The key to the Lakers’ success from 2019-21 was that they absolutely blitzed teams when LeBron James and Anthony Davis shared the court, were pretty decent when only LeBron was playing, then barely stayed afloat in the others minutes, even when AD was on the pitch.
The theory behind Russell Westbrook’s acquisition was that he could support non-LeBron minutes, but that didn’t really come to fruition last year – to be fair, none of the lineups were as good in 2021-22. But this season, Darvin Ham has sought to empower Westbrook by moving him away from LeBron more consistently and giving the UCLA alum free rein in the bench unit, and it has worked for good.
In four games off the bench, Westbrook is averaging 18.8 points, 6.5 assists and 6.5 rebounds. Perhaps more impressively, he’s shooting 50.9 percent from the field and 41.2 percent on 3-point range, and the Lakers outscored opponents by 7.3 points per 100 possessions when Westbrook played during that streak. It’s not just “supporting” non-LeBron lineups, it’s just thriving.
Westbrook finally had his first negative plus-minus since leaving the starting unit against Utah on Friday, but even then a minus-1 in a game the Lakers lost by 14 hardly places blame of defeat at the feet of Westbrook. The point guard kept pace for the Lakers and was remarkably controlled en route to 26 points (9 of 14 shooting) and six assists. As one of the only Lakers to actually have a sizeable advantage over his Jazz games, Westbrook often took the ball into the post against Mike Conley and Collin Sexton. He pitched Anthony Davis in the pick-and-roll. He passed big men on switches instead of just jumpers like he did earlier in the year.
He also once again provided his team with a much-needed boost whenever the energy dipped – personally, the added element of rock the baby celebration when he gave the baby to Patrick Beverley to put him to sleep was delicious.
Granted, the Lakers’ problems weren’t on offense Friday, but rather on defense. Westbrook’s efforts to that end fell short of his offense; nevertheless, he was hardly the main culprit of the series of defensive breakdowns committed by the Lakers in their worst defensive performance of the season.
Of note, Westbrook’s performance comes after he was benched late in Wednesday’s win over the Pelicans. Westbrook can say all he wants that he’s all about the team, but his actions haven’t always reflected a team-first approach, and there were reasons to wonder if his behavior would remain consistent as his role fluctuated. It’s one thing not to start, but also not being able to close is an added change for a former MVP. However, he was arguably at his best on Friday, showing no ill will towards Darvin Ham’s replacement questions. Westbrook simply argued that the Lakers would be at their best when he played.
It’s hard to argue with his production.
Big 3 NetRTG and volume of possession (over 8 matches)
All 3 (poss. 194): +1.0 NetRTG
Russ + AD (poss. 120): +6.7 NetRTG
Russ + Bron (poss. 88): +4.1 NetRTG
Bron + AD (poss. 184): -5.9 NetRTG
— Vinay K. (@vkillem) November 5, 2022
The Lakers are a winning team when Westbrook plays and when he’s off the court — even though LeBron and AD are both playing, they’re not. For now, the Lakers seem to have figured out their non-LeBron problem; at this point, it falls to their best player to get up to Westbrook’s level.
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