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Thursday, October 27, 2022

The L.A. Lakers Have 99 Problems and Russell Westbrook Is Not One of Them

The Denver Nuggets beat the L.A. Lakers 110-99 on Wednesday night, improving to 3-2 while sending the 0-4 Lakers to the Western Conference's basement. Two-time regular season MVP Nikola Jokic authored an almost flawless performance: 31 points, 13 rebounds, nine assists, four steals, 12-17 field goal shooting. His +28 plus/minus number was four better than anyone else's, and a reminder that the Nuggets are very good when he is on the court but not particularly good when he is not on the court.

Anthony Davis led the Lakers with 22 points and 14 rebounds but he attempted just one free throw in 36 minutes, avoiding contact like a dieter avoids donuts. Every time someone bumps into Davis he looks like he will need immediate hospitalization. LeBron James moved 19 points closer to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's regular season career scoring record while shooting 8-21 from the field and amassing nine assists, eight turnovers, and seven rebounds. Perhaps he is the oldest player in NBA history to almost have a quadruple double with turnovers as the fourth statistical category. 

Russell Westbrook sat out due to a hamstring injury. His replacement in the Lakers' starting lineup, Austin Reaves, produced eight points, two rebounds, and one assist in 26 minutes with a -23 plus/minus number, surpassing Davis' -22 and threatening Lonnie Walker IV's -27 for team-worst honors. The notion that the Lakers would be better off without Westbrook fell apart faster than an old heap being wrecked in a demolition derby. To paraphrase an old joke, the Lakers are just two players away from being good: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson. Replacing Westbrook with any of the various names that have been bandied about in trade rumors will not help the Lakers at all, because the Lakers' problem is not the presence of Westbrook or the absence of Buddy Hield (or whoever the "experts" are salivating over this week). 

Uninformed media members use any excuse to bash Westbrook, but the reality is that the Lakers are not built to win, and they are not built to make any player other than James look good. We are not watching the L.A. Lakers who used to be committed to competing for NBA titles above all else; we are watching the L.A. Lakers who are committed to James setting the regular season career scoring record in a Lakers uniform, which James will do this season unless he gets hurt or experiences a sudden, dramatic, and unexpected loss of skills. 

Meanwhile, Davis won an NBA title in 2020, and he was voted on to the NBA's 75th Anniversary Team in 2021; it does not appear that any amount of money, praise, criticism, or prayer will induce him to play hard again for more than five minutes at a time. He is satisfied with his career, and content to collect NBA paychecks for as long as at least one team will pay him. Davis is tall, athletic, and skilled. He could be an MVP, and he could be deserving of being ranked among the top 75 players of all-time--but he is not going to win an MVP, and he is going to be remembered as one of the worst choices for the 75th Anniversary Team. 

It is easy to forget that less than a year and a half ago Westbrook set the career triple double record during a season in which he averaged a triple double for the fourth time in his career. The only other player who ever averaged a triple double in a season is Oscar Robertson, who did it once. After Westbrook averaged a triple double for the Washington Wizards during the 2021 season, he led them to a Play-In Tournament win over the Indiana Pacers

Westbrook is not as good now as he was in his prime--but how many 34 year old point guards are? I suspect that if Westbrook escapes the L.A. LeBrons and goes to a team that is trying to win then he will average something along the lines of 22-7-7 while helping that team qualify for the playoffs. In case you forgot, Westbrook averaged 18.5 ppg, 7.4 rpg, and 7.1 apg last season--an All-Star season for anyone else, but supposedly a terrible season for him as the third option on a team not designed around his skill set strengths.

Juan Toscano-Anderson, who joined the Lakers this season after playing for Golden State's 2022 championship team, recently said that Westbrook ranks among his top five teammates ever, declaring, "He's always so positive, which is kind of funny based off all the stuff he goes through on a day to day basis." That sentiment echoes what Westbrook's teammates have said about him throughout his career. He works hard, he is loyal, and he does not set himself apart from the team. 

Despite how hard Westbrook plays every game, he is generally durable. Westbrook is a 15 year veteran who played in at least 80 out of 82 games in seven of his first 14 seasons in addition to playing all 66 games in the lockout-shortened 2012 season. As a 33 year old high energy point guard last season he led the Lakers with 78 games played (James played in 56 games, and Davis played in 40 games).

Free Russell Westbrook! Westbrook deserves better than how he has been treated in L.A., and it would be amusing to watch the "experts" backpedaling and making excuses after the Lakers remain terrible in the wake of his departure. Hopefully, Westbrook will finish his career playing for a functional NBA team that appreciates his skills, his work ethic, and his loyalty as opposed to being the scapegoat for the sideshow catastrophe that the Lakers have become.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:58 AM



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