Talking yourself into the idea of Russell Westbrook as a core contributor on a championship contender is a tricky exercise these days. One might even call it futile. The Rockets thought they could win it all with him, only to lose in the second round before losing James Harden and ultimately blowing their team apart. The Wizards thought they could make a leap putting Westbrook next to Bradley Beal, only to finish four games under .500 having to crawl through the basement of the Eastern Conference play-in tournament.
There just doesn't seem to be a lot of mystery as to what Westbrook brings to the table in 2021. He'll fill up the stat sheet, but there is little to no evidence that he impacts winning on any sort of meaningful level. Fact is, he might impact losing. Considering he's set to make $44.2 million this coming season with a $47 million player option for 2022-23, you could've made the argument he had one of the more un-tradable contracts in the league.
And yet, not only did Westbrook get traded again on Thursday ... he got traded to an absolute jackpot situation with the Los Angeles Lakers, who immediately offer him his best opportunity at a championship since the long-lost Oklahoma City glory days. One has to wonder whether it was Westbrook's name or game that afforded him this opportunity, but either way it landed in his lap. Now he just has to take advantage of it.
Make no mistake: Westbrook can still play, which should go without saying for a guy who averaged a triple-double in four of the last five seasons. But there's context to his successes. It was not a coincidence, for instance, when Westbrook played perhaps the best basketball of his career after the Rockets traded Clint Capela to Atlanta from early February of 2019 to the COVID shutdown in mid-March.
That move was made for the sole purpose of opening up driving lanes for Westbrook, and he took advantage, significantly trimming his 3-point volume and resisting the urge to settle for his patented pull-ups. Westbrook looked good when Houston played five-out and also next to the super-floor-stretching Davis Bertans in Washington. He's going to be at his best with shooters around him and without a traditional center clogging the paint.
Problem is, the Lakers might be the worst 3-point shooting team in the league as currently constructed. In the deal for Westbrook, they sent out Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, their two leading 3-point converters from last season and the only two halfway threatening gunners in general. On top of that, we know Anthony Davis prefers to to play the four spot with a traditional center next to him. Put Westbrook on the floor with a paint-patrolling big man and no shooters to speak of, and the Lakers' floor spacing figures to resemble a phone booth.
In theory, this is either going to force Westbrook into a lot of pull-up jumpers (no bueno for literally the worst 3-point shooter in NBA history with at least 2,500 attempts), or a lot of head-down drives through a congested lane, which doesn't exactly scream efficiency. So where does Westbrook fit? My answer to that at the moment is I don't entirely know. What I do know is Westbrook needs to figure it out, because opportunities like this don't come along very often. This is not just his best chance at a title; it might also be his last.
The glass-half-full outlook has Westbrook taking a good chunk of playmaking duties off LeBron's plate. He's still almost impossible to keep out of the lane, and he'll surely create a ton of interior assists to Davis and other bigs by sucking shot blockers into his still-ferocious rim attacks. In closing lineups, it should help Westbrook when Davis moves to center and plays more on the perimeter in pick-and-roll action with LeBron, who can also, hopefully, play fewer minutes in his 19th season without the team falling apart.
Last year, the Lakers were outscored by 12.8 points per 100 possessions without LeBron on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. Dennis Schroder was supposed to be the fix for that problem, but he didn't go as planned. Westbrook is the new solution. You can visualize Westbrook playing with Davis (a pick-and-roll partner unlike any Russ has ever played with) and get excited about the possibilities in non-LeBron minutes.
The Lakers aren't done filling out the roster, either. They have the taxpayer mid-level exception, and they could still make a move for Buddy Hield, perhaps as an expanded version of this trade to include a third team (Sacramento). If that happens, watch out. Hield's shooting on this roster would be doubly dangerous.
The Lakers owe it to themselves to try to put Westbrook in as good a situation as possible, both through the remainder of their roster moves and their rotations, but ultimately they've already provided this fading star with a golden opportunity to rediscover the light. He can't try to do too much with that opportunity. He can't settle for jumpers. He has to commit defensively. He has to know he's not the head of the snake, which one can only presume he does. This isn't about gaudy stats anymore. This is about a championship. Let's hope the stakes bring out the best in Westbrook, who has the chance to rewrite his polarizing story in the final few chapters.