The much-hyped Los Angeles Lakers have so far been underwhelming this 2021-22 season. While the Lakers will certainly improve when the injured LeBron James returns, the team needs a transformation from Russell Westbrook if it wants to win a championship.
When the Lakers acquired Westbrook in a multi team trade in July, pundits were quick to question whether Westbrook’s ball-dominant, inefficient offense would blend well on a team that already boasts James and Anthony Davis, two ball-dominant superstars.
Through 15 games, Westbrook has done little to allay those fears. His counting stats — 19.4 points, 8.7 rebounds, 8.3 assists per game — remain impressive, but they barely mask his inefficiency. Each of his shooting marks — 42.7% on field goals, 29.2% on 3-pointers and 68.5% on free throws — are worse than his career average and significantly worse than the current league averages.
The Lakers are objectively worse when Westbrook is on the court: Opponents outscore the Lakers by 7.1 points per 100 possessions when he is on the floor, and the Lakers outscore their opponent by 11.5 points per 100 possessions when he sits.
However abysmal those numbers may seem, Westbrook is still one of the most explosive and indefatigable guards in the NBA, and he can still make a positive impact on this Laker squad.
In order to do so, he needs to learn to become the third option.
When Westbrook played for the Oklahoma City Thunder, when he had among the highest usage rates in the league. Those days are over. Westbrook should no longer be the focal point of the Lakers’ offense. Instead, James and Davis, two of the top 10 players in the league, should be getting the ball in their hands on every play and taking the lion’s share of the Lakers’ shots.
Westbrook has a role on this team, but it does not include jacking up multiple low-percentage midrange jumpers and even lower-percentage 3-pointers per game. Rather, he should limit his offense to his strengths: leading lightning-fast transition drives and becoming a cutter who can receive passes en route to ferocious attacks at the basket.
The hardest part for Westbrook will be reconciling with the idea that he is no longer top dog. In fact, part of the reason why a championship has eluded him throughout his career is because when he has been on championship-caliber teams, he has been unwilling to cede offensive responsibilities to demonstrably better players. In Oklahoma City, his failure to defer to Kevin Durant prevented the Thunder from winning crucial postseason series, and it was a motivating factor in Durant’s decision to leave OKC for the Golden State Warriors in the 2016 offseason. More recently, in Houston, Westbrook failed to gel with the even more ball-dominant James Harden, and after losing to the Lakers in the first round of the 2020 Playoffs, the Rockets flipped Westbrook in a trade to the Washington Wizards.
Acknowledging your own decline is difficult but necessary. Just ask Westbrook’s current teammate Carmelo Anthony. Once an unstoppable one-on-one scorer for the Denver Nuggets and New York Knicks, Anthony failed to accept he was past his prime, and he found himself out of a job in November 2018. The Portland Trail Blazers eventually signed him in November 2019, and Anthony began to adjust, changing his role to 3-point specialist. This season, he lands 45% of his shots from behind the 3-point line, and he is draining 45.3% of his threes.
Westbrook might not become a 3-point marksman anytime soon, but by tailoring his game to his best attributes — speed and athleticism — he will be able to prolong his years as an impact player, just as Anthony did.
Head coach Frank Vogel must convey to Westbrook that the Lakers are at their best when James and Davis control the tempo of their offense. Westbrook is no longer the MVP he once was, but he still has the ability to be a productive and impactful player on a championship-level team.
To reap the rewards of their investment in Westbrook, the Lakers must not ask more of him. Rather, they should ask him to step back and allow others to take the reins.
Christian Baldari is a sophomore in the College. Beware the Hype appears in print and online every other week.