Although we are now one preseason game into the 2022-23 campaign (with the Lakers still working on a nice seven-game losing streak in these exhibition games dating back to last season), it still feels a little surreal that Russell Westbrook is still on the team.
However, that’s just the reality that the Lakers and we fans will have to accept, at least for now. Even if The Athletic has reported that a trade involving Westbrook could still happen at some point this year.
And although the ceiling that this team could reach will always be limited given the poor fit of the Westbrook, LeBron James, and Anthony Davis trio, their floor can certainly be higher than last season’s results that saw the Lakers finish 11th in the Western Conference. If LeBron and AD play more games and Westbrook puts a higher emphasis on changing his game to fit better around the two champions, an 11th-seeded finish almost seems impossible.
But after Frank Vogel and his coaching staff couldn’t get Westbrook to play well and make sacrifices in the purple-and-gold last season, will Darvin Ham be able to? The same Athletic story from Sam Amick, Jovan Buha and Shams Charania seems to indicate that Ham already has had more success in that area at this extremely early point of the season.
Westbrook and Ham have gotten off to a much better start than Westbrook and former head coach Frank Vogel did last season.
During scrimmages, Westbrook has been doing many of the little things that the Lakers have asked of him. He’s been an active on-ball screener. He’s relentlessly pushing the pace in Ham’s uptempo system, looking for his teammates first and his own shot second. He’s been engaged defensively, hounding ballhandlers while adjusting to Ham’s new pick-and-roll coverage.
It’s encouraging to hear that Westbrook has been setting screens, following Ham’s fastbreak principles, and primarily looking to facilitate instead of scoring while within the practice facilities in El Segundo. Of course, Westbrook doing these things in games is a whole other story.
He played well in the Lakers’ loss against the Kings on Monday, putting forth an effort on the defensive side of the ball, setting up his teammates for scoring opportunities, and driving to the rim to finish baskets when an open lane presented itself.
However, he did have a few mental lapses on the defensive end, most notably the one below.
Darvon ham has his work cut out for him man. The lakers and russ. Just watch russell westbrook on this play. pic.twitter.com/hyHqVw9UwM— Jamal Cristopher (@JamCristopher) October 4, 2022
Every veteran player has mental lapses during the preseason, and that video does a terrible job at showcasing the overall game that Westbrook played on Monday. Still, it does present the part of his game that is in most need of a change.
As the player who will likely be accumulating the majority of minutes in the Lakers’ backcourt, he simply needs to be much better on the defensive end than he has over the course of his career if the Lakers are to have success late in the season, especially considering the fact that Westbrook one of the few guards who can realistically defend an opposing wing — at least in theory — given his physical attributes compared to the other backcourt members of the team.
All in all, we only have film from one half of Westbrook playing under Ham. He has reportedly brought out changes in Russ much quicker than Vogel did last season — with some of that reporting being backed up from Monday’s game — but that doesn’t yet mean we can take the good things we’ve seen as something we can reliably expect this season.
And just as we can’t bank on the positive things we’ve seen from Russ due to the unserious nature of preseason games, we also can’t condemn him for taking some plays off. LeBron also did that at times on Monday, just as every superstar in the NBA does. It’s just something that’s going to happen in these preseason games, even if the Lakers are taking things more seriously this go around than they did last season.
With all that said, it’s starting to seem realistic that we will see a Westbrook more willing to set screens and play defense. That’s believable enough for now, and thankfully, that same report from The Athletic didn’t undermine that optimism by trying to convince us that we are going to see Westbrook shooting well this season, too.
Westbrook slightly refined his shooting form this summer, and sources say his catch-and-shoot 3-point percentage has been improved in workouts and scrimmages.
I’m, uh... not gonna hold my breath on that one.