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Wednesday, August 11, 2021

What Impact Will Russell Westbrook Have on the L.A. Lakers?

The L.A. Lakers acquired 2017 NBA regular season MVP, two-time scoring champion, and three-time assist leader Russell Westbrook from the Washington Wizards in exchange for Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. The Lakers also received three second round draft picks, while the Wizards received the draft rights to Isaiah Jackson. 

The winner of an NBA trade is almost always the team that acquired the best player, so the Lakers are the landslide winner of this trade. Westbrook is the NBA's career triple double leader, the only player in NBA history to average a triple double in four different seasons (Oscar Robertson is the only other player to accomplish this feat even once), and the most prolific rebounding guard in pro basketball history.

Any notion that Westbrook has to change his game to fit in with other great players is easily refuted. In fact, his game elevates the performances of other great players. All-Star players who have had their best seasons playing alongside Westbrook include Kevin Durant (won the 2014 regular season MVP), Paul George (third in 2019 regular season MVP voting after averaging a career-high 28.0 ppg), and Bradley Beal (averaged a career-high 31.3 ppg and a career-high .485 FG% during his one season playing alongside Westbrook). Also, James Harden had the second highest scoring average of his career (34.3 ppg) during his one season playing alongside Westbrook. 

When healthy, the LeBron James-Anthony Davis duo not only led the L.A. Lakers to the 2020 championship but they have helped the Lakers to post a gaudy .744 regular season winning percentage (equivalent to a 61-21 record for an 82 game season). Adding Westbrook's talents and drive to that duo creates a team that--if healthy--should be the favorite to win the title. The main questions/concerns for this team revolve around James and Davis, not Westbrook. James is not getting any younger, and he has been limited by injuries in each of the past two seasons. Davis has always been an injury-prone player. Whether or not the Lakers win the 2022 NBA title will have much more to do with the health and availability of those players than with any supposed flaws in Westbrook's game. 

Westbrook will show up, play hard, and be productive. He is an outstanding rebounder and open court player, so the Lakers could have one of the most fearsome transition offenses in recent memory: the Lakers at full strength should be a very good defensive team, and their top three players are excellent rebounders, so there should be many opportunities to get a stop, control the boards, and score quickly before the opponent can get into a set defense.

From a skill set standpoint, this trio is at least as good as the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh trio that won back to back titles with the Miami Heat while making four straight Finals appearances. James is not quite the athlete that he was back then, but when healthy he is still an MVP caliber player. Westbrook is more explosive than Wade was by that point in Wade's career, and Westbrook is a better rebounder and passer than Wade ever was. Davis is a better rebounder and rim protector than Bosh, and a better post scorer as well.

Some commentators have propagated the absurd notion that Buddy Hield would be a better fit with the Lakers than Westbrook. One writer even called Hield one of the greatest shooters in NBA history. Hield ranks 30th in career three point shooting percentage (.406), and he has never finished in the top five in that category in a season. There are 11 active players who have a higher career three point field goal percentage than Hield, including Davis Bertans and Joe Ingles. Wally Szczerbiak is just ahead of Hield on the career list, and Raja Bell is right behind Hield. No serious basketball observer would rank Bertans, Ingles, Szczerbiak or Bell among the greatest shooters in NBA history, and no serious basketball observer should rank Hield that highly either. Of course, three point field goal percentage is not the only way to measure shooting greatness--one has to consider a player's role and his shooting ability from other areas of the court--but Drazen Petrovic (.437), Stephen Curry (.433), Steve Nash (.428), and Klay Thompson (.419) are just a few of the players who rank ahead of Hield in this category and are demonstrably better overall shooters than he is.

Hield's .435 career field goal percentage is subpar for a perimeter player even after taking into account that more than half of his field goal attempts are from three point range. Hield has only made 509 free throws in five seasons, so he does not qualify to be listed among the career free throw percentage leaders, but even if he qualified his .863 free throw percentage would barely crack the top 40, just ahead of Luke Ridnour, John Long, and Jamal Crawford.

Hield is the kind of player who Kenny Smith calls "a looter in a riot" (though I cannot say that Smith has specifically put Hield in that category): in five NBA seasons, Hield has averaged 16.0 ppg in the regular season for teams that did not make a single postseason appearance.

Even if Hield were one of the greatest shooters of all-time, he still would not provide more value than a dynamic player like Westbrook who is a prolific scorer, an elite passer, and an elite rebounder. "Advanced basketball statistics" can be used to define Westbrook as an above average defender, an average defender, or a poor defender--which is yet another indication that "advanced basketball statistics" are not very useful for evaluating individual defense--but by any meaningful metric or evaluation method Westbrook is a better defender than Hield.

Westbrook played at an All-NBA level for four teams that advanced to the Western Conference Finals, and he has a great opportunity to be an All-NBA caliber performer for a Lakers team that wins a championship this season--assuming that James and Davis can stay healthy and that James can continue to defy the aging process by remaining an MVP caliber player.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:11 PM



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