Welcome to another edition of “Let’s talk”, the series where I take a deepish dive and look into the problems and solutions to a particular player or team composition, among other things. Today we are going to dissect a player who has copped a lot of criticism and criticism this season, especially so in recent games. Some of this criticism is, of course warranted, because there are definitely flaws that this player has that should be looked at and discussed, however, some of the criticism about him feels as if he is being scapegoated for issues that run a lot deeper than his own play. These are issues that reside within the core of his team’s current composition, yet are not looked at in the manner I believe they should be.
So, who is this player? What team am I referring to with this? Well, the title should give it away but we are talking about the polarizing force that is Russell Westbrook and the Los Angeles Lakers. Like I did for CJ, I will preface this by saying I am a Westbrook fan. I love the intensity he plays with and how he’ll give you 110% each and every time he is on the floor. At the same time, there are a lot of things to unpack as to why this season hasn’t been the greatest showcase of what he is capable of and, indeed, why the Lakers as a whole are struggling despite bringing him in as a marquee trade acquisition during the off-season. So, without further adieu, let us take a dive together and analyze how we can tame or propose to fix the Westbrook problem, shall we?
Just who is Russell Westbrook?
Russell Westbrook, as mentioned in the introduction, is a polarizing person. A lot of people love him for his motor and energy he brings to the floor, yet others hate him as they perceive him to be a ‘stat-padder’ who hunts for triple doubles, something he has made into an artform, to the detriment of his team, as well as a player who does not and can not play winning basketball. Whilst there may be some merit to the latter claim, especially come the playoffs, Russell has proven over the course of his career that when he gets triple doubles, it more often than not leads to victories.
He is also an athletic freak who is glorious to watch when he is in full flight, even if his tendency to play out of control at times is a cause of frustration, even to his fans. One thing that I personally don’t think people can deny though, is that Westbrook is a great player. You don’t become an MVP for no reason and, as much as people might see triple doubles as being diluted in their prestige over the years, predominately by Westbrook, being the all-time leader in getting them is still a massively difficult achievement and one that encapsulates the hunger and passion that the man plays with. Now, allow us to get into the meat and potatoes of this article and what you’re most likely here to discuss.
The Issues with Russell Westbrook and the Lakers
The most glaring issue with Westbrook and how he fits into the Lakers composition is how he meshes, or in this case, doesn’t mesh with the other Lakers superstar, LeBron James. This isn’t a slight on either man. Both are fantastic players – even more so when the team is structured in a play that plays to their strengths and mitigates their weaknesses, which requires a different overall team structure for the two of them. The mistake the Lakers made was believing that they could mash the two team styles together and have it work. A task that is not easy to do and one that the Lakers have struggled with this season.
LeBron operates at his best when there are shooters around him and he is able to play the point forward role and dictate the rhythm and flow of the game and control the ball, whereas Russ is at his best when he has players that are able to run up and down the floor with him and he can be the one to dominate the ball and dictate the tempo and rhythm of the offense. See the problem? Both men operate at their best with the ball in their hands and are not great at moving or playing off the ball, meaning that you have two players who essentially play in a similar fashion and playstyle. This is something you really do not want to have in your starting line up by any means. Especially when the third key piece to your roster (Anthony Davis) is out as well, but the issue will still exist when he returns. Especially the fact that Russ has been forced to completely revamp his game and attempt to stray away from the high-octane style that he has played for his entire career and the only way he knows how to play.
It’s no coincidence that Russ’s best performances this season have come when LeBron was out injured, even if it didn’t come with wins (a byproduct of the team as a whole not being the greatest), as Russ has been allowed to be, well, Russ and do what he does best. By the way, the record of each individual piece of this “Big 3” is: LeBron 16-14, Russ 21-22 and AD 13-14. The stretch without LeBron where Russ was allowed to be Russ and play his game, they were 5-7 (Davis played all 13 games in that stretch too).
Another issue is coaching and managing this particular clash of styles and compositional requirements, as some of the onus must fall on Vogel and his assistants to identify issues like these and attempt to figure out the best means to mitigate them and ensure that the team can operate in harmony and to the beat of the same drum, which they have not done consistently at any point of the season. Yes, some of that comes back to trading for Westbrook in the first place and losing valuable pieces in Kuzma and KCP as well as a capable back up at the four in Harrell in the process (KCP would have been an excellent shooter to keep around) but that is the bed that they made for themselves when they agreed to the deal. There is also the issue that the roster as a whole is a .500 level roster and not much better than that due to the construction and make up. High end talent is only going to get you so far. You need the right pieces around them and even the right sort of high end talent. Is Russ a part of the problem? Absolutely, but he is not the WHOLE problem like some people are claiming him to be. This team was condemned. Doomed to fail from the start with the way they are currently constructed and haven’t done anything to fix those issues.
How do we fix the issues?
Unlike what some people might assume, I’m NOT going to suggest you trade Westbrook, as I do not believe it changes the team’s dynamic as much as people wish to believe. Instead, what I am going to suggest is that you move Russ to the bench and have him go out there and run with the second unit. It ensures that you have somebody who can dictate and control the tempo and flow of the game when LeBron rests as well as allowing Russ to be the high-motor, high-octane player that he always has been. The sort of player that brings out the best in him and allows him to play his natural game.
Have the starting line up follow the Bron + Shooters formula that has worked to great effect throughout his career(even when AD comes back) and have him be the point forward when he is out there. That is his strong suit and his bread and Butter, as well as a defensive anchor/Pick and Roll focused big that can give you that additional dynamism on offensive whilst holding the fort on the defensive side of the ball. My recommendation is to start Dwight. When AD returns, he MUST be the four. Have him stretch the defense out as well as play in the high post and you will bring the best out of him as well. In turn, acquiring a capable back up for him is mandatory, because you should know that he is unlikely going to be able to play a full season. You knew this when you traded for him.
The guard slots aren’t the most important in this, but make sure they are shooters. Nunn (when healthy) and Monk (one of the few things the Lakers have been doing right) are capable of filling this role in the starting five. Will the Lakers suddenly become contenders even with these changes? Maybe not, but in my opinion, this is the way you at least right the ship and mitigate the issues that are plaguing this roster. It at least shows that you are willing to find a way to make the pieces fit together and retool the machine. Otherwise, the Lakers will simply tread water and find themselves continue to sink under the weight of expectations. At this point, it’s worth giving this a try and seeing how it plays out.
That concludes another “let’s talk”, so let me know what you think of this or what you would do to right the Lakers ship for this season and moving forward.