Russell Westbrook becomes decent for Lakers in the sixth man role

Looks like Russ has some commercial value after all.

Looks like Russ has some commercial value after all. Image: Getty Images

Russell Westbrook’s first season in LA was an utter failure. He was slotted into a string of non-shooters including LeBron James, Anthony Davis and a bewildering mix of ill-fitting bits. Of Rob Pelinka’s underdogs, however, none were hit harder by last season’s debacle than Westbrook.

Westbrook’s inaugural campaign in LA resulted in his worst shooting averages in a season since turning pro. He was making a lower percentage of two-pointers than he had in a decade, saw his vaunted assists and rebounds per game drop below the double-digit averages he’d grown accustomed to since 2015, and posted his worst player efficiency rating since he was a newbie.

It was particularly harrowing for a fugitive point guard who has been out and about in various jobs over the past three years. A rapidly depreciating commodity whose pogo-stick athleticism would inevitably diminish in their mid-30s, teams have played hot potatoes with Westbrook for three years. The key was not getting caught with a maximum contract player with questionable decision making and no residual commercial value. Westbrook’s shares plummeted and LA ran hot as it held the bag. Things got so bad that he was disregarded as “Westbrick”.

Westbrook’s downtrend continued in the Lakers’ first four games earlier this year. The team stumbled out of the gates 4-0 and the Westbrick phenomenon hit its nadir with an 11-0 shooting performance against the Clippers.

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Westbrook has thrived since he was benched by Darvin Ham. In the first four games of the season, Westbrook’s shot selection and release of his sweater needed an exorcism.

He averaged 10.3 points and 4.3 assists while shooting under 8.3 percent on 3 balls and pulling 29 percent from the field. Granted, the small sample size was affected by Westbrook heaving Gutterballs towards the cylinder against the Clippers, but it’s safe to say that not much had changed in the offseason to expect anything better from Westbrook. Westbrook played off-ball in lineups with LeBron James and was an anchor on the Lakers offense.

Since being benched, Westbrook’s consumption has gone up 7 points from 21.5 to 28.5. He’s increased his field goal percentage to 47 percent, shoots a remarkable 45 percent from 3-point range, is averaging 19 points a night while dishing out nearly 8 assists per game, and has a new lease on his LA stint

Unsurprisingly, it turns out that Westbrook is allowed to operate against backups and in lineups without James. The offense rotates more naturally on its intended axis when Westbrook acts separately from LeBron’s appeal.

Three of the Lakers’ best lineups this season in terms of plus-minus scoring differential are Westbrook and Davis (plus Austin Reaves) without LeBron James on the floor. Those lineups have topped teams by 35 points this season. Westbrook is the one who gets to operate with Davis in the pick and roll. He’s the one who dominates the rock and initiates the offensive. His bravery has returned, even if the Lakers are still going down the standings.

Ironically, LA was considered Kyrie Irving’s destination in the offseason. While healthy and focused on basketball rather than his Amazon Prime account, Irving is the vastly superior point guard. However, Westbrook is doing just enough to keep his trade worth afloat, while Irving has become Brooklyn’s albatross. In the long run, Westbrook won’t be a Laker. He’ll probably be driven out of town by the close of trade, but at least he’s revived the depressed market for his talents.