When the Lakers traded for Russell Westbrook, one of the arguments in favor of the deal was that Westbrook’s maniacal energy would prop up the team on the nights in the middle of a road trip or when another star had to sit. His Energizer bunny motor would rub off on his teammates.
That didn’t really happen in 2021-22, as the older veterans on the Lakers roster weren’t as receptive to Westbrook’s intensity. But this season, with a younger squad, and Westbrook leading an even younger second unit, that energy is being put to better use.
Russell Westbrook said coming off the bench is beneficial for everybody. pic.twitter.com/ffDNX7njtK— Spectrum SportsNet (@SpectrumSN) November 2, 2022
“It’s beneficial for everybody in my opinion,” Westbrook said after practice Tuesday. “My job is to find ways to keep making my team better, whatever that is needed at that night, whether it’s assisting, scoring, rebounding, or defending. I’m the person that prides myself on everything, each and every night, and I want to be able to have that trickle down effect on the guys that I’m on the floor with.”
The bench production has been markedly improved since Westbrook moved out of the starting five. Scoring has gone up by 21 points per game (the starters have only gone down 12, so it’s a net gain) with a 10 percent jump in field-goal percentage and a 19 percent jump in 3-point accuracy.
As his fellow second-unit members can attest to, there’s also a vibes shift with Westbrook in the second unit, something Austin Reaves noted Tuesday (via Spectrum SportsNet):
“It brings a different, you know, feel for sure. I mean, especially with Russ, you know, you see him getting active, feeling himself, it makes everybody else around you feel good. And so that’s, that’s big for us. His energy and his demeanor and the way he plays can really be like a staple for the bench guys, making everybody feel like that. I mean, there’s not many times where I’ve made a play and looked at the bench, like you said, but the other night everybody was feeling good.”
Reaves is referencing a play (at the 0:54 mark in the video above) when he was on the wing and found Lonnie Walker cutting from the baseline for an easy finish. Reaves threw his hands up before Walker even caught the ball and then put up “assist goggles” as he turned towards the Lakers bench. It’s definitely a little more demonstrative than Reaves has been in the past.
But Westbrook brings out a different disposition in Reaves, and for now, it looks like it’s for the best. Westbrook/Reaves is the most productive two-man combination for the Lakers. Westbrook/Matt Ryan actually comes in second, and it’s fair to say that Ryan looks to be inhabiting some of his veteran teammate’s spirit on the court.
Westbrook is the best overall player in the second unit, and the bench lineups benefit first and foremost from the talent infusion he brings. Intangibles matter, too, though. If getting Reaves and Ryan and Wenyen Gabriel to play more like “a bat out of hell” — as Darvin Ham described Westbrook’s energy — leads to explosive runs like the Lakers bench had against Denver, then this realignment could have more unexpected benefits for the team.