“Quality over quantity” – this expression would be an accurate way to describe the 2021 NBA draft.
It turned out to be pretty modest in terms of the quantity of the trades. But in terms of quality… One deal proved to be very significant, primarily because of its participants’ popularity. One of the most prominent and controversial NBA players will join the most popular team in the league. Westbrook is now a Laker.
So, what should we expect from this acquisition?
Who is Westbrook today?
Dominant with the ball, super athletic, energetic defender who puts tremendous pressure on his opponent’s basket. At the same time, his throw, defence and ability to adapt to the situation on the courts aren’t perfect. He does not have a decent sense of the game.
Russ is a typical player, but the one who also raises the bar for a team. He definitely can turn a dying team into an OK one. If he’s on the team, he will completely dominate the attack and have some basic competence. It does not really matter who his partners are: Westbrook’s area of influence is so pervasive.
On the one hand, this approach leads to impressive statistics and triple-double records. On the other hand, the desire to throw in the absence of the ability to hit the basket drops efficiency to a historically poor level.
Also, Westbrook’s game is simple, monotonous and has plenty of weaknesses, leading to failures in the playoffs.
Why do the Lakers need him?
One of the things that the Lakers need most is an additional ball-handler, someone who will take some of the regular season load and be able to initiate an offence while LeBron is not on the court. In the previous season, they tried to give this role to Schroeder, but it looks like this experiment was assessed as unsuccessful. And Dennis had practically left the club already (all we have yet to find out is the conditions on which he will do it).
Russell is a new attempt to get an additional creator. And in this regard, Westbrook is a sledgehammer that is used to try and crack a nut. That is, the shell will definitely crack, but it is difficult to say whether anything will remain from this nut.
Russ will take on the role of a ball-handler who is ready for the offence, even if its effectiveness might be questionable. At the same time, he will attack not only when it is necessary but much more often. There are two reasons for this: this is the way Russel has always played, and his off-ball game is pretty poor..
In other words, this option is clearly not the best one. It’s just that the Lakers didn’t have a lot of resources to find the right player, while Russ can still solve one of their problems. And, as we saw in the example of Harrell, Pelinka’s team doesn’t mind acquiring a player for his well-known name and not for his functionality from time to time.
Why will this fail?
The main question is not even how the players who have played on-ball their whole lives will be able to share it (although this will be a problem because neither LeBron nor Russ can play off-ball). The question is, how is this team going to attack at all?
The lack of shooters greatly hindered the Lakers in the previous playoffs, when the Phoenix blocked them in the paint, and no one could do anything about it. It got to the point that they had to let Macklemore into the court to pump the shooting potential somehow. Perhaps usually, the Lakers would have been able to deal with this problem, but it has existed before. And now they are just adding in a player who cannot throw.
What will happen to their attack?
All the Lakers’ leaders are used to the inside shooting, but there will be no space. No post-ups and drives will be effective with this many players there.
And what about LeBron’s pick and roll with Davis? It won’t work with Westbrook. Nobody guards him when he does not have the ball.
How about LeBron’s pick and roll with Westbrook? Firstly, it won’t work with Davis. Anthony Davis is considered to be some kind of big thrower, but in fact, he had only one noticeable period in his career when he was actually good at it. And that’s the 2020 playoffs, which took place without fans and not in the actual NBA arenas. The rest of the time, however, his throw is not a particularly powerful weapon. And secondly, how can we be sure that Russ will want to set screens?
Pick-and-rolls are a staple option for those who can shoot, and Russ, as a ball-handler, averaged 0.71 points per attack with the Wizards and 0.78 points last season with Thunder… Only at Houston, who had good spacing, Westbrook was relatively effective at pick-and-rolls, but even there, Russ didn’t play them as often.
This is not mentioning the fact that the Lakers love to put Davis and the centre players simultaneously, and the centres’ throws are usually so-so. And not to mention the fact that Tucker and Caruso, who are in the rotation, are also so-so throwers. Because even if all the other Lakers players were able to shoot, it’s hard to imagine how the three leaders could play together.
In the regular season, everything should be more or less OK because the Lakers will be able to make it thanks to their hyper athleticism. They will be able to get to the net by force and not give a damn about everything else and all the different techniques. The same goes for the regular season, the leaders probably will not play for 40 minutes, so it will be easier to separate them and find combinations that will work, so they play at different minutes.
But it might become a problem in the playoffs, where the leaders will just have to play together a lot more. Because the team is not deep and will never become deep: they simply do not have the required resources. They depend on the productivity of their stars, who cannot play together, especially in the game against strong teams, which will have time for target preparation before they face the Lakers.
And that’s not to mention that Russell Westbrook is hopeless in the defence. At the moment, many are discussing the possibility of bringing Hield into the team to solve the problems with spacing.
I’m not even going to mention the fact that the club needs four shooters with about 36% at the three-pointer line and not just one shooter with 40%, who simply won’t be enough. That’s a different question.
But are they going to defend with Russ and Hield at the backline? Westbrook is not only difficult to combine with what there is already but also complicates the further process of roster formation. Now, the club’s management will have to take all Russ’ numerous shortcomings into account when selecting new players for the team.
Can’t it work at all?
OK, let’s try to imagine the best-case scenario.
What needs to be done to make Westbrook useful? Create some space for him so that Russ can do the drives more often, and resort to jumpers less. At Houston, Westbrook was something like a mini-Giannis in the offence and was good. Let’s say LeBron convinced Westbrook to return to that role. If it is possible to find enough players with a decent shot, the Lakers will try to do something like that when Westbrook is on the court, and Davis isn’t.
They will most likely manage to pair LeBron with Russ, which might work relatively well, and let Westbrook play off-ball at times. That’s if the Lakers will want to do it. But the primary strategy seems to be dividing the Lakers’ rotation into two blocks: LeBron and Davis are in the first one, and Westbrook in the second. James and AD come off, Russ comes out.
This will definitely help Davis open up because he works excellently with LeBron – and finishes what James created. . Plus, it will free Westbrook up, giving him moments of complete control over the game. And if the Lakers have a good big man on the bench (Kevin Love after the contract buyout?), then Russ will get the space he needs for these minutes.
Regardless of the rotation, it all boils down to the fact that at the beginning and the end of each half, you have a “big trio”, which is challenging to combine.
Westbrook and Davis together mean having too many players who can’t throw. We all remember that at the time of being champions, the Lakers used to start the game with a centre but used Davis more often in the playoffs.
LeBron and Westbrook together mean too many people who want to handle the ball. Westbrook because he is too useless off-ball and LeBron because he is too good on-ball (many times better than Westbrook is).
The solution to these problems is to reduce the amount of time Westbrook plays along with the other two stars. What are the chances that the club will decide to make Russ the sixth man and let him play for 20 minutes from the bench? It would make a lot of sense, but it does sound unrealistic.
The talent of LeBron and Davis against the backdrop of today’s league gives hope that the Lakers, with their vast potential, will be able to cope with any systemic problems; and can reach the level that will be, if not an unprecedentedly high one, then at least enough for success. But if there is one thing that brings them down and can kill the Lakers’ chances of winning the championship, then it is Russell Westbrook. He cannot throw or defend decently but has 45 million in the payroll.
And in general, the current Lakers are reminiscent of the Heat of 2011, who had a lot of talent but had problems with spacing. And we all remember how that ended.
Since things are so bad, will the Lakers be a super team?
Of course, there isn’t a specific manual on becoming a super team. But there are some approximate criteria for defining it:
1. They have invited stars – yes. Invited stars are all they have. Out of the homegrown players, there’s only Tucker and Caruso.
2. They have many stars – yes. LeBron is one of the five best players in the world; healthy Davis is somewhere in 10th place, Westbrook … He’s a hard one. He missed even last year’s All-Star Game but is still a star. If you are given a role in which you score 20 points and have ten assists, you are considered a star.
3. They have lofty goals – yes. The team won the championship a year ago, they have the best player of the generation at the end of their career, of course, they will fight for victory.
4. They infuriate everyone except their own fans – yes. These are the Lakers, LeBron and Westbrook. You either love them or hate them, no in between. There can be no neutral attitude there.
5. They get good veterans without paying much – most likely, yes. Let’s see how the club will do on the market, but the experience of the past years shows that it is not a problem for them to find a couple of capable players for a chump change.
So, a total of 4.5 out of 5.
They have no guarantees of success. The current Lakers are not very combine-able, lacking depth, and not particularly strong – that is when measured against the superteam standards, of course. However, it is probably unfair to impose the standard class requirements on them. But if this squad fails like a Bryant-Howard-Nash-Gasol team and Pelinka shakes up the roster again, then the Lakers-2022 won’t remain a super team. The season would then simply be labelled a failed experiment and forgotten about.
But until we don’t know the final result, and while we can evaluate only how the team is being built, the Lakers definitely are a super team.
And, returning to the question posed at the beginning of the text, it remains to say: the result of this acquisition can be anything but boring. And what do you think? Will Westbrook help the Lakers win the championship, or is it going to be a disaster? Let us know in the comments.