The Lakers staggered into the All-Star break, the most disappointing squad in the league, thankful that Anthony Davis’s X-rays were negative and he shouldn’t miss significant time, after what initially looked like a season-ending ankle injury against the Utah Jazz on Wednesday night.
The Purple and Gold have to be wondering how things spun sideways so hard and so fast.
It’s easy to work out what went wrong.
After Rob Pelinka watched his Lakers fold to the Phoenix Suns in last years Western Conference first round, he went into the offseason, heart pounding out of his chest as he made one of the greatest panic trades in Los Angeles sports history, sending three quality rotation pieces (two of which–Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope–were main cogs in the Purple and Gold’s title run the year before) for Russell Westbrook. It was as if Pelinka, and yes, LeBron James, scanned Westbrook’s stat sheet, saw he averaged a triple-double while helping guide his Wizards into the postseason, and said to themselves, “Wow, it’d be awesome to have that type of production in Hollywood,” without putting even a slither more thought into it.
Life is never as black and white as a player’s slash line, and with Westbrook, things get about as close to dust gray as possible. Sure, Brodie averaged a triple-double, but he played parking pylon D. The Wizards made the playoffs, but they finished 34-38, creeping into the NBA’s second season as the eighth seed in a weakened Eastern Conference that saw the ho-hum Atlanta Hawks meander into the final-2 before getting ruined by the Bucks.
Rob Pelinka gets credit, though, for not letting the mounting pressure that had to be breaking his shoulders apart during this year’s trade deadline push him into double-down mode, turning one panic trade over the summer into another hysteria-filled deal for John Wall and a future first-round pick. Wall hasn’t played in close to a year, and no matter how much you hate Brodie, there is no way you can logically argue the player the Houston Rockets shelved while doling out $44 million would morph the Lakers from the joke of the league into a title contender.
The Lakers season has been put through the paper shredder, and now LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook are left standing with tape on their fingers trying to put each sliver of writing back in place. A task that’s made triply hard because of the hundreds of thousands of tiny hits Russell Westbrook’s psyche has taken since coming to Hollywood. As things stand now, Brodie is like a fishing boat anchored to a dock with masses of barnacles piling up on the bottom, slowly dragging it under the surface of the water. Westbrook could be one missed layup away from going Ben Simmons on the Lakers and taking time off due to mental health issues, or he could miss significant court action with more “back spasms.”
Still, there is hope. Everything starts with Westbrook, though. He has the talent to help change the Lakers’ season, but he must stop worrying about collecting stats like their baseball cards.
Russell Westbrook On Defense
I’m not inside Russell Westbrook’s head, but all the anecdotal evidence suggests he doesn’t care much about the less glamorous end. Throughout 2021-22 we’ve seen Brodie go through the motions on defense, half-heartedly chasing his assignment around screens or lazily running out to open shooters or getting flummoxed by a simple crossover on the perimeter or by ball watching as his cover back cuts to the rim, and on and on and on.
When you go to a Lakers game, the chasm between the way Russell Westbrook explodes by his man in the half-court versus his meandering jaunts around the court on defense is unsettling. The only time you really see Brodie go 100% on the less fun side is when he has a chance to pad his stats with a rebound.
The defensive statistics back me up. Westbrook is allowing his assignments to shoot 3.7% over their normal average. He’s contesting a meager 3.7 shots per contest, he has a -0.6 box plus/minus, and Dunks and Threes rate him in the 33rd percentile among all NBA defenders.
It’s not like Westbrook isn’t equipped to play top-10 defense. He’s 6-3, 200 pounds with a 6-8 wingspan. At 33, he’s still one of the most athletic players in the league, and he’s chiseled like a statue of a Greek God. Brodie has all the tools; he just doesn’t use them.
The Lakers rank 17th in defense in 2021-22 despite having Anthony Davis, one of the best all-around defenders in the league, LeBron James, a lockdown forward in his own right, and Stanley Johnson, a 6-6, 242-pound all-purpose wing who, after falling out of the league has stormed back through his effort on D. The Purple and Gold also have Trevor Ariza and Talen Horton-Tucker, two capable perimeter defenders, and Avery Bradley, a 110% ballhawk who is a bit small to really impact opposing point guards but is a nuisance.
Russell Westbrook has been the weak link in the Lakers D all season long. Opposing teams have constantly sought out Brodie on switches matching him up on their premier offensive guard and collapsing the defense when he fails to contain his man, continually pushing the Purple and Gold into scramble mode. This isn’t the 50s or 60s when an organization’s coaching staff was typically made up of one man, the head coach. Today’s NBA squads are sophisticated machines with a fleet of scouts and stats gurus, along with an entire video department. They know how to take a crumbling piece of the foundation and blow it up, collapsing the entire building with it.
The Russell Westbrook hate in Hollywood is alive and real. Doesn’t Brodie realize all he needs to do to gain the love of the Purple and Gold faithful is give everything he has on defense?
Lakers fans still talk about Alex Caruso with joyful tears in their eyes, reminiscing about his incredible effort on D. Westbrook has every physical advantage over 6-4, 184-pound AC; now he needs to morph into a lockdown, dive-on-the-ground defender on the less fun end, and he too will be showered with love.
Westbrook must transform on D by fighting harder through screens and getting a hand up on shooters, even if he’s trailing the play. He needs to take it upon himself to stop hiding on defense, instead taking on the opposing squad’s best perimeter guard, using his physical gifts to shut his man down. Westbrook’s effort can’t stop on the court; heavy hours in the film room are a must. The best ballhawks in the association study their man’s moves, so they’re prepared to cut him off.
If Westbrook can use his potential and transform into a defensive ace, he’ll not only see his image morph, he could end up helping the Lakers salvage their season.
Russell Westbrook On Offense
Russell Westbrook gave us the blueprint for what he needs to do on offense during the Lakers’ narrow loss to the Golden State Warriors on Sunday night. Brodie took only three shots outside of the key, ending things in San Francisco with a 7 for 13 shooting line as he relentlessly pounded the paint. He ended up with a reasonable 20.0% usage rate, which landed fourth on the Lakers behind James, Davis, and Monk, down considerably from his 30.9% mark for the season.
Westbrook has a very specific offensive skill set for a point guard in today’s NBA: explosive rim slasher and top-5 drive-and-kick weapon/ horrendous outside shooter and a turnover magnet.
It seems logical he’d play to his strengths as he did against Golden State by allowing his teammates to handle the ball more and by making quick dashes to the rack when the opportunity arises. Unfortunately, logic has played into little of what we’ve seen this year from Westbrook. Instead, he’s often played to his deficiencies, taking roughly 45% of his attempts from outside of 10 feet, in what feels like an attempt to “prove the haters wrong” while ironically reiterating from on top of a mountain that he lacks any type of efficient shooting touch.
The Brooklyn Nets felt comfortable dealing James Harden for non-shooter Ben Simmons hours before the 2022 trade deadline for one overarching reason: they have two excellent offensive weapons in Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving who’ll allow the Australian native to do what he does best, attack the paint and spray out pretty dimes.
The last time I checked, the Lakers also have two excellent scoring options. LBJ is third in the league in points at 29.0 per game, and AD is notching 23.3 points per contest, good for 20th in the NBA. James and Davis are nowhere near the outside threats that KD and No Vacc are, but AD rolls to the rim like a level 4 hurricane, and he uses his Gumby arms to snatch lob passes anywhere in the vicinity of the rack. This year, James is an above-average three-point marksman, and he’s an expert at cutting to the rim for easy layups.
Russell Westbrook’s path to redemption is as simple as playing Tic-Tac-Toe; he needs to embrace his basketball virtues. That means Westbrook should stop shooting from beyond the arc, wide open or not; it doesn’t matter. He needs to channel Ben Simmons (34 total three-point attempts in his career) and never-ever-ever launch from deep. I know, it seems like this strategy will cramp the Lakers’ space, allowing Westbrook’s man to hang back and clog up the lane, but in that case, Brodie will have the room needed to maneuver toward the rim or to swing the ball across the court, vision unhindered. Every action has a reaction, and Westbrook’s response to that extra court territory must be to drive into a packed lane instead of shooting from deep or mid-range where he struggles because, for all his worts, he’s a top-tier passer who can connect with open Laker shooters from beyond the arc or at the rim.
Westbrook has played with the world on his shoulders this season, and that constant pressure has led to unforced errors. It’s time for Malik Monk and Anthony Davis to take up more of a prominent role for the Lakers on offense, shrinking Brodie’s frontcourt touches and allowing him to settle down. Russell Westbrook and the Lakers as a whole will benefit if his usage rate slides to less than 25%, diversifying things on the fun end and taking away his blunder opportunities.
If Russell Westbrook can drive the ball into the paint instead of shooting a longish jumper while limiting his overall touches, he can be an offensive boon for the Lakers.
There Is Still Enough Time Left in 2021-22
The Lakers are linked to several buyout candidates. The two they covet most are Goran Dragic and Dennis Schroder. Fans shouldn’t put too much faith in the Purple and Gold landing either player.
At least ten organizations, including title contenders, the Warriors and Nets, are interested in Dragic. There’s not much reason to believe he sat out nearly the entire season to come off the bench for an LA squad that is, at least right now, not guaranteed a spot in the NBA’s second season.
The Lakers ditched Schroder for Russell Westbrook last offseason, tanking his value and sprinkling a bit of humiliation on top for good measure. Why would the German point guard come back to Hollywood?
The Purple and Gold are going to need Russell Westbrook to change his playing style to have a chance of doing something more meaningful than quietly succumbing to the Warriors or Suns in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.
Perhaps the vibrations in Lakerland are fluttering with a little more positivity, or maybe the look in Westbrook’s eye has altered into something different, something harder. I have this feeling Brodie will transform his game, and the Lakers will begin to play title-contender basketball. Wednesday night's win against the Jazz was a nice start. One win can easily turn into two, and then three, and like a baby bamboo shoot reaching up toward the sky at three feet per day, the Purple and Gold can gain the momentum they need to crash into the playoffs, a scary dark-horse nobody wants to see.