The Lakers surrendered almost every important role player from last year’s team for Russell Westbrook because the nine-time All-Star could ease a physical burden long felt by LeBron James, a 36-year-old control tower whose body has already sidelined him for half of his team’s games.
The risk was seen a mile away, and so far the degree to which L.A. turned over its roster has resulted in a rocky 6–5 start—with two losses coming against the Thunder—and the league’s 18th-best net rating. Westbrook’s fit with LeBron has looked predictably defective (just look at these splits), while his PER is below average for the very first time. Costly turnovers and his debilitating jump shot are not helpful, either.
The circumstances are bad. But not yet irreparable. With the subtlety of a rattling Harley-Davidson, Westbrook is nothing if not relentless. He’ll ignite a 1-on-3 fastbreak after grabbing a defensive rebound, put constant pressure on the rim, draw help and kick to the open man. His awareness of when he should and shouldn’t put his foot on the gas is a never-ending work in progress, but that energy and skill also tie into one understated reason the Lakers were willing to embrace such turbulent talent.
As a primary ballhandler, Westbrook’s pairing with Anthony Davis may be the most promising partnership on the team.
Coming off the most disappointing season of his career, Davis needed an aggressive table-setter like Westbrook, someone he can develop a mutually beneficial on-court relationship with, especially as it relates to their common-sense synergy running a pick-and-roll.
Westbrook replaces Dennis Schröder, who last year assisted only 14 of Davis’s buckets at the rim. The two spent 808 minutes on the floor together; for a variety of reasons they could never quite get on the same page, which reportedly frustrated L.A.’s superstar big man.
Meanwhile, Westbrook is already responsible for 16 of Davis’s made field goals at the basket. The timing on his pocket passes, dump-offs and lobs is excellent; the way he baits his screener’s man into devoting all their focus and energy toward grinding Westbrook’s progress so whoever sets the pick has a free path to the basket isn’t quite where it used to be but remains effective.
Position Davis into the frame and it’s clear that running basketball’s most ubiquitous action with these two as often as the Lakers possibly can is not dumb. The better their chemistry, the less gridlocked L.A.’s 19th-ranked half-court offense will feel. Westbrook’s first step is a blur, and Davis is without exaggeration one of the most terrifying airborne threats in basketball history. Defending both as they rumble toward the paint demands collective effort from all five defenders.
But through 11 games, the Lakers have yet to really lean that way; whether LeBron is on the floor or not, Westbrook-Davis pick-and-rolls aren’t featured. A lot of that is thanks to spacing-starved units that don’t allow the two stars to develop any rapport. When the Lakers are big, the questions generated by their pick-and-rolls aren’t too hard to answer. Imagine this sequence below with DeAndre Jordan’s defender standing outside the paint.
Same for Dwight Howard’s man right here:
Listen to Mason Plumlee in this clip below as he shouts “I’m low, I’m low!” at LaMelo Ball, anticipating Davis’s roll and letting his teammate sink down to cover Jordan.
When Davis sets a screen in the middle of the floor and inside the three-point line, too often the result is a cumbersome pull-up that’s welcomed by defenders who have an easier time ducking under screens. Here’s Lu Dort dominating a game of peekaboo:
Injuries throughout the roster have made it hard to play small; the Lakers are getting ravaged defensively with Davis at the five and Westbrook running point when LeBron isn’t available. A healthy Trevor Ariza, Talen Horton-Tucker or Kendrick Nunn gives Frank Vogel more options, but for the sake of allowing Westbrook and Davis to develop the type of rhythm that will be integral all year long and in the playoffs, it might be time to couch those larger lineups and accentuate their best players instead of hampering them.
If that means starting Wayne Ellington, Avery Bradley, Austin Reaves or whoever instead of Jordan, so be it. At the very least, Vogel can alter his rotation so that Westbrook isn’t on the bench for so many of the minutes where Davis actually plays the five. (This would probably cut into the minutes Rajon Rondo has with Davis, but, again, so be it.)
When surrounded by an extra outside threat, Westbrook and Davis are able to make the game look easy.
And ducking under the screen is easier said than done when Davis is committed to setting a solid one, knowing his dive won’t immediately be impeded by a large body. Here Ja Morant tries to spin under but can’t recover back in time before Jaren Jackson Jr. has no choice but to step up and cover Westbrook.
Westbrook and Davis can also create a bit more room for themselves by setting the screen higher up on the floor or on the side with an empty corner. As seen above in the lob against Memphis, their teammates can help them out: Carmelo Anthony sets a flare screen for Reaves and forces Xavier Tillman and Kyle Anderson to communicate a switch instead of pinching into the paint.
Maybe the Lakers fold in a stack variation, where Westbrook can leverage his desire to pummel the front of the rim with a teammate setting a back screen as he flings himself into the paint. (Eventually, assuming this action becomes a larger part of the Lakers’ offense, teams will put larger defenders on Westbrook to switch it. But not every opponent has the personnel to do so comfortably, and even those that do will leave themselves vulnerable to different ripple effects.)
Ultimately, the duo can be more dynamic and complementary than they have been, but the expectation shouldn’t be for overnight success. Westbrook and Davis need time to develop chemistry, get their timing right and build the same type of trust in each other that Davis has with Rondo and LeBron. Until that happens, in the lineups that Vogel insists on playing, the Lakers lack any reliable punch. Pick-and-rolls with Westbrook and Davis can be a solution, throughout the regular season and beyond. They just need to run them at a higher frequency, with patience, surrounded by teammates who can help them lift the Lakers where they want to go.
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