The Westbrook Dilemma

J.M. Poulard —  May 16, 2012

With barely any time to enjoy the Game 7 victory over the Denver Nuggets last Saturday, the Los Angeles Lakers had to quickly turnaround and make it to the Chesapeake Factory to take on the Oklahoma City Thunder Monday night in Game 1 of the Western Conference semi-finals.

The Lakers may have been suffering from tired legs as well as an overall lack of energy in route to a 29-point shellacking at the hands of the Thunder, but there are still some adjustments that will need to be made in order for the purple and gold to have any type of success against their current opponent.

In Game 1, OKC shot 53 percent from the field, 41.2 percent from 3-point range and attempted 29 free throws. Also, the Thunder outscored the Lakers in paint scoring (48-44) and also managed to score more second chance points (21-11) despite the fact that L.A. had 13 offensive rebounds to their 10.

Combine that with OKC only coughing up the ball four times, and the conclusion is rather simple: the Lakers were outplayed and their defense got exposed as they surrendered a staggering 119 points.

The purple and gold’s defense was in trouble in large part because they were simply not able to contain Russell Westbrook.

The UCLA product submitted one of the best all around performances of this postseason so far as he went off for 27 points, 9 rebounds, 7 assists and 2 steals on 10-for-15 field goal shooting. In addition, the Thunder point guard only turned the ball over once.

After seeing Ty Lawson and Andre Miller manhandle Ramon Sessions in the first round, Mike Brown made the business decision of sticking a stronger and taller Kobe Bryant on Westbrook. The idea was simple: the Thunder point guard would have to shoot over Kobe’s outstretched arms, have trouble blowing past him off the dribble and wouldn’t be able to take him down in the block given Bryant’s superior strength.

In theory, the idea was brilliant.

In practice? Not quite.

Scott Brooks put Russell Westbrook in multiple pick-and-roll situations involving Andrew Bynum given his unwillingness/inability to come out on the perimeter and hedge hard to disrupt the timing of the action. Consequently, Westbrook exploded off the screens for jump shots at the top of the key with Bynum retreating to the paint.

Although the strategy was unsuccessful in Game 1, it does not mean that such will be the case for the remainder of the series. Indeed, there is still the possibility of Westbrook missing his jumpers and then becoming a little too aggressive; which is where he usually ends up making mistakes and coughing up the ball.

Nonetheless, Brown’s current strategy might prove to hurt his offense.

With Bryant forced to shadow Westbrook, it means that he will have to often match him stride for stride in transition and also run through multiple ball screens. This may cause the Lakers superstar to progressively wear down as the series unfolds.

Also, it’s worth noting that given all of the pick-and-rolls that OKC ran, Westbrook was able to routinely get inside the paint and create high percentage shots for himself and his teammates. Further exacerbating issues, during a stretch in the third quarter, Blake got stuck guarding the former Bruin and he took him to the post and proceeded to score on him seemingly at will. MySynergySports tells us that in post up situations this season, RW converted 36.3 percent of his attempts; but there he was making buckets over the outmatched Steve Blake Monday night.

With that said, the Lakers might still have a trick up their sleeve: Metta World Peace.

World Peace is physical and strong enough to fight through ball screens from Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins and recover to muscle Russell Westbrook and frustrate him when he has the ball in his hands. Also, he has the length to contest his shot as well as the quick hands to help knock the ball loose should RW try to split the trap in the pick-and-roll.

Mind you, putting World Peace on Westbrook might force Mike Brown to alter his lineups unless he is fine with Kobe chasing Durant around screens and defending him down the block.

So the option here may in fact be to have MWP, Kobe and Matt Barnes play together at times when James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are on the court together. Barnes could match up with Durant while Bryant would defend Harden.

This would be a pretty big unit for the Lakers and could be a plus on the boards. Offensively though, Bryant would essentially assume ball handling responsibilities and would have to relinquish some of his scoring responsibilities in favor of setting up his teammates.

It gets tricky though when we look at the regular season numbers.

Turns out that the Lakers only used that trio when they went small (as opposed to big, which is what I originally thought), essentially making MWP their power forward. Have a look at the minutes they piled up during the course of the season as well as which players they accumulated them with and their net plus-minus rating projected over 48 minutes according to NBA.com’s advanced stats tool:

Lineup

Minutes

+/-

Sessions, Bryant, Barnes, World Peace, Gasol

12

+24.4

Fisher, Bryant, Barnes, World Peace, Gasol

11

-17.1

Blake, Bryant, Barnes, World Peace, Gasol

7

-36.4

Blake, Bryant, Barnes, World Peace, Bynum

4

-36.0

Bryant, Barnes, World Peace, McRoberts, Bynum

3

-70.6

The samples are obviously quite small and thus it’s tough to truly draw conclusions from them, but the five-man unit of Sessions, Bryant, Barnes, World Peace and Gasol could potentially be an interesting offensive and defensive unit. Brown could potentially unleash it to match up with OKC whenever they decide to play small ball.

In that scenario, Sessions would end up defending Daequan Cook or Derek Fisher.

Offensively, the Lakers would have some semblance of perimeter shooting to complement Gasol’s interior game and with Sessions on the floor, Kobe wouldn’t need to be the primary ball handler, which means he could assume his regular scoring duties.

The other units struggled — and it explains why they played so little — with rebounding the ball, protecting the rock and personal fouls.

And really, these are the options that Westbrook — and to some degree Durant — will force Mike Brown to consider. His speed, athleticism and strength will make him a tough cover for just about every perimeter player on the Lakers, but the opportunity to put World Peace on him might prove to be a great wrinkle to throw off the OKC Thunder.

Let’s just remember that such a move doesn’t happen without consequences in all the other matchups.

Does coach Brown drop that first domino in Game 2?

Statistical support provided by NBA.com.

J.M. Poulard

Posts

17 responses to The Westbrook Dilemma

  1. Sessions and Barnes usually play well together so I can see why that lineup seems to be the best. How does it look like when it is Bynum instead of Gasol at center for these lineups?

  2. Playing Barnes in this big lineup is silly since Barnes isn’t capable of guarding Westebook, Harden or Durant… So what’s the point. Now… If you row in Ebanks (who can guard Durant) now we have a nice big lineup.

  3. I think we have to commit to putting Barnes/MWP on the court, even if it means going small, and even if it means sitting Bynum for long stretches. All the sample sizes are small, and yes, it’s dangerous to make too much of one game. But the more you watch Bynum loaf his way through Pick and Roll defense, the more you realize that against the Thunder, he’s not the defensive deterrent or impact maker you think he is. Against quick teams whose wings have multiple skill sets, there’s going to be a ton of switching, and having some combination of Kobe, Barnes, MWP, Hill, Pau, and Sessions out there eliminates the worse case scenario (Bynum switched onto Raphael, The Beard, or Durantula.)

    It would be bold for the Lakers to go small, but I think the Thunder could be lured into doing it. This would mean more chances to expose the corpse of Derek Fisher (something the Lakers did not do enough of in Game 1) on offense as well. Plus going small may activate Sessions, who might be more inclined/allowed to push the ball and play his game.

    Of course, if Brooks fails to take the bait, Pau is going to have to try and deal with Perkins, but if he’s hurt/hobbled/out, that might not be such a chore. The Barnes/Kobe/MWP grouping is worth it, and I’d even consider going jumbo and trying it with Pau and Bynum on the floor if the Thunder have one of their Big Three out. The problem is that that group may have spacing issues with its limited shooting ability, but if they are playing faster and Sessions is initiating penetration, they might be able to get away with it. It wouldn’t be terrible to work Ebanks into a rotation role on this. The bottom line is that while listed as guards, the physical reality of Harden and Westbrook should make the Lakers treat them as small forwards. Blake and Bynum are conventional position players, and the Thunder is a totally unconventional position team 1-3. The you’d think would live in the post is the guy who runs off screens and shoots jumpers (Durant). The you’d think is the pure spot up shooter crushes in the post and is actually the best passer/playmaker (Harden). And the guy you’d think was the distributor, is the most athletic and violent dribble penetrator (Westbrook). The Lakers were checkmated on Monday trying to play “their game.” Trying this approach couldn’t make things any worse.

  4. The Sessions, Bryant, Barnes, World Peace, Gasol lineup is interesting. It is the only one with a positive +/-. However, the sample sizes on these lineups are extremely small. As stated in the last post, this game 1 for the Lakers was much like game 1 for the Nuggets: we don’t know what changes to make to the gameplan because the Lakers have not yet executed the gameplan. I don’t expect Westbrook to shoot lights out again tonight but also don’t like Kobe wearing himself out on defense. Quite a conundrum the Lakers are in for now. I say execute the gameplan before making any tweaks.

  5. Try Ebanks for a few minutes on Westbrook then shift him to Durant. MWP and he can switch to the hot potato.

    The default rotations have led to 3 blowouts already.

  6. Kobe, Blake, Barnes, Ron. Throw everybody at Westbrook just to give him a different look. Sessions said he would see different PnR coverage. That’s a start.

  7. Kobe’s mid range isn’t falling vs okc this year. I expect him to attack the basket like he did vs denver this game. Lakers need him to sprinkle in baskets and not be so passive early. Kobe hot spots 10 – 23 ft shot just 15/ 53 – 28% fg vs OKC.

    24 shots to get 24 points, 25 shots for 23 points, 26 shots for 26 points and 18 shots for 20 points. Kobe has to be better and will be.

  8. Reposting from the previous post:

    …….regarding matching up with OKC. It’s obvious that Kobe HAS to guard Westbrook the majority of the time and that Metta HAS to guard Durant most of the time. The question is who guards them AFTER.
    Matt Barnes MAY be able to spell Kobe on Westbrook. But there is NO WAY IN HELL that Barnes can guard Durant. Durant is way too long for Barnes.
    I think Mike Brown HAS to give Ebanks a shot at guarding both Durant and Westbrook.
    And when OKC brings in Fish and or Daquan Cook I think giving GLock a little run would be interesting.

    And lastly, why in the hell are the Lakers playing a BACK TO BACK on Friday and Saturday?
    WTF?

  9. Half decaf,
    As written above… It’s not as much Ramon as it is the offense. Ramon won’t play any better if he is relegated to a Fisher spot up SG role. If he is allowed to be a PG again he will start playing better again.

  10. Thabo can guard Kobe.  Kobe can guard Westbrook. Westbrook can guard Ramon. Ramon can guard Thabo. Ibaka can guard Gasol.  Artest can guard Durant and Durant can guard Artest. 

    So where is this series won? Harden and Bynum.  Nobody on either team can match up with those guys (because Kobe is on Russell and MWP is on Durant). So this series will be decided by Perkins and Barnes. If Perkins can step up his game from game one OKC will win. If he doesn’t play better defense and Harden doesn’t take advantage of Matt Barnes the Lakers will win. 

  11. When healthy – Barnes can be a decent defender on a guy like Harden – especially if we are going to put our best two defenders – Kobe and Metta – on their best two players. And its not like there’s really another option.

    Ebanks is too raw, and as good as he did on durant, most of those looks were just open that didn’t fall. Lakers can’t rely on that to beat OKC. Plus, with ebanks on the floor – the lakers are 4 on 5 on offense – with easy doubles of Pau – because they will take wide open jumpshots from ebanks all day and twice on sundays.

    Its also not surprising to me that against a small lineup the Lakers are better without #17. I know the samples are extraordinarily small against the Thunder – but the Lakers “looked” better when #17 wasn’t in the game against small lineups with Denver as well – because all 5 guys would hustle down the court and communicate with each other – and Sessions was allowed to play faster.

    The Sessions-Kobe-Barnes-Metta-Pau lineup would be the most mobile lineup on both defense and the best at floor spreading (assuming Barnes can shoot again) which would open driving lanes for Kobe/Pau/Sessions.

    But theres no way Brown plays that lineup for long stretches because (1) Pau will be absolutely exhausted being the only true big in the lineup to protect the rim, and (2) #17 will pout pout pout and not try when he comes in because he will have lost major minutes and thus major scoring opportunities. And the three headed monster is most certainly OKC’s best lineup (and their 4th Q lineup), so in the event of a loss then all you have is a fuming big man.

    Gotta manage ego’s as well as lineups with a team like this.

  12. @ Cdog

    the money quote “Gotta manage ego’s as well as lineups with a team like this.”

    well said sir

  13. at time like this I wish Laker traded for that guy in boston haha that elite PG defender haha.

  14. I don’t see anybody in the Lakers who could guard Westbrook at his prime. It has to be a young player who could match speed with speed. Of course, my recommendation is a stretch and will never be considered by MB. I have seen this in other basketball circuits where they assigned a no name guy to guard a Superstar. Put Darius Morris against Westbrook and DM’s assignment is to shadow W wherever he goes. Don’t let W carry the ball or received the ball and don’t look at any other player except W just like what Sasha Vujacic used to do at Melo. DM sole purpose is to stop W, don’t even bother to shoot or facilitate.

    That’s how Rodman was discovered as an important cog with the Pistons as a nuisance player.

  15. 17) Similar to how Phil used Ty Lue to shadow Iverson in th 2001 Finals. Like the idea but I don’t think Morris is quick enough. Worth a shot though!

  16. Hello,

    I’ve been reading this board for quite a long time. Recently, firefox tries to stop me from visiting – it says that this website is infected.

    Can you do something about it?

    Thanks in advance