Welcome to our Lakers Season Preview Series! For the next several weeks, we’ll be writing columns every weekday, breaking down the biggest questions we have about every player the Lakers added and retained this offseason. Today, we finish with a look at Russell Westbrook.
Five months have passed since Russell Westbrook conducted a true spectacle of an exit interview after his first season with the Lakers, assigning blame to everyone but himself for the way that disaster transpired, and leaving a blazing trail in his wake on his way out of Los Angeles.
Or so we thought.
Westbrook is still here. The Lakers spent the entire summer shopping him around the league, but no suitable suitors emerged. Meanwhile, Westbrook somewhat defiantly remained a public face of the team, showing up at Summer League and introductory press conferences, daring someone from the Lakers to call him out instead of pretending to mend fences and proclaiming that everything would be okay in year two.
He didn’t blink, and despite one of the worst high-profile debuts for an All-Star in recent memory, Westbrook finds himself beginning his second act in Los Angeles. The most “consistent” player of the star trio that was supposed to deliver the Lakers back to the promised land now gets a chance to earn a moniker that doesn’t just depend on games played.
What is his best-case scenario?
But let’s put on the rose-colored glasses like it’s the summer of 2021, anyway. Westbrook’s best-case scenario is that Darvin Ham puts the ball in his hands and lets him be Russ, in a way he claims Frank Vogel did. That results in a higher usage percentage and a lot of pick-and-roll. The Lakers have more versatile bigs this season who can actually roll to the basket and finish dynamically, like Damian Jones and a healthy Anthony Davis. They also have a big who was brought to L.A. to shoot in Thomas Bryant; he can serve as a pop threat in ball screens with Westbrook but also just space the floor and allow Westbrook to drive into the lane.
A best-case scenario for Westbrook would also involve him rediscovering his touch from the foul line; he made at least 80 percent of his free throws for most of his career, but hasn’t figured out how to maintain that efficiency since the NBA’s rule change on movement between free throws.
What would really benefit Westbrook is if Ham’s new defensive approach works, and the Lakers can create stops and get back out in transition. That would enable Westbrook to get out in the open floor and create some havoc — with Davis playing more power forward this season, he’ll be defending on the perimeter and have more opportunities to leak out, giving Westbrook a perfect partner on the break.
If we’re getting really optimistic, an ideal outcome for Westbrook this season would be committing to screening for LeBron James and the bevy of other ball-handling guards on the Lakers roster. Westbrook has shown the capacity to be an effective playmaker on the short roll when his lack of spacing isn’t as crippling against a tilted defense. Those actions will still put the ball in his hands and allow him to make decisions, which is what Westbrook has always wanted.
What is his worst-case scenario?
The worst-case scenario for Westbrook wouldn’t look all too different from last year.
His lack of shooting allows defenders to stay attached to James and Davis, clogging up the spacing for the Lakers even further. Worse, Westbrook uses the lack of defensive attention as an excuse to chuck up low-percentage shots. His efficiency craters, both from the perimeter and around the rim, and there simply aren’t enough passing lanes available for him to make an impact as a playmaker, either. Defensively, Westbrook’s worst habits of inattention and gambling continue to rear their ugly head and the Lakers get lit up at the point of attack, leading to a parade of drives to the rim.
Where it could get really ugly for Westbrook is if the interpersonal dynamics between him and Ham, or him and LeBron, dissolve. That leads the Lakers to decide it’s best to send him home from the team, instead using some combination of Dennis Schröder, Patrick Beverley, and/or Kendrick Nunn at point guard. DEFCON 1 would be the Lakers going so far as to buy him out to create a roster spot, putting Westbrook into the unenviable position of sitting out or turning himself into a minimum contract guy elsewhere to finish out the season.
What is his most likely role on the team?
Westbrook will probably be the starting point guard on day one and be given a chance to make it work next to the star duo of James and Davis. Assuming improved health from the 2020 champs, the Lakers will look better than they did a year ago, and Westbrook’s stock will correspondingly improve. Ideally, Ham staggers Westbrook and James as much as possible and gives Westbrook minutes next to the Lakers’ best shooters (oxymoronic, I know) to provide him an offensive ecosystem similar to when he thrived in Houston in 2019-20.
But unless Westbrook makes meaningful changes to his approach, it’s hard to see the team’s ceiling reaching that of a championship contender, and that is going to create some tension in Los Angeles. Take a player whose best days are behind him but still wants to put on a show for his hometown fans, combine that with a franchise also unable to recapture its glory days, and an inflection point will come. Russell Westbrook has already survived one bout of serious turbulence with the Lakers; let’s see how he handles his next test.