The Russell Westbrook experiment has, thus far, been pretty underwhelming for your Los Angeles Lakers.
LA currently stands at a middling 15-13 after clearing out much of its forward depth (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma and Montrezl Harrell, to be precise) to accommodate the unwieldy $44.2 million salary of the 33-year-old ex-All-Star point guard. Westbrook also has a $47.1 million that he will probably exercise, given that he may struggle to net half that annually on the open market right now.
In a recent article, Jake L. Fischer of Bleacher Report writes that the Los Angeles front office has had conversations about potentially moving on from their starry summer acquisition. Let the record show, this writer was ready to move on from Westbrook after the first game of the Lakers’ 2021-22 season.
Westbrook has had a mediocre season thus far. His counting stats remain impressive, and he has played more in-control than in recent years, but he seems to have lost half a step athletically and is struggling defensively.
Across 28 games, the 6’3″ UCLA product is averaging 19.5 points, 8.4 assists, and 7.7 rebounds per game, with shooting splits of .451/.324/.676. His free-throw shooting is way down from his career average of 78.8%, which has been the trend ever since his MVP season in 2016-17. His 32.4% three-point shooting is actually the second-best such mark of his career, though unfortunately he’s still taking 4.0 attempts a game for some reason, way too many looks for a guy who can’t nail them.
One notable positive in his game this season is his shot distribution. Westbrook is taking significantly more shots within 10 feet than he did last season (51.6% of all his field goal looks are in this range, up from just 35.4% last year). Though this clogs up the lane a bit for All-Star Lakers forward LeBron James, it is the area in which Westbrook operates best. He has stepped away from taking long jumpers (defined as shots past 16 feet but within the three-point line), and largely replaced that distribution with triples, in theory a good practice, should he start making more threes. Long two-pointers represent just 14.4% of his shot diet this season. Last year with the Washington Wizards, 22.4% of Westbrook’s shots were from this inefficient range. Were he, say, fellow 2021 offseason Lakers target DeMar DeRozan, it would be fine to see him taking so many mid-range looks. But given that he converts just 43.9% of those looks, it’s nice that he has adjusted this.
Brodie’s defense, inefficient jump shooting and head-scratching late-game choices have confounded LA fans. These liabilities make him an awkward fit alongside James and his fellow All-Star, big man Anthony Davis, currently out with a knee injury. Moving on from Westbrook’s exorbitant contract will be no small task, as he is no longer quite the athletic marvel he was in his prime, and the issues in his game have become more pronounced as he has aged.
Mention was made yesterday of a potential Ben Simmons-for-Russell Westbrook swap, which would make at least some sense for both parties. Simmons, like Westbrook, is a depreciated asset with his current club, in this case the Philadelphia 76ers. Simmons is also a better player than Westbrook, but a worse fit with his own team. Westbrook is a terrific lead ball handler and still a high-level finisher and above-average rebounder for his position, and could be a good fit alongside Joel Embiid in Philadelphia, assuming Westbrook’s former Houston Rockets team president, Daryl Morey, is open to adding him, warts and all, yet again.
Given that James is such a high-level passer and essentially functioned as LA’s point guard during its most recent championship run in the 2019-20 season, the player that LA could receive in return does not necessarily need to be a point guard, though the team could certainly benefit from another high-level perimeter player. There could be a way for the Lakers front office, led by team president Rob Pelinka, to move on from Russell Westbrook this season, but it will not be easy.