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The LeBron James and Russell Westbrook pairing is better than you think

LeBron James and Russell Westbrook have found a chemistry and level of production that few thought possible coming into this season.

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Los Angeles Lakers v Philadelphia 76ers

In the wake of trading for Russell Westbrook, the Lakers were broadly and, almost universally, criticized for the move. From general critiques about the package of players and picks used to acquire him to the well known and understood limitations of Westbrook’s game, there were very few — if any — who looked at the deal as a positive for the team.

Of all the reasons offered for disliking the deal, however, none were as loud or vehement as the idea that Russ simply is not a good fit with LeBron James. I’m paraphrasing, but the basic argument goes something like...

What LeBron needs next to him is shooting and defense. Russ, in all his triple-double glory, offers neither. In fact, defenses treat him as such a non-shooter, Russ’ presence on the floor will actively work against LeBron to limit his ability to be effective when they share the floor because of the (even more) compressed defenses, crowded paint, and cut off driving lanes LeBron will now see.

Beyond that, Russ is best with the ball in his hands and has not shown any real desire to act as an off-ball cutter or screener to help grease the wheels of a functional halfcourt offense. Meanwhile, LeBron is his generation’s preeminent on-ball player and decision maker, and is the player you want to have the ball as much as possible. By trading for Russ, you’re purposefully limiting the number of possessions LeBron will control. And in doing so, you’re not only giving the ball to a player who is, at the most basic level, not as good, but maybe even more important, whose erratic nature is one of his biggest downfalls.

(*insert Brian Windhorst meme here*) Why would you do that?

While there is always nuance in these sorts of discussions, and there are counter arguments to be made to some of those larger points, last season’s results didn’t do much to dissuade anyone who carried those sorts of opinions. Putting the Lakers’ record aside, and even accounting for some of the general roster issues and injury woes the team suffered through, when LeBron and Russ shared the floor, the team wasn’t successful.

In the 1,389 minutes that LeBron and Russ shared the floor last season the Lakers had a -1.5 net rating. This number is better than the team’s overall net rating of -2.9, but not by much.

The numbers, though, are almost besides the point. The Lakers performed so poorly as a group and carried such an air of general disappointment in their lot and circumstances, that it was palpable through the television during so many games it’s one of the more lasting memories from the season. And, at the root of all of it seemed to be the incongruity of the roster, which was, at its foundation, forged through the mostly incompatible nature of almost every non-transition possession in which Russ and LeBron played together.

This season, however, things have noticeably changed. Are there still some clunky possessions? Yes, and particularly in crunch time. Does the way that defenses guard Russ still have a negative impact on LeBron? Of course it does. But the duo has found their stride in the minutes they share the floor, not only in transition (as is expected), but in the half court via better defined roles and each player being put in better position to succeed.

For Russ, this means handling the ball much more when he’s on the court with LeBron, and being the “point guard” and lead playmaker for those lineups. It means allowing him to isolate more, run more pick and rolls, and (in general) be catered to as a primary weapon rather than being put into the corner as a floor spacer (with no gravity) and being asked to set screens on the ball or work as a weakside cutter when it’s clear that’s not what he wants to do nor how he instinctively plays the game at this point of his career.

Instead, it’s LeBron who is doing these things more often, and it’s creating more beneficial possessions when both share the floor. And it makes sense, because for all his on-ball gifts, LeBron has always been an excellent off-ball worker who is masterful at the details involved with screening, cutting, and generally reading how defenses are playing an action and then finding the gap in that coverage to take advantage.

So, countless times a game you’ll see LeBron set ball screens for Russ and then dive to the hoop or force a switch that flows into a post up where Russ can deliver a pass for an easy basket. Or you’ll see Bron floating weakside as Russ looks to create from the opposite wing, and then get a pass on a perfectly timed dive behind a ball-watching defender who is gearing up to help on a potential Russ drive. Or there Bron is, flashing into the post for a quick duck-in and seal with Russ firing a bullet to him for a scoring chance in the restricted area.

And then, of course, there’s the success in transition. Per Cleaning the Glass, when Russ and LeBron share the floor, the Lakers hunt more transition chances and score at a more efficient rate on those possessions than their season long numbers:

  • Transition stats: 16.5% of the team’s possessions, 124.6 Offensive Rating on those possessions
  • Transition stats with LeBron and Russ on the court: 19.5% of the team’s possessions, 134.6 Offensive Rating on those possessions

This all makes sense, of course. Get two of the best transition players in the world, let them play together, and the fireworks commence. But it’s more than just how good both are, it’s how both are lifting each other up by hunting opportunities and creating chances where none might typically exist. Which simultaneously cuts down on the number of halfcourt possessions where, despite improved results, will never match the efficiency of how the team will score in the open court.

Darvin Ham and his staff are leveraging strengths of each player and it’s not just showing up on tape, but in the statistics too. In stark contrast to last season’s numbers, the Lakers have a +8.3 net rating when LeBron and Russ share the floor, besting the team’s season long numbers in both offensive and defensive efficiency in those minutes.

That last point is especially important. In the the 579 minutes that LeBron and Russ have played together this season, the Lakers have a defensive efficiency of 107.2 — a number that blows their full-season mark of 113.8 out of the water. Both Russ and Bron have their warts defensively, but when they’ve shared the court they’ve given the team a level physicality and athleticism on that end of the court they can too often lack on a team that is so guard heavy.

There are still reasons to doubt the Russ and LeBron pairing can work in the biggest games against the most locked in defenses when playing for the highest stakes. And if the ultimate point is to win a championship, tougher decisions loom about how much you can play them as a duo — or, more accurately, whether Russ can be a part of functional crunch time lineups against the best defenses at all.

But, those questions and concerns are for another day and ignore that to win at the highest level you need to find certain foundational lineups that can carry you throughout the course of a game. That you can’t be in a position to win at the end if you don’t find the groups that can win you minutes in the other portions of the game.

And, this season, against what many thought was possible, it’s actually the LeBron and Russ duo that are working to give the Lakers those chances.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Darius on Twitter at @forumbluegold.

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