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Saturday, October 29, 2022

Lakers Bench Westbrook, Lose Again

Regardless of what the L.A. Lakers do, they are not going to convince any intelligent person that Russell Westbrook is the main reason that they are struggling. The Lakers lost with Westbrook out of the lineup due to injury, and on Friday night they lost to the Minnesota Timberwolves 111-102 after removing Westbrook from the starting lineup. Anthony Edwards scored a game-high 29 points, Rudy Gobert tallied 22 points plus a game-high 21 rebounds, and Karl-Anthony Towns added 21 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists for the Timberwolves. LeBron James, lauded as a "pass first" player, fired up a game-high 24 field goal attempts, made 10 of them, and is now 28 points closer to breaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's regular season career scoring record. 

You might get your press pass revoked if you mention that James had a -13 plus/minus number and that he shot just 1-6 from three point range. James is in remarkable physical condition considering his age and longevity. Is it too much to ask him to drive to the hoop and stop shooting so many three pointers? James is shooting .244 from three point range this season, and it's not like he is drawing a lot of defensive attention when he pulls up from the logo; opposing teams breathe a sigh of relief every time James takes a long jump shot, and that has been the case throughout his career--but, since arriving in L.A., James has vastly increased his three point attempts while decreasing his forays into the paint.

Five games into the season, Anthony Davis is living up to the "Street Clothes" nickname bestowed by Charles Barkley, sitting out due to a sore back. Meanwhile, each of the Lakers' five starters had negative plus/minus numbers versus the Timberwolves. Starting guards Patrick Beverley and Lonnie Walker IV combined for 12 points, 5-14 field goal shooting, and a -26 plus/minus number. Remember, last season Westbrook averaged 18.5 ppg, 7.4 rpg, and 7.1 apg in what was considered an off year for him. That would be a career year for Beverley or Walker IV, yet there are many media members who can keep a straight face while saying that it is smart for the Lakers to bench Westbrook and start those guys.

Prior to Friday's game, Westbrook had logged 1007 consecutive regular season starts, the third longest active streak behind only Chris Paul and LeBron James. It would be inconceivable to bench Paul or James, but Westbrook has not cultivated the power and media support that they have.

Westbrook cannot singlehandedly fix this train wreck but the Lakers did not lose any ground during his 33 minutes versus the Timberwolves, as he finished second on the team in scoring (18 points on 6-17 field goal shooting) while tying for the team lead in rebounds (eight), and logging a plus/minus number of 0. So much is said about Westbrook's shooting, but he won an MVP and two scoring titles despite not being a great shooter. Westbrook's career-long greatness was not predicated on his shooting, and the Lakers would still be sorry even if Westbrook were, to use James' term, a "laser" from long distance. 

Media members have repeatedly reported that the L.A. Lakers are trying to trade Westbrook. Assuming that those reports are accurate, it would be a strange strategy for the Lakers to diminish Westbrook's value while placing him on the trading block--but the Lakers have employed a lot of strange strategies since James signed with the team in 2018. Although the Lakers won the 2020 championship as James captured the Finals MVP, the Lakers twice missed the playoffs and once lost in the first round in his other three seasons in L.A. Put another way, other than a championship won at the end of a suspended and shortened season finished playing in the Orlando "bubble," the Lakers have won two playoff games in the past four seasons. As player/general manager, James has assembled a roster in which the majority of the players are represented by Klutch Sports, the agency run by his friend Rich Paul. If James is concerned about a lack of "lasers" on that roster, he has only himself to blame. 

This season is about one goal for the Lakers: making sure that James breaks Abdul-Jabbar's record while wearing a Lakers uniform. If the goal were to win a championship--or even just be a playoff team--then the roster would have been built differently, and James would be playing differently. The Lakers bet their future on being able to win a championship with James and Davis leading the way, and that bet paid off, but it will be a surprise if the Lakers win another title--or even a playoff series--any time soon.

It is fascinating to watch James demote Westbrook to the bench rather than relinquish his monopoly on the ball and his stranglehold on pace of play. When the Lakers acquired Westbrook, I naively assumed that this meant that Westbrook would run a fast break attack with James and Davis filling the wings. Westbrook thrives in a fast-paced game when he can attack the hoop to score or dish to open teammates. Westbrook is not a shooting guard, and playing off of the ball is not his strong suit. As has been the case throughout James' career, his All-Star teammates have to adjust to him, not the other way around. James has won four championships because he is one of the greatest players of all-time, but no All-Star caliber player has consistently played better alongside James than he played before or after playing with James. 

In contrast, Kevin Durant won his only regular season MVP while playing alongside Westbrook. Paul George finished third in regular season MVP voting playing alongside Westbrook (he never finished higher than ninth sans Westbrook), and James Harden had his second best scoring average plus his third best field goal percentage since leaving Oklahoma City in his one season playing alongside Westbrook in Houston (they also played together in Oklahoma City, when Harden had his most efficient shooting season). In his lone season playing alongside Westbrook, Bradley Beal averaged 30.5 ppg, nearly five ppg more than he had ever averaged before. 

Westbrook has been the best player on playoff teams, and he has proven that he not only can play well with other All-Stars but that he can bring the best out of those All-Stars. James has lifted his teams because of his singular greatness, but he has not lifted the individual performances of his All-Star teammates. 

Yet we are supposed to believe that the Lakers' failures are primarily Westbrook's fault! 

The Lakers can start Westbrook, bench Westbrook, or trade Westbrook, but nothing that they do with Westbrook is going to fundamentally alter the way that this team is constructed or the way that this team will play as long as James is chasing Abdul-Jabbar's record and Davis is satisfied with his one championship ring plus his 75th Anniversary Team jacket.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:17 AM



At Saturday, October 29, 2022 3:04:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Trading for some 3-and-D type guys (you know, the ones that are always on Lebron's good teams, which everyone but Lebron seems to know) might turn them back into a playoff (or play-in) team, but probably not a contender.

And at this point between his contract and his limitations it's going to be difficult to those sort of players for Westbrook until and unless Lebron manages to cajole the front office into (stupidly) packaging their remaining firsts with him. Not worth it in my opinion.

But if we're being honest, Westbrook is far from blameless here, too. He's been completely unwilling to even try to reinvent himself as a cutter or screener or corner shooter (and he's usually actually decent from the corners!). Dwyane Wade showed the blueprint for how a limited shooter with tremendous athleticism can be effective next to Lebron, but Russ does not seem interested in following said blueprint.

He and Lebron are never going to be a perfect fit but there are things they both could do to make the best of it, and neither has demonstrated much willingness to do them.

Go ahead and throw Davis on that list, too, as another guy who would rather do what's easy (shooting jumpers, poorly) than what's effective (imposing his will around the hoop).

I can't say it's all the Lakers fault as all three of those guys have shown similar reluctance to adjust on other teams before they got here, but Jeannie/Darvin/whoever sure don't seem to be steering them towards the path of enlightenment, either.

It's gonna be a long season, and likely a long couple of years after, in Lakerland.

At Saturday, October 29, 2022 11:21:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


The Lakers' fundamental problem is their attitude, which starts with the top two players, so I don't believe that adjusting the roster will make much difference. James is focused on breaking Kareem's record, and Davis is "Street Clothes," not a Top 75 player.

If Westbrook "reinvents" himself and cuts to the hoop while James launches a logo shot, how does that improve the Lakers' chances of winning? Why is there so much focus on what Westbrook supposedly could/should do, and less focus on how James plays? This is not the LeBron James who played with Dwyane Wade and had yet to win a title. James has four rings and is chasing the scoring record, not a fifth title. Also, James has reached a stage of his career in which he is still able to put up stats but he is less able (and interested) in impacting winning.

Most teams reflect the attitudes and priorities of the top player. Milwaukee is a focused team that plays hard at both ends of the court, like Giannis does. Golden State plays unselfishly with a lot of ball movement and sharing of the ball, like Curry does. During the Lakers' one good season with James and Davis, James and Davis attacked the paint on offense and played hard on defense--neither of those things are true now, and that is why the Lakers are 0-5 this season with just two playoff game wins since the 2020 "bubble" title.

At Saturday, October 29, 2022 10:03:00 PM, Blogger Keith said...

Hi David,

Westbrook thankfully has free agency looming this summer, so this whole Lakers mess will probably be wrapping up soon. I mentioned it before, but I think Milwaukee would be a nice destination for him, since not only would he mesh perfectly with Giannis and the culture there but I think he would fit comfortably splitting duties with Jrue Holiday in the backcourt.

Here's hoping!

At Sunday, October 30, 2022 12:47:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


"Soon" is a relative term. Unless the Lakers trade Westbrook, he has to endure 77 more games of this nonsense.

I agree that his mentality would mesh well with Giannis' mentality, but I am not sure how much the Bucks are willing/able to pay and how much Westbrook wants to be paid. Also, if the Bucks win the championship I am not sure that they would be inclined to make any significant roster moves.


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