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Monday, October 31, 2022

Westbrook Shines in his New Role as Lakers Beat Nuggets 121-110

The Lakers are no longer winless after beating the Denver Nuggets 121-110 on Sunday night. The 1-5 Lakers lost their first game after relegating Russell Westbrook to the second unit, but game two of this experiment turned out much better as Westbrook provided a significant spark with 18 points on 6-12 field goal shooting, eight rebounds, eight assists, and a game-high +18 plus/minus number. Plus/minus can be noisy, and one game is not a large sample size for any purpose (including looking at plus/minus numbers), but it is interesting that the Lakers "won" Westbrook's 32 minutes by 18 points while "losing" LeBron James' 35 minutes by one point. James led both teams in points (26) and field goal attempts (22) as he moved closer to breaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's career scoring record. 

I am not sure that moving Westbrook to the bench is a permanent solution to the Lakers' problems, but separating at least some of Westbrook's minutes from James' minutes could provide some interesting evidence regarding why/how the Lakers can be successful. In the previous game, Westbrook had a plus/minus number of 0 in 33 minutes while James had a plus/minus number of -13 in 37 minutes. So, in the past two games Westbrook has been +18 in 65 minutes while James has been -14 in 72 minutes. These numbers would seem to support my contention that James is focusing on breaking the scoring record, while Westbrook is playing hard and doing things that maximize his team's opportunity for success. When James and Westbrook were sharing most of their minutes, it was harder to use plus/minus to determine each player's impact, but when they are separated it is easier to see that the Lakers lose ground with James on the court but gain ground with Westbrook on the court.

Again, two games is a small sample size. Some might argue that plus/minus is not meaningful unless you have a full season's worth of data. I would say that plus/minus combined with observing the games with an informed eye can provide a lot of insight. Based on what I have seen from James and from Westbrook not just in the past two games but in the past two seasons, these plus/minus numbers do not surprise me. 

There is no doubt that for most of his career James has had a significant impact on winning, nor is there any doubt that he was the best player on each of his four championship teams. However, he is older now, and he is not playing in a way that maximizes his team's potential; he is preserving his body while chasing the scoring record. 

I am not suggesting that Westbrook dominated the game individually or won the game without any help. James' scoring and his assists (eight, tied with Westbrook for game-high honors) provided value, and the Lakers also received a major boost from Anthony Davis (23 points, game-high 15 rebounds, +15 plus/minus number), who did not play in the previous game and appears to be not day to day but minute to minute with back soreness. However, the notion that Westbrook is washed up and cannot make a valuable contribution to winning is not supported by the eye test or by the numbers. 

Nikola Jokic led the Nuggets in points (23), rebounds (14), and assists (six). He had a 0 plus/minus number, and each of the other four Nuggets' starters had positive plus/minus numbers while each of the six Nuggets' reserves who played had negative plus/minus numbers. There is a lot of "noise" in numbers from small sample sizes; Jokic is not the fifth best Denver starter, and Westbrook did not single-handedly annihilate Denver's bench, but it is not far-fetched to suggest that Denver's starters outplayed their counterparts while the Lakers' bench lifted the Lakers back into the game.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:31 AM



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