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Russell Westbrook Can Do Anything. But Can He Help the Lakers?

The point guard is not shy when it comes to challenges, but can he turn things around for Los Angeles?

Russell Westbrook has seemingly never been one to shy away from what he perceives to be a challenge.

When his turnover totals were called into question during a press conference recently, Westbrook—the league leader in turnovers so far this season—promptly came out the following game and had no giveaways—the first time in almost six calendar years he’d done so.

Back in April 2019, Westbrook famously posted a game with 20 points, 20 rebounds and 20 assists, a performance he’d dedicate to slain rapper and community activist Nipsey Hussle, a friend of the basketball star’s and a fellow Los Angeles native. The 20-20-20 combination, specifically, held deeper meaning, as it represented the 60s; the challenging South L.A. neighborhood from which Hussle hailed.

About two years before that, Westbrook stood before reporters and fielded a seemingly out-of-left-field question. He was driving to his left far more than he ever had in his career to that point. But why? After taking a long, hard stare at the data presented—the data I’d presented him, oddly enough—Westbrook then said he didn’t want the sheet of paper, and that he had no clue why the trend was the way it was.

Then, after being asked about the left-sided drives, he went out that same night and opted to change things up by repeatedly going to his right during a 43-point triple-double showing against the Jazz. Seemingly another example of Westbrook bending the statistical confines of the game to his will.

At this point in his career, it’s hard to imagine any player more committed than Westbrook to shattering whatever existing perceptions or obstacles stand in his way. But in the midst of a challenging campaign that’s seen both him and the Lakers struggle—going from title favorites to playoff hopefuls—can the star turn things on their head once more and help lift Los Angeles back into contention before season’s end?

It’s unclear for now, both about whether the Lakers can achieve that, and whether Westbrook would be a key reason for them being able to do it.

For all his struggles, the upshot is that Westbrook has improved considerably after the All-Star break in recent years. In each of the past three seasons—2018–19, ’19–20 and ’20–21—both the guard’s shooting efficiency numbers and his scoring averages have jumped several points after the midpoint of the season. Westbrook suggested recently that wasn’t necessarily a coincidence, saying that his only constant the past few years has been year-to-year change, from one team to the next.

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“The only reason [progression] is natural for me the last four years is because I’ve been playing for four different teams,” Westbrook said. “So I have to figure out a way to be effective that’s best for the team.”

Last year, that improvement from the league’s least efficient volume shooter to merely one of the least efficient helped turn the tide for the Wizards to reach the postseason. And one season earlier, Westbrook exploded over a month-and-a-half long stretch with Houston in which he largely abandoned three-point shots and instead attacked the rim from one play to the next. Playing in the Rockets’ spacing, which was bolstered by having dealt away Clint Capela for Robert Covington to fully commit to small ball, Westbrook had a field day. He’d shoot 54.8% from the floor—and a decent 34.6% from deep—while averaging an eye-popping 34.0 points, 8.2 rebounds and 7.1 assists per contest over a 15-game span.

The Lakers also jumped all the way onto the small-ball train recently following Anthony Davis’s knee sprain, by playing LeBron James at center while keeping more traditional big men like Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan pinned to the bench. The alignments make Los Angeles faster, and allow the club to spread the floor in more of a fashion similar to what the Rockets did two seasons ago. In giving defenses more ground to cover, Westbrook, in theory, should have more open space to dive, dish and dunk. And more room to leave his oft-wayward jumper in the holster unless the clock is running down.

Los Angeles Lakers guard Russell Westbrook dribbles the ball in the second half against the Portland Trail Blazers.

The jump shot—which has been decent from midrange, but considerably below average from deep—was always going to be under a microscope this season for Westbrook, given his role as a third star. As we wrote to start the campaign: third stars can put contenders over the top, but we’re used to seeing those players be fantastic perimeter shooters for their position, in order to make defenses pay for leaving them open. And that’s never been a forte for Westbrook, who’s usually left open by choice.

That lack of perceived fit—and the team’s struggles to this point—explains why there was a report in The Athletic earlier this week about the Lakers and their quiet, prior interest in finding a new home for Westbrook just months after getting him in the first place.

Even now, as the team enjoys one of its best stretches thus far, in having won four out of five, the biggest showings have come from James, who’s playing at an MVP level, and Malik Monk, who’s blossomed as a starter. By contrast, in the game where Westbrook eliminated his turnovers entirely, he scored 19 points, but took 19 shots to get there. And he finished with a season-low two assists, suggesting that he was most concerned with limiting mistakes, as opposed to doing that and making the right play to find the open man. (The game before, a victory over Minnesota, Westbrook had nine turnovers to go with five assists.)

While it’s hard to imagine the Lakers doing anything meaningful without Davis this season, this stretch with the big man out is worth watching, if only for Westbrook. In the past, this group would have had depth to potentially pull it through in a shorthanded situation with James. But the idea behind getting Westbrook was rooted in the thinking of what would be best—and keep things most stable—if one of the Laker stars went down with an injury.

So with one star out, and the team having moved to a style he’s thrived with in recent years, it may be telling if we don’t see a meaningful uptick soon. Especially when we’ve grown so used to watching Westbrook bend the sport to his will when he wants to. Now, it’s more a question of whether he can.

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