually, coming off the bench also proved Ham’s hypothesis correct of creating more on-ball looks for his point guard. Heading into the game Westbrook was posting a usage rating of just 21.5% (the lowest of his career) and averaged only 59.7 touches per contest.
Against Minnesota, Westbrook saw a noticeable uptick in both, finishing the game with a usage rate of 30.7% and 72 touches on the night.
The result of more opportunities saw an even-more aggressive Westbrook as he carved through the Wolves’ interior defense continuously thanks to the Lakers’ 4-out offense, terrorized the likes of D’Angelo Russell in isolation, and felt more like the Westbrook of old than in recent memory.
Like a twister in a wind tunnel, Westbrook was a frenzy trapped within a controlled setting. Even the subdued nature of his rocking of the baby celebration post-score felt symbolic of his attempt at composure.
Even in the late stages of his career, Westbrook’s ability to get downhill has proven to be a valuable asset for the Lakers, especially as they continue to try to find their touch from the outside.
Despite carrying what seems like a thousand-ish guards, Westbrook is the sole “power” ball-handler in the backcourt and on the roster who can bulldoze traction toward the cup. And while his shot attempts and drives continue to be an adventure when it comes to efficiency, the discrepancy of the team’s volume of chances at the rim when he’s on the floor compared to not continues to be stark.
On the season, 45% of the team’s shot profile has been composed of attempts coming within four feet when Westbrook has played. When he’s been off the floor, that number shrinks to 36.9%, according to Cleaning the Glass. Against Minnesota, and their daunting size, Westbrook helped spearhead the Lakers finishing with a 49% shot frequency mark at the rim.
“I’ll just come in and try to figure out what the game needs,” Westbrook said following the game regarding his approach off the bench. “I felt our pace was a little slow so I came in and picked the pace up. Get up and down the floor, get open shots, find guys and create some movement.”
Westbrook’s aggressiveness on Friday also manifested itself through this up-tempo cadence he mentioned and helped orchestrate once subbing in.
Still equipped with afterburners, Westbrook's ability to both grab-and-go and create initial advantages in early offense is a perfect counter-punch against opposition with a clear size edge and also helps offset what has been a drab half-court attack.
Like his aforementioned impact propelling the team toward the basket, Westbrook has also been the ignitor to their transition chances. With the point guard on the floor, 37.6% of the Lakers’ live rebounds have led to a transition chance, compared to just 28.4% when he’s sat.
Beyond the glimmers of Westbrook finding his rhythm within a contained role, he also showed signs of doing the necessary ancillary aspects needed for the team to be competitive on a nightly basis.
Similar to his screen-setting within the half court, Westbrook also helped shore up other areas in Davis’ absence, most notably helping clean up the glass (seven defensive rebounds) as well as continuing to offer more effort on defense than he was accustomed to doing last season.
As he transitions from being the spotlight to instead a supporting lighting fixture, it will be these small areas of the game that will not only prove gargantuan in prolonging his playing career but also staving off his own pride from crashing down on him.
“From day one, I mentioned I’m the guy that’s willing to do whatever for the team,” Westbrook said following the game. “I’ll sacrifice whatever it is that needs to be sacrificed — parts of my game that I’ve done for years to accommodate whatever it is that the coach needs me to do, and I’ll continue to do that.”
Although it ultimately was just one game, Westbrook’s actions finally seem to be backing up his words.
His still-present flaws will likely continue to be detrimental to the team in critical junctures, and the demands of a trade from the fanbase will still loom over the organization with every loss. But for the time being, a plan seems to be in place. One that the Lakers, and Westbrook, have to at least feel heartened from after this initial test run.
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