Russell Westbrook’s first season in L.A. was an unmitigated failure. He was plugged into a lineup of non-shooters including LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and a confusing mix of ill-fitting pieces. Of Rob Pelinka’s misfit toys, though, nobody took last season’s debacle harder on the chin than Westbrook.
Westbrook’s inaugural campaign in L.A. resulted in his worst single-season shooting averages since his developing years as a pro. He made a lower percentage of two-pointers than he had in a decade, saw his vaunted assist and rebounding tallies per game dip below the double-digit averages he’d gotten used to since 2015, and he posted his worst player efficiency rating since he was a rookie.
It was especially jarring for a volatile point guard who had been on the move for the past three years through a variety of trades. As a rapidly devalued commodity whose pogo-stick athleticism was bound to decline as he entered mid-30s, teams have played hot potato with Westbrook for three years. The key has been to not get caught with a max-contract player with questionable decision-making and no residual trade value. Westbrook’s stock plummeted and L.A. got hot holding the bag. Things got so bad that he found himself being disrespected as “Westbrick.”
Westbrook’s downward trend continued early on this year, in the Lakers’ first four games. The team tripped out of the gates, going 0-4, and the Westbrick phenomenon reached its nadir with an 0-for-11 shooting performance against the Clippers.
Since getting relegated to the bench by Darvin Ham, Westbrook has flourished. In the first four games of the season, Westbrook’s shot selection and the release on his jumper needed an exorcism.
He tallied 10.3 points, and 4.3 assists while shooting under 8.3 percent on 3-balls and drained 29 percent from the field. Granted that small sample size was influenced by Westbrook heaving gutterballs toward the cylinder against the Clippers, but it’s safe to say not much had changed in the offseason to expect anything better from Westbrook. Playing off-ball in lineups with LeBron James, Westbrook was an anchor on the Lakers offense.
Since getting moved to the bench, Westbrook’s usage has jumped 7 points from 21.5 to 28.5. He has upped his field goal percentage to 47 percent, is remarkably shooting 45 percent from 3-point range, scoring 19 points a night while dishing nearly 8 assists per game, and has a new lease on his stint in L.A.
Unsurprisingly, it turns out that letting Westbrook operate against backups and in lineups without James. The offense revolves more naturally on its intended axis when Westbrook operates separately from LeBron’s gravitational pull.
Three of the Lakers best lineups this season in relation to plus-minus scoring differential feature Westbrook and Davis (plus Austin Reaves) on the floor without LeBron James. Those lineups have outscored teams by 35 points this season. Westbrook is the one who gets to operate in the pick-and-rolls with Davis. He’s the one who dominates the rock and initiates the offense. His bravado has returned even if the Lakers are still drowning in the standings.
Ironically, L.A. was considered the destination for Kyrie Irving in the offseason. While healthy and focused on basketball instead of his Amazon Prime account, Irving is the vastly superior point guard. However, Westbrook is doing enough right now to keep his trade value afloat while Irving has become Brooklyn’s albatross. Long-term, Westbrook won’t be a Laker. He’ll likely be whisked out of town by the trade deadline, but at least he’s revived the depressed market for his talents.