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Russell Westbrook’s limitations are killing the Lakers

Russell Westbrook was bad against the Clippers on Thursday, but it was the specific way he was bad that was a microcosm of his season to date.

Los Angeles Lakers v LA Clippers Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

When the Lakers traded for Russell Westbrook, many doubted the soundness of the theory behind the trade, but even the most pessimistic among them probably couldn’t have expected that things would go this poorly. Against the Clippers on Thursday, Russ struggled in ways that were somewhat microcosmic of his season to date.

After a competitive first half, the Lakers found themselves trailing by just three at the break. However, with one characteristically savvy in-game adjustment, former almost Lakers head coach Ty Lue was able to stop the team he nearly helmed dead in its tracks. His Clippers opened up the quarter on a 23-0 run on their way to beating the Lakers for the fourth time this season, and the seventh time in a row since Lue took over head coaching duties from Doc Rivers.

As pointed out by our own Raj Chipalu in the thread below, Lue’s game-breaking move was to put his starting center, Ivica Zubac, on Russ. With the ball in Russ’ hands, Zu’s distant, open stance begged him to either shoot open jumpers or drive into the seven-footer for contested shots at the rim. Off of the ball, Zubac was free to ignore Russ entirely, playing free safety and cleaning up any messes in the middle:

What’s shocking about this decision isn’t that it worked, but how closely it mirrors its schematic historical precedent, and what that says about Russ’ current on-court utility.

In the 2015 Western Conference semis, Steve Kerr’s similarly constructed, unconventional defensive adjustment was ultimately what swung the series in the Warriors’ favor. Down two games to one on the basis of their inferior physicality, Kerr found a way to get the Grizzlies outside of their comfort zone and swing things back towards the Warriors’ favor.

Instead of deploying a set of normal man-to-man matchups against the bruising Memphis Grizzlies, Kerr yanked Andrew Bogut off of the Grind City twin towers of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, and placed him on one-way defensive player Tony Allen. Despite the nominal matchup, Bogut spent most of his time roaming the paint, forcing the Grizzlies to play four-on-five offensively whenever Allen was on the court. With one aggressive move, the Warriors went from up against the ropes to winning three straight and eventually cruising to their first championship in four decades.

In Thursday’s contest, it was this exact strategy that Lue applied to Russell Westbrook, effectively ending the game with 24 minutes left to play. Not only did Westbrook’s strong start to the game fall come to an abrupt halt, but he shot just 1-6 in the quarter. The other Lakers struggled to score in Westbrook’s stead as they ended up losing the third by a margin of 40-18, with the in-quarter deficit stretching as wide as 32-6.

At the end of Friday’s media availability, Frank Vogel tellingly acknowledged the impact of Lue’s shift.

“When we play small ball, they’re gonna hide their center where they can,” Vogel said.

Vogel’s admission that the Clippers not only got away with, but thrived in “hid[ing] their center” on the team’s highest-paid player was a subtle, possibly unintentional, but savage indictment of Russell Westbrook’s limited offensive arsenal.

Westbrook’s offensive output has been so putrid this season that he is just one of three players in the league to use at least a quarter of his team’s possessions while posting a 50% true shooting percentage or worse. The other two are Reggie Jackson and Cade Cunningham — an inefficient journeyman (against everyone but the Lakers and his longtime nemesis) and a promising rookie very much still trying to figure it out.

Instead of a second-half surge — as the prophecy foretold — Russ is in the midst of what is arguably the worst stretch of his career, or at least since he was a rookie. Since the start of February, Russ has been even less efficient, shooting 36% from the field and just 13% on threes, despite maintaining his typically high volume of almost 15 shots per game. It is also worth noting that he holds the highest turnover rate of all three aforementioned players, and makes more than double Jackson and Cunningham combined. The constrictions his contract places on the roster have only compounded the cost of his on-court performance.

Despite his superstar status and salary, Westbrook has proven to be a notoriously exploitable defender who is also unable to make teams pay for treating him like Tony Allen on offense. During that stretch in the third quarter, Westbrook gave them nothing with the ball in his hands, and was equally inept without it.

In fact, Vogel hinted at Russ’ off-ball struggles as well in his comments about how the Lakers can succeed against teams who put their 5-man on any of the Lakers’ guards.

“It was a point of emphasis today,” Vogel said after the team’s Thursday practice. “We can all be screeners, and we can all move the defense when we see that situation is thrown at us. We have to be better at attacking it, and we will be.”

Frank seems to believe that the Lakers would benefit from attempts to re-screen for new mismatches amongst the other eight players on the floor when Westbrook is dared to fire away or charge into a larger player. Also, Russ’ slow processing speed when tasked with reading the floor off of the catch makes him an under-qualified secondary playmaker, so often forfeiting an advantage earned by another Laker by way of his negative shooting gravity or tendency to reset the possession and size up his defender.

Still, while it may be theoretically possible to create some effective offense by using him as a regular screener for LeBron, the Lakers have barely done so despite some early promise, whether by their own choice or Westbrook’s reluctance. Either way, Russ’ limitations have proven to be an extreme encumbrance on the Lakers’ offense, even when playing beside James, a player who has never before helmed an offense in the bottom six of the NBA — an unfortunate truth of the Lakers’ season through 62 games.

The Lakers have suffered through a season of setbacks, but Westbrook’s availability for all but one of their games hasn’t done much to ameliorate them. So even when factoring in the volume playmaking and superlative rebounding he brings to his position, creating a championship-level basketball team with the 2022 version of Russell Westbrook — flaws, inefficiencies, and salary included — might just be impossible.

Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley. No, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can follow him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.