Just a month ago it seemed unfathomable Russell Westbrook would come into training camp as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers.
A disastrous first season with the team bled into his exit interview with assembled media, where few figures within the organization were left unscathed as he spoke his truth about why he’d played poorly. Further, despite public facing comments from Darvin Ham offering support (and outright praise) for Westbrook as a player, the front office was actively trying to trade him under the guise of exploring ways to improve the roster.
Tack on an icy non-greeting at a Summer League game between Russ and LeBron James, and it all felt pretty cut and dry to me. It was a matter of when, not if the Lakers would trade Westbrook. And while that “when” can technically still happen all the way up until the February trade deadline, it feels increasingly less likely to be before training camp begins later this month.
And I’m not the only who feels this way, either. On a recent episode of the Hoop Collective Podcast, Brian Windhorst pushed back against the notion Russ would be traded sooner than later (emphasis mine):
“I don’t know about that. I don’t know about that,” Windhorst said in response to the idea that Russ would presumably be traded before training camp. “Based on executives I’m talking to, they believe that the Lakers have come to the conclusion that they are not going to trade Russell Westbrook now because they don’t like any of their offers and that they’re going to try to make the best of it and see what happens,” Windhorst concluded.
Considering the Lakers’ weak negotiating position and the (somewhat limited) parameters of the type of deal they’re trying to make, Russ returning was never as farfetched as some (including me!) would have liked it to be. But, now that we’re here, I think it’s not only important for the Lakers and Russ to be on the same page about how to proceed together, but to (as Windhorst notes) “make the best of it.” After all, nothing good can come from lamenting what did not happen or how things could be different.
In moving forward, then, I think it’s worth exploring what both sides can (reasonably) do in order to produce the best results on the court and what those results can (reasonably) look like. Before we go down this path any farther, however, I think it’s important to lay out a few parameters and a list of guidelines for how an exercise like this should work:
- No one should expect Russell Westbrook to morph into some totally different offensive player. He’s not going to oscillate between standing in the corner to shoot spot-up threes and setting ball screens for LeBron James for the entirety of his playing time.
- Russ is not going to suddenly rival Jrue Holiday as one of the NBA’s best on-ball defenders, nor is he going to be some ultra-focused off-ball defender a la Danny Green or Alex Caruso.
- Russ can still be strong, if inconsistent, contributor offensively who has strengths as an on-ball player. He can make plays out of the P&R, attack gaps as a driver in isolation, post up smaller defenders as a bully-ball guard, and create good scoring opportunities in transition.
- Russ remains an excellent passer who can create shots for teammates at a high level in both the halfcourt and in transition.
I don’t think any of the above should be controversial. Westbrook is a season removed from putting up eye-popping numbers in Washington, including a post All-Star game push that nearly propelled him onto the All-NBA 3rd Team. Last season, of course, he had one of the worst seasons of his career and showed a decline in many areas, including his finishing at the rim and general shot-making ability.
The truth of who he will be this season is very likely in between those extremes, but where exactly he is in that range remains to be seen. In saying that, while the aging curve catches up to everyone eventually, I’m looking at last season as somewhat of an outlier season from a production standpoint rather than a new normal (for now). If what happened last year repeats itself this season, I’ll change my tune. For now, though, I’m in a wait and see mode.
In saying that, then, I think it’s important to frame what is and is not reasonable to expect from Westbrook this season. Let’s look at this from three different vantage points:
A recent report from Zach Lowe states that Russ is likely to start as part of a lineup that features LeBron, Anthony Davis, Kendrick Nunn, and Damian Jones. At first glance, this lineup feels less than ideal in order to optimize Russ.
After all, it does not include Thomas Bryant, whose potential as a floor-spacing big would help Russ by keeping opposing rim protectors away from the basket. Further, by flanking Russ with not just one, but two ball-handling perimeter players in James and Nunn, plus a high-usage big like AD, this feels like one of the more realistic lineups the team could use that projects to take the ball out of his hands as often as possible.
The flip side of that, however, is that this is also a lineup that can put Russ in position to play to his strengths while still limiting his usage. It’s a group that can play fast in transition with bigs who will rim-run, a speed guard who can race out with, or in front of Russ, and one of the most dominant fast break wings the league has ever seen. This lineup is capable of playing a style of basketball that caters to what Russ does well.
In the half court, things get trickier, but with this group he projects to get a lot of chances as a second-side ball handler who can either take spot-up shots or attack gaps off the dribble when the ball is swung to him. (*Note, I know this is more complicated when defenses will not rotate to Russ very often, but he can still attack driving gaps against short closeouts.) Further, Russ can run P&R’s on ball reversals as well, and will have multiple screening partners who can get downhill as lob threats (AD and Jones) or as pop threats (Bron and AD), allowing him the chance to make plays as defenses have to make more difficult decisions than the ones he faced last year.
Outside of this potential starting lineup, it’s also true that Russ can and should play in bench groups that can offer him better conditions than those he faced last year. I do expect Russ to play a lot of minutes with Bryant, particularly in bench lineups that are also likely to include one of Bron or AD at power forward. I also expect to see Russ play with Reaves, Walker, and even Patrick Beverley who can all provide him with a mix of floor-spacing, transition ability, and secondary ball-handling, all of which can provide more balanced lineups that help Russ play more to his potential on offense.
Ultimately, I expect Russ’ counting stats to drop off because of what should be a lower usage rate and very likely reduced minutes (including, potentially, moving out of the starting lineup entirely and coming off the bench as a sixth man). But I think the conditions in which he’ll play will set him up for more success and his efficiency and overall effectiveness can bounce back from the depths of last season.
While I appreciate Darvin Ham planting the seeds early about getting Russ back to being a high impact defensive player, I’ll believe that when I see it. For several seasons now we’ve seen Russ put out minimal effort defensively for the majority of his time on the floor, mostly only ramping up his energy level and focus on a handful of key possessions, and even some of those could be wrecked by his penchant to gamble by chasing the homerun play instead of playing disciplined team defense that are a staple of contending teams.
So, let’s just say I’d be surprised to see Russ defy his reputation on that end simply because Ham has been coaching him very publicly since his introductory press conference.
That said, Russ will have a combination of factors that should give him the best chance he’s had in more than a half decade to be a part of a strong team defense that allows him to play more to his strengths on that end. If that reported starting lineup does come to fruition, Russ will be flanked by as strong a defensive frontcourt as he’s had since he was playing with Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka. Also, in some of the team’s bench units, I expect the Lakers to switch more this season than last, which should allow for Russ to be more engaged off-ball and use his physicality more in one-on-one situations instead of trying to be an ultra-aware off-ball worker.
Will all this translate to Russ actually being “good” on that end? I mean... I doubt it. And it’s even less likely he’ll come close to meeting the level Ham is publicly calling on him to reach. But, if nothing else, I do expect Russ to compete harder and more consistently defensively than he has since his lone year in Houston. Because, if he doesn’t, Ham has already implied Russ will end up on the bench more often.
Attitude and Buy-in
If I’m being honest, I really don’t know what to expect on this front.
On the one hand, after Russ split with his former agent, the implication was that it was as much Russ as it was the Lakers front office who wanted to find him a new home. On the other hand, in that aforementioned Hoop Collective Podcast, Windhorst noted that Westbrook “does not want to be traded” because (Russ) knows a trade will likely lead to a buyout and him fishing for a role from a team in free agency — likely as a minimum salaried player, with no guarantee there’s any demand for his services from other teams.
Building on that last point, Russ is in a free agent year, is a prideful player, and surely has the self-belief that he remains an impact player in this league. On this team, his coach has publicly endorsed him as a high-level player, will play a lot of minutes with other star players, and will have the opportunity to play the type of minutes that can springboard him into one last good contract next season if he plays well. Said another way, if there’s ever a season you’ll see a motivated and ready to compete Westbrook, this one sets up to be it.
Of course, as nice as a #revengetour season would be from the Lakers perspective, the idea that things start out poorly for the team record-wise or for Russ individually to start the year is very real. And, if that happens, the blame game will start very quickly and Russ simply doesn’t have the good will built up to insulate himself from the criticism that will come his way. At that point, things could easily spiral downward quickly and, with it, any potential good vibes and buy-in that Russ starts the season with could dissipate.
The fact that things can so easily go wrong here should concern anyone invested in the Lakers’ success. But, I will say, considering where things were this offseason and the fact that I didn’t expect him to return at all, any shot at there being good vibes at all heading into training camp almost feels like a win. And if any of that can endure for the first few weeks of the season, the odds that things can stay that way only go up. It’s a lot to ask, I know, but even if those odds are slim, the fact that it’s a possibility has to be a step in the right direction.
Ultimately, while I would have heartily endorsed a Russ trade at any point in the last three months, it seems inevitable he’ll be on the Lakers when the season starts. And if that is the case, when variables like the roster construction, the coaching change, and the general motivation for him to play his best are taken into account, it does feel like he has a much better avenue to success this season than last.
Whether Russ can manifest that and turn it into a productive season, however, remains an open question that is sure to inspire skepticism.