There was always a risk that the Russell Westbrook experiment could blow up in the Lakers’ faces this season. LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Westbrook were never going to be a seamless fit, and it was always going to take some adapting to make things work.
But no one could have predicted it would go THIS bad, specifically in regards to Westbrook. Injuries are always going to be a key reason why this season stopped and stuttered, but no amount of player availability would have helped the Lakers overcome just how poor Westbrook has been this year (or how little willingness to adapt he’s shown, but I digress).
A glance at the raw numbers doesn’t necessarily tell the full story as his points, rebounds and assists per game have all scaled-down relative to what one might expect with a lower usage rate. His field goal percentage is nearly identical to last season, his 3-point percentage is better than it was two seasons ago in Houston, and his free throw percentage is improved from last year.
But advanced numbers give you a far, far more accurate picture of how badly things are going this season. Our old foe Bill Simmons took time away from waxing poetically about Jayson Tatum or complaining about Kyrie Irving still or whatever he typically does to actually share some interesting data, even if it does disparage the Lakers (which was likely his goal, but insert “the worst person you know just made a great point” meme here, whatever).
Tried to figure out if Russ is having one of the 10 worst offensive seasons ever. Wanted people who played 50+ games for bad teams + struggled w/ real minutes/usage. Went with Usage Rate (at least 27%), MPG (33+), WS/48 (under 0.03), True Shooting (under 50%), TO’s (2+).— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) March 15, 2022
Sure, those parameters feel awfully arbitrary in spots. I mean, why 0.03 WS/48 and not 0.04? Well if you raise it up to 0.04 WS/48, suddenly there are three different Antoine Walker seasons in Boston on the list — granted one of those he was traded mid-season for — which feels awfully convenient, and was likely intentional obfuscation from everyone’s favorite (self-admitted) Boston homer.
But still, one-thousandth of a percentage point doesn’t change how poor of a season it is for Westbrook. And even if the parameters feel arbitrary, they paint a pretty clear picture of an archetype of a high-usage player who played many games but was very inefficient in terms of shooting and taking care of the ball while not helping their team win games regularly. Remove any one of those parameters and you get some outliers, perhaps of a player who didn’t have the ball much or someone who still impacted winning despite being inefficient shooting.
Simmons’ desire to look up just how badly Westbrook is doing could stem from his discussion on his recent podcast episode with Ryen Russillo, who revealed an even wilder bit of data. Russillo began talking about using Second Spectrum data to look up shot quality vs. field goal percentage and which players are excelling despite having tough shots.
This was a point brought up to specifically discuss the best players in the game like Kevin Durant and Nikola Jokic, who routinely hit contested shots, thus giving them a low shot quality and a higher shooting percentage. Then, he looked at the inverse, and that’s when Westbrook’s name came up.
“To really hammer home this point, I was like ‘Well, who’s the worst?’ The difference between your quality of shot and your effectiveness on these. Westbrook has one of the highest shot quality numbers in the entire league because nobody f------ guards him and he is twice as bad as the next worst guy in that category. So he’s far and away the worst below what you’d expect him to do with the quality of shot that he has and it’s twice as bad as the next worst guy in that category.”
So no matter how you slice it, whatever advanced stats you want to use or what parameters you want to set, the numbers will still tell you that Westbrook is having an all-time bad season. More than anything that has gone wrong this season, if Westbrook was going to play this poorly, it really wasn’t going to matter what the rest of the team looked like. Especially if the team was going to get as bad luck health-wise as they have.
For the Lakers to have title aspirations, they were going to need a version of Westbrook willing to adapt while still producing at an unprecedented level of efficiency relative to his career. Criticize them as you wish for expecting that, but what they got was freshman year at UCLA Westbrook, and not even the biggest pessimist in the world could have expected THAT.