The Lakers completed their six-game road trip with a 3-3 record, which, all things considered, isn’t so bad. The team got out to a hot start with good wins vs. the Bucks and Wizards to begin the trip, but AD catching the flu and then Bron’s sore ankle took the team out of rhythm, and led to back-to-back losses. This left a weekend of games as the last opportunity to get back on track and reach AD’s stated goal of having an over-.500 trip.
The team ultimately split those contests, which, again, isn’t so bad. But if you’ve been a longtime advocate of trading Russell Westbrook, I’d imagine those specific games offered a familiar refrain that continues to nag at you.
In Friday’s loss to the 76ers, Westbrook played all of crunch time and OT — a rollercoaster stretch of basketball that saw the team make a miraculous comeback to tie the game in regulation, only to miss their first nine shots of OT and lose in frustrating fashion. Russ was a part of both the run and the overtime collapse, with the latter bringing up memories of woeful crunch-time performances vs. the Clippers and Blazers early in the season.
Then, in Sunday’s win over the Pistons, after being outscored by 11 in the 3rd quarter and watching all but one point of their lead evaporate in the process, Russ sat out the entire final frame and watched as the Lakers regained control of the game and held off Detroit in the clutch. Russ was a team-worst -12 in the boxscore, and despite leading the team in assists with 9 and scoring 11 points on 5-9 shooting, the team really didn’t play that well when he was in the game.
If you’re on the trade-Russ train, this weekend of games likely feels like another feather in your cap; another example of why Russ can’t be trusted to play well when it matters and proof of the team still needing to do what it should have done months ago. Of course, the flip side of that is what happened in the Bucks game to start the road trip, where Russ was a pivotal contributor whose passing and shot-creation skills combined with his physicality to produce a sublime offensive showing in a win against what was the NBA’s best defense at the time those two teams played.
Of course, both things can be true at once, which makes the idea of trading Russ both as simple as it has always been, but also more complicated than previously expected.
Since this sounds dumb, let me explain.
There was a point in time when trading Russell Westbrook was the simplest idea imaginable. Last season provided ample evidence that he might no longer be very good at basketball and, when considering his salary and the psychological weight his mere presence on the roster was creating, trading him for whatever return the front office could muster felt like the most pressing priority the organization had in front of it this season.
There were few people advocating keeping Russ for the season, and it seemed like only a matter of time before he’d be dealt, with most observers believing it would happen before the season even began.
26 games later, however, Russ is still here and some things have been learned.
First, it turns out that Russell Westbrook actually isn’t finished as a productive basketball player and positive contributor. Games like the one against the Bucks are the most obvious example of this, but there are several others where even if the team didn’t win, he was helpful during his minutes and provided the team with production that pushed them toward winning more than he detracted from it.
Second, as we’ve learned more about the Lakers as a team — and Russ’ place within it — we see where its deficiencies are and where certain players are (and are not) helping. Russ, for all his warts, is showing that his passing and playmaking have real value. For example, you know that monster season Anthony Davis is having? Well, no player has assisted AD more this year than Russ, who has been the passer for 56 of the 151 assisted baskets AD has scored this season. His ability to hit AD with passes for easy baskets, be it in transition, out of the P&R, or via dump-offs after his own penetration has been one of the highlights of this season so far.
Russ is also helping the team play faster, and he’s found good chemistry in transition on some of the all-bench units he’s been asked to lead. Lineups with Russ, Wenyen Gabriel, and Thomas Bryant have not played a lot together this season, but in the 28 minutes they’ve been on the court (and both Bron and AD are out) those lineups have a +25.7 net rating and are playing at an absolutely blistering 110.6 pace.
Of course, what we’ve also learned is that even as Russ has found redemption as a productive player while embracing a bench role, the flaws he’s shown over the course of his career remain. From the turnovers to how defenses treat him in games that are close late to the general inefficiencies of his feast-or-famine scoring arsenal, it’s fairly clear that there’s a ceiling on how helpful he can be to a team with real title aspirations.
With that, trading him shouldn’t just be on the table, it’s still more preferred than not. But, unlike a few months ago, it’s no longer so simple.
In playing well in the ways that he has, Russ has exposed a playmaking deficit on this roster that he’s been helping to fill. And, in highlighting that deficit, it puts more constraints on what constitutes a good Russ trade. I mean, after seeing how well AD is playing at the 5 and with how much a playmaker is helping facilitate that, does that long-rumored trade for another center like Myles Turner along with Buddy Hield (who is a strong shooter, but not a playmaking or ballhandling guard) make as much sense now?
I’d argue that any Russ trade must address some form of playmaking and shot creation, and must do so at a baseline level in order to facilitate better offensive balance over the course of the full game. This, as much as anything else, will help the Lakers take a step forward toward becoming the type of well-rounded roster that can compete for something more than a play-in spot.
This is the true irony of where things stand now; because if six months ago you’d have told me that Russ playing better would have made trading him trickier, I’d have laughed at you. But that feels much closer to the truth now, and certainly seems like a more realistic approach than those offseason ideas of trading him just to get him off the roster.
So, the debates rage on. Should the Lakers trade Russ? What should they try to get for him if they do — or, more importantly, what can they get? The discourse will remain because, well, that’s how this works, especially when it comes to him. So, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Which might just be the real lesson coming out of this weekend’s games, even if the framing of it all is a bit different than expected.