The Los Angeles Lakers have opened the offseason with a bang.
On Aug. 6, the Lakers announced that they have traded Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell and the draft rights to Isaiah Jackson to the Washington Wizards for Russell Westbrook and three future second-round picks.
"This is a very proud day for our franchise, and we are incredibly grateful. We welcome Russell and his family to Lakers Nation." - Rob Pelinka https://t.co/cFHNkKzYng- Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) August 7, 2021
The headliner of the deal is, of course, Westbrook.
A one-time MVP with nine All-Star and nine All-NBA selections to his name, Westbrook has long been one of the most electrifying players in the league. While he wasn't named an All-Star this past season, he still had a historic campaign. Posting 22.2 points, 11.7 assists and 11.5 rebounds per game, Westbrook averaged a triple-double for the third time in the four seasons and was a driving force in Washington's return to the playoffs.
The NBA is a star-driven league, and Westbrook brings even more star power to a Lakers team built around two superstars in LeBron James and Anthony Davis, but the fit among them isn't exactly seamless.
We'll get into that in a bit. First...
Why Westbrook to the Lakers will work
There are a few ways Westbrook will make his presence felt on the Lakers, the first being in transition.
The Lakers now have two of the league's best scorers in the open court. In 2020-21, Westbrook averaged 5.6 points per game in transition, tying him with De'Aaron Fox and LeBron for third-most in the league. (Only Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jaylen Brown averaged more than the three of them). Westbrook wasn't particularly efficient, ranking in the 20th percentile with an average of 0.94 points per possession, but few players are as relentless as he is when it comes to attacking teams off of makes, misses and turnovers. He's a blur from one end of the court to the other and is still a tremendous athlete, even at the age of 32.
With both Westbrook and LeBron being grab-and-go threats, it's easy to imagine the Lakers flying up and down the court next season.
Westbrook's ability to get downhill could help in the halfcourt as well.
Westbrook didn't get to the basket quite as much with the Wizards as he did with the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder - perhaps a sign that he is starting to slow down, even if only slightly - but he still averaged 17.8 drives per game, the seventh-most in the league. That would've led the Lakers by a long shot, as Dennis Schröder averaged a team-high 13.3 drives per game.
Once again, Westbrook wasn't all that efficient of a scorer on his forays to the basket, but he generated a ton of offence for his teammates on those drives.
According to PBP Stats, only Damian Lillard (246) assisted on more 3s than Westbrook (241) last season.
Westbrook has also played with a number of big men in his career, ranging from athletic rim-runners like Serge Ibaka in Oklahoma City and Clint Capela in Houston to more traditional big men like Robin Lopez in Washington. All of that experience bodes well for his fit with Davis, who is as versatile as they come.
Westbrook still being a big-time creator for himself and others should make life easier for LeBron in particular because he won't have to create as much offensively. He could be a big upgrade over Schröder in that regard.
Additionally, the Lakers could be better in the minutes LeBron isn't on the court if head coach Frank Vogel chooses to stagger his and Westbrook's minutes. According to NBA.com, the Lakers went from averaging 112.4 points per 100 possessions to 105.8 with LeBron on the bench last season, the difference between them ranking 14th and 28th in offensive efficiency.
If Westbrook can keep the Lakers ticking in those minutes, it could buy LeBron some much-needed rest during the regular season and keep him fresh for the playoffs. And should LeBron and/or Davis miss extended time with an injury, Westbrook should be able to keep them afloat, giving them a safety net they didn't have last season.
How Westbrook complements LeBron and Davis when he doesn't have the ball in his hands is more complicated - more on that below - but the three of them are going to be miserable to match up against. The Lakers already lived in the paint, hammered teams on the offensive glass, and overwhelmed opponents with their size, strength and athleticism. The addition of Westbrook should only make them tougher to deal with on those fronts.
Why Westbrook to the Lakers won't work
Spacing is going to be the big concern with this team.
LeBron and Davis have always been at their best when they're surrounded by shooters, and they're now going to share the court with one of the worst shooters in the NBA.
That's not an exaggeration. According to Stathead, a total of 469 players have attempted at least 1,000 3-pointers in their NBA careers. Of those players, only 16 have converted them at a lower rate than Westbrook (30.5 percent). He isn't an efficient shooter from midrange either. According to NBA.com, Westbrook attempted the second-most shots from midrange last season but knocked them down at a 38.1 percent clip.
Due to his limitations as a shooter, it's safe to assume that teams will load up on LeBron and Davis by daring Westbrook to settle for jumpers.
Ironically, it's a strategy the Lakers are familiar with. In their second-round matchup with the Rockets in the 2019 NBA Playoffs, the Lakers defended Westbrook with size and weren't shy about giving him space to make life as difficult as possible for James Harden.
It works the other way as well. Westbrook is at his best when he has space to work with, but neither LeBron nor Davis are exactly knockdown shooters themselves. Even though the Lakers have been able to add some shooters in free agency (Carmelo Anthony, Trevor Ariza, Wayne Ellington, Malik Monk), spacing could be tight for Westbrook when he shares the court with the two of them.
Downsizing with LeBron at power forward and Davis at center would help some of those spacing issues - the Lakers probably can't afford to have a non-shooter on the court for heavy minutes, especially in the playoffs - but that would require the two of them to slide down a position. ("How much time will Davis spend at center?" feels like a question we've asked entering every season of his career). Is that something they're willing to do to accommodate Westbrook as they pursue another championship?
Westbrook will have to make some changes himself. He almost certainly won't handle the ball as much in Los Angeles as he did in Oklahoma City, Houston and Washington, so he might have to do more of the little things, like set screens, attack the offensive glass and keep the defence honest as a cutter. There's a world in which Westbrook becomes a Dwyane Wade-type of scorer next to LeBron and Davis - a secondary ball-handler who's a relentless slasher - but it's not a role we've ever really seen him in.
That's what makes this trade so interesting: Los Angeles has had a below-average halfcourt offence in each of the last two seasons and added someone who could gum things up even more for it when the game slows down, which could become a particularly glaring issue for them in the playoffs. If anyone can figure out a way to make it work, it's LeBron, but you'd think the Lakers would be trying to do everything possible to make things easier for him entering his age 37, not more complicated.
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