Russell Westbrook will join LeBron James and Anthony Davis on the Lakers next season. The 3rd star player the team has coveted since trading for Davis two summers ago is no longer just a hope or a dream, it will be a reality. Westbrook will return to his native Los Angeles from the nation’s capital in exchange for the #22 pick in Thursday’s NBA draft, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, and Montrezl Harrell (who earlier in the day opted-in to his 2021-22 contract, making him trade eligible).
The implications of this move require much examination and scrutiny.1Not all of which will happen in this post. Haha. Westbrook is not just far from a perfect player, he’s someone whose flaws in both skillset and, at times, approach can be crippling to his own team. Over the last several years his decline as a shooter from the field and the foul line have made him a less efficient scorer who can struggle to create good looks against compacted defenses. Over that same period he’s also dealt with several leg injuries, limiting his effectiveness and availability for long stretches of multiple seasons. He can also be one of the more stubborn players in the league, someone whose confidence (and, at times, arrogance and hubris) gets him into too many “games within the game” that tempt him into his worst tendencies and where his competitiveness clouds his judgment and decision making.
Additionally, and maybe more damaging, his game’s general weaknesses have been further amplified under the more tailored game plans of the playoffs. Russ’ lack of an outside shot and reliance on transition are used against him, most notably by Frank Vogel and the Lakers in their run to the title just a season ago. Vogel deployed AD onto Russ, using his star big man as a heat seeking missile who was free to roam and help off Westbrook and put out fires all over the court. Russ, who had recently returned from a quad injury, was not able to adjust and that was that. The Lakers won the series in 5 games for a lot of reasons, but few were more important than their ability to capitalize on all that Westbrook was not and the things he could not do.
With all that I’ve written above, then, you might find it weird for me to say that I’m excited about this trade. You see, for me, while I think it’s very important to understand what a player is not and what he cannot do, I find it more important and useful to focus on what he is and what he can do. I think that’s particularly true when speaking about a player as talented and as accomplished as Westbrook.
Russ, for all his flaws, remains one of the more dynamic offensive players in the league. His combination of physical tools, forcefulness when leveraging those tools, attack mentality, general relentlessness, skill level as a passer, and his ability to get to and finish at the rim allow him to thrive in the center of the action in any game he plays. Understand, Russ not only led the league in assists, he was 7th in the NBA in rebounds. He averaged a triple-double for the 4th time in 5 seasons and in his final 20 games of the regular season he bumped his averages up to 23.6 points (on 45% shooting), 13.6 rebounds, and 13.9 assists, earning real consideration for the All-NBA team in the process. There’s a credibility that comes from getting shit done that is unquestionable when simply examining his raw production — efficiency be damned.
Let’s zero in the Lakers here, though. Because for all the arguments to be made about what Russ is or isn’t, how much he helps vs. hurts, the success or failures of this deal will be determined by his fit next to LeBron and AD.
On the positive side, Russ’ presence will allow LeBron to carry less of a burden as a primary ball handler and lead initiator offensively. Russ can and will capably organize the team and get them into their sets on that end. He can create shots for LeBron both in 2-man game actions (P&R’s, handoffs, etc) and via drive and kicks where LeBron is stationed weakside in the corner or wing as a spot up guy. Getting someone who can ably make LeBron’s life easier via individual playmaking and shot creation will be welcomed and is something the team wanted (and succeeded with at times) with Dennis. Well, with Russ, I expect to see even more success in this specific aspect of the game.
Second, Russ is still a dynamite transition player and his ability to turn a defensive rebound into an open court chance is rivaled only by Giannis and LeBron in the entire NBA. This point cannot be overstated. The Lakers want to run and they want to create quick and easy shots either in direct transition or via early offense in less scripted offensive possessions. Russ helps this effort tremendously and allows Bron to leverage his own athleticism when filling the lane more often, instead of by always operating in the middle of the break. Russ will also allow AD to run the lane more freely and get out earlier on the break because of (Russ’) defensive rebounding prowess. Getting AD and Bron more transition chances and doing so while they have to perform less of a lift sounds good to me.
Third, and this is most important, I truly believe that Russ’ attack based game and dynamic playmaking ability is going to help optimize AD in ways that serve as an accelerant for his individual production. Russ has never played with a P&R partner as dynamic as Davis and in the lineups where Bron rests, the Lakers should be able to punish bench units by spamming Russ/AD P&R’s that lead to a boatload of shots in the paint. I fully expect Russ/AD to become one of the best P&R tandems in the league, with AD rolling more often for easy baskets and by cleaning up on the offensive glass, but also getting much cleaner jumpers on his pop-outs because of the pressure Russ puts on the rim off the dribble. Related, I also expect this action to be able to create good looks for all the other players on the court, simply because this action can be so dynamic. We don’t yet know who a lot of these players will be, but I can tell you they’re very likely to be open when taking their shots.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all going to be puppies and rainbows. As I wrote above, Russ’ limitations are real and when those are pushed to the forefront things can and will get dicey. I expect spacing to be an issue that will need to be conquered nightly, possession after possession — especially in lineups where AD is playing next to another big. Russ’ up and down nature defensively will need to shift more towards engaged and active, rather than the watching and resting that has happened too often when he’s carried a much heavier offensive burden. Russ’ off-ball work as a cutter and screener will also need to go up several levels from where it’s been, particularly since his struggles as a shooter are going to lead to defenses ignoring him whenever they can show more attention to Bron and AD. Those guys can reward those efforts, but he needs to help them by being an active teammate when he doesn’t have the ball.
To think any of these changes and shifts to Russ’ game will come easy would be silly. Reality is they may not come at all. And if you’re unwaveringly down on this deal, my hunch is that it’s rooted in that very real possibility. And, if that’s your position, I get it. I really do.
For me, while I’m not ignoring those things and think they will matter, what also matters is the Lakers getting back to the simple formula that powered their run to the title in the 19-20 season and, to a certain extent, just powered the Bucks to their title: being the bigger, more physical team. Russ, for all his flaws, is a move back in that direction and not a subtle one. Because, again, there’s really no player quite like Russ in the entire league and when you add him to LeBron and AD (and how he can elevate AD in particular), the Lakers now have as physically imposing and dominant trio as any you’ll find in the league. And their collective skill level ain’t that bad either, even if there are some deficiencies there to overcome.
Whether it all works out, remains to be seen. But it’s one of the more fascinating talent plays any top level team has made in recent history. And I can’t wait to see how it all goes.