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Russell Westbrook: The Good, Bad And The Ugly Of His First Month With The Lakers

Russell Westbrook: The Good, Bad And The Ugly Of His First Month With The Lakers

The Los Angeles Lakers are 14 games into the 2021-2022 season, which is enough time to dig into the advanced statistics without worrying about small sample size issues or outliers.

So, what do the numbers say about Russell Westbrook’s early work?

After Rob Pelinka dealt Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and the 22nd pick for Russell Westbrook, Lakers fans knew this would be a process. They didn’t expect things to spin this far out of control, though.

On Friday night the Minnesota Timberwolves dispatched the Lakers by 24 points as Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis, and company stood around with their shoulders drooping. They truly looked helpless like a junior varsity team getting dumped on by the varsity squad.

Then on Sunday afternoon, the Purple and Gold eked out a win against the 4-9 San Antonio Spurs behind a monster effort from Anthony Davis and Talen Horton-Tucker’s return from injury.

The Lakers are 8-6 and it’s become apparent there’s a problem with the “process.”

Major contributors Kendrick Nunn, Talen Horton-Tucker, Trevor Ariza, and former MVP LeBron James have suffered significant injuries. Rajon Rondo, Wayne Ellington, and Austin Reaves have also missed time with minor tweaks. Still, the Purple and Gold have played the 22nd easiest schedule according to www.basketball-reference.com, and when you factor in their home-heavy early stretch of games, hovering around.500 seems alarming.

Scan the Lakers’ comment sections, and you’ll see the hate against Russell Westbrook is real and growing with every lazy pass, but how much blame does “The Brodie” deserve for the Lakers’ mediocre start?

Next, we’ll sift through the good, bad, and ugly from Russell Westbrook this season and determine how the former Thunder MVP has performed.

Note: We’ll avoid traditional box score numbers because they don’t paint a realistic picture of Russell Westbrook’s performance. We’ll also sidestep most all-encompassing advanced statistics; it’s a bit early, and some of the best information like ESPN’s real plus-minus and Dunks & Threes EPM isn’t out yet.


The Good

Russell Westbrook is tied for second in the league in potential assists with Luka Doncic at 17.0 per game. Westbrook’s averaging 8.5 (actual) assists per contest, so we can see he’s hitting open players with solid dimes; they’re simply missing around half their opportunities.

This idea that Westbrook is passing better than most people believe matches up with his numbers over the past couple of years:

2020-2021:

Russell Westbrook was first in potential assists at 21.9 per game.

2019-2020:

Russell Westbrook was sixth in potential assists at 15.5 per game while playing with passing phenom, James Harden.

2018-2019:

Russell Westbrook was first in potential assists at 20.8 per game, 4.5 more than second place, LeBron James

Russell Westbrook’s been a solid setup man for the Lakers, but like much of his game, everything he does comes at a cost. He’s coughing the ball up at a league-high 5.4 times per game. In the end, yes, Westbrook’s setting up his teammates with decent looks, but he’s 118h out of 145 qualified guards (minimum 15 MPG) in assist to turnover ratio at an ugly 1.54 for the season.

This year, Russell Westbrook’s fourth among qualified guards (minimum 15 MPG) in rebound percentage at 11.3%. Russell’s rebounding prowess is well documented yet underappreciated by most fans. Westbrook pulls down boards like a big, but after he has the ball in his hands this season, he’s pushing the ball up the floor like a jet-fueled guard.

Throughout the early stages of the 2021-2022 season, Russell Westbrook ranks 10th among all NBA players (minimum 15 MPG) in pace at a blistering 105.37. It’s always good to get out on the break. It’s easier to score when opposing defenders are backpedaling and scattered across the floor trying to find their assignment.

Unfortunately, the former Bruin is connecting on a close to league bottom 52.0% on his looks at the rim through his first 14 games, pushing the athletic Lakers down to 15.1 fast break points per game.


The Bad

Russell Westbrook’s shooting has been ugly. He’s hitting 32.2% of his deep shots and 42.7% overall off of 17.2 shot attempts per game, ranking him 30th out of 46 players who are attempting 15 or more shots per game. Simply put, Westbrook is a poor high-volume shooter.

Westbrook has never been a pure shooter, and his numbers this season with the Lakers line up squarely with his career stats of 43.7 FG% and 30.5 3P%. What’s worrying is the type of shots he’s attempting through 14 games in Hollywood.

This season, Russell Westbrook is jacking up 1.6 pull up three-pointers per game, double what excellent Lakers shooters Carmelo Anthony, Wayne Ellington, and Kent Bazemore are taking. As expected, he’s connecting on a miserable 30.4% of his shots.

Worse yet, Westbrook is taking 4.3 midrange pull up jumpers per contest, perhaps the most difficult and inefficient shot type in the league, and he’s only hitting 39.8% on them.

Westbrook is an assist machine. Yet he’s taking shots like he’s Kevin Durant or Kawhi Leonard, ranking 41st out of 450 players throughout the NBA in pull up attempts per contest.

This is not what Lakers fans were promised over the offseason. LA diehards were sold a tale of change and redemption. They were told Westbrook would come in and assimilate. He’d set more screens and cut to the rim with vigor. He’d lay aside the low-efficiency shots that have plagued him throughout his career.

So far, it’s the same old Russell Westbrook.

The Lakers are 22nd in the league in offense with a 105.2 rating. Injuries play a part, and assimilating close to a dozen new faces has also been a challenge.

Still, Rob Pelinka traded three solid role players, KCP, Kuzma, and Harrell, to the Wizards for Russell Westbrook so he could guide the ship when the aging LeBron rested or suffered a minor injury. It’s early, but so far, the returns have not been good.


The Ugly

This section is reserved for Russell’s Westbrook’s defense because, let’s be honest, few people expected “The Brodie” to morph into a high-efficiency offensive weapon.

Russell Westbrook has struggled with his shooting and passing, but at least he’s been going hard on the fun end. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Westbrook on defense, where he’s simply not trying as hard as he should.

The numbers are damning.

Russell Westbrook is defending 5.2 three-point shots per game and allowing his assignment to shoot 38.2% from deep, 4.9% better than their normal average, and tenth-worst in the league among guards (minimum five 3-point shots defended to remove some of the noise).

To make matters worse, out of the 5.2 shots from deep Westbrook has been responsible for guarding this year on the Lakers, he’s only contesting 2.1 of those attempts. The math is simple; he’s giving up 3.1 wide-open shots from beyond the arc per game.

Contested shots are a hustle stat that shows which players are going hard on defense and which ones are shifting down to third gear and letting their legs rest. Russell Westbrook’s defense (or lack of defense) isn’t about age or miles logged. Sure, he just turned 33-years-old, but as we’ve already stated, he’s 10th in the league in pace. This is about heart and attitude.

How can an All-Star like Russell Westbrook go 100% on offense and then jog around on defense? The Lakers can’t win like that.

The Lakers are 12th in the league in defense, an unforgivable ranking with a hulking do-it-all player like Anthony Davis in the fold. Russell Westbrook sits at 257th in the association in defensive rating, which is boosted considerably by his rebounding percentages. His on-ball defense has vacillated from mediocre to porous this season, but the way he’s ambling out to open shooters from three-point range has hurt more.

The league as a whole has struggled from distance, shooting a collective 34.3% on the year compared to 36.7% last season. As players throughout the NBA continue to adjust to the new Wilson basketball, Westbrook’s lackadaisical approach on the perimeter will cripple the Lakers’ title hopes if he doesn’t begin to hustle on the less glamorous end.


What Can We Expect From Russell Westbrook Moving Forward?

There are already calls from Lakers fans to bench Russell Westbrook or pull off the impossible and trade him. It’s a little too soon for that. We can’t sell our Westbrook stock this early on. Even mammoth companies like Google or Apple occasionally take stock market dives before rebounding a few months later.

Russell Westbrook’s turnover problems soak up much of the attention. Still, scan the top-5 players in TPG this season, and you’ll quickly see it’s a Who’s Who list of MVP candidates:

2021-2022 Turnover Leaders:

1. Russell Westbrook: 5.4 TPG

2. James Harden: 4.9 TPG

3. Paul George: 4.4 TPG

4. Kevin Porter Jr.: 4.4 TPG

5. LeBron James: 4.2 TPG

James Harden, Paul George, and LeBron James have given the ball up nearly as much as Westbrook this year, yet nobody’s screaming to trade them.

Folks in La La Land are also pulling their hair out over Westbrook’s shooting woes, but did you expect anything else? Westbrook’s a freakish athlete who struggles with his shot. This is known.

Westbrook’s attitude on defense is the real problem. Hopes reins, though. LeBron James has missed more than half the Lakers’ games early on. As LBJ gets healthy and finds himself back on the floor, we must assume he’ll whisper defensive nothings into Russell’s ear. It’s hard to imagine any NBA player half-heartedly sprinting out to open three-point shooters as the GOAT spurns him on, let alone Westbrook, one of LBJ’s best friends.

Likewise, the Lakers’ best perimeter defender, Talen Horton-Tucker, has only played one contest, and lockdown specialist, Trevor Ariza, has yet to suit up. They’ll make a significant defensive impact on the Lakers’ perimeter D.

Westbrook has underperformed, but things haven’t spiraled too far sideways. There’s time yet for “Mr. Triple Double” to reign in his lazy passes and stop jacking lousy spot up jumpers while pushing harder on the less glamorous end.

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