The key to the Lakers’ success from 2019-21 was that they absolutely blitzed teams when LeBron James and Anthony Davis shared the court, they were pretty decent when only LeBron played, and then barely stayed afloat in the other minutes, even when AD was on the court.
The theory in acquiring Russell Westbrook was that he could prop up the non-LeBron minutes, but that didn’t really come to fruition last year — to be fair, none of the lineups were that good in 2021-22. But this season, Darvin Ham has sought to empower Westbrook by staggering him away from LeBron more consistently and by giving the UCLA alum free rein in the bench unit, and it’s worked to great effect.
In four games off the bench, Westbrook is averaging 18.8 points, 6.5 assists, and 6.5 rebounds. Perhaps more impressively, he’s shooting 50.9 percent from the field and 41.2 percent on 3-pointers, and the Lakers are outscoring their opponents by 7.3 points per 100 possessions when Westbrook has played during this stretch. That isn’t just “propping up” the non-LeBron lineups, that’s straight-up thriving.
Westbrook finally had his first negative plus-minus since he left the starting unit against Utah Friday, but even then, a minus-1 in a game that the Lakers lost by 14 hardly places the blame of defeat at Westbrook’s feet. The point guard kept the Lakers’ pace up and was remarkably controlled en route to 26 points (9-of-14 shooting) and six assists. As one of the lone Lakers to actually have a size advantage on his Jazz matchups, Westbrook took the ball into the post often against Mike Conley and Collin Sexton. He got Anthony Davis going in the pick-and-roll. He blew past big men on switches instead of settling for jumpers as he did earlier in the year.
He also once again provided a needed boost for his team whenever the energy fell — personally, the added element of the rock the baby celebration when he gives the baby to Patrick Beverley to put to sleep was delightful.
Admittedly, the Lakers’ problems weren’t on offense Friday, but rather on defense. Westbrook’s efforts on that end didn’t rise to the level of his offense; nevertheless, he was hardly the major culprit in the series of defensive breakdowns committed by the Lakers in their worst defensive showing of the season.
It’s noteworthy that Westbrook’s performance comes after he was benched at the end of Wednesday’s win over the Pelicans. Westbrook can say as much as he wants that he’s all about the team, but his actions haven’t always reflected a team-first approach, and there was reason to wonder if his demeanor would remain consistent as his role has fluctuated. It’s one thing to not start, but to also not be able to close is an additional change for a former MVP. However, he was arguably at his best Friday, showing no ill will towards Darvin Ham’s substitution matters. Westbrook simply made a case that the Lakers will be at their best when he plays.
It’s hard to argue with his production.
Big 3 NetRTG & possession volume (thru 8 games)— Vinay K. (@vkillem) November 5, 2022
All 3 (194 poss): +1.0 NetRTG
Russ + AD (120 poss): +6.7 NetRTG
Russ + Bron (88 poss): +4.1 NetRTG
Bron + AD (184 poss): -5.9 NetRTG
The Lakers are a winning team when Westbrook plays, and when he’s off the court — even if LeBron and AD are both playing, they’re not. For now, the Lakers appear to have figured out their non-LeBron problem; at this point, it’s incumbent on their best player to rise to Westbrook’s level.