Commentary: Russell Westbrook makes the Lakers’ roster more interesting, weirder. Is it better?
He can’t shoot. He hunts stats. He’s stubborn. He’s difficult. He doesn’t win championships.
He plays with an inextinguishable fire. He’s fearless. He’s determined. He’s relentlessly tough.
Russell Westbrook is a Laker. All of him.
In a stunning trade completed on Thursday, the Lakers added a former Most Valuable Player, a nine-time All-Star and a triple-double machine. They also got one of the most enigmatic and polarizing players in league history, a star with such obvious shortcomings in such major areas that historians will struggle to contextualize Westbrook’s greatness for eternity.
Westbrook’s motto is “Why not?” But when it comes to this trade, there are some pretty strong reasons to ask ‘Why?’
The things that Westbrook isn’t — notably, even a passable three-point shooter — have to be considered problematic for the Lakers as they attempt to extract the most out of LeBron James’ twilit prime. The conventional wisdom for years has been to surround James with shooters, create space for driving and passing lanes and feast on the open looks.
The Lakers could jumpstart a championship run if they can figure out how to mix mercurial Russell Westbrook with the rest of their lineup.
By adding Westbrook, the Lakers have given defenses an excuse to even further pack the paint, clogging things up not only for James, but also for Anthony Davis (and for Westbrook himself). In sending Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope out, the Lakers also shrunk the court by removing two of their more competent floor spacers.
The Lakers know all this. They, in fact, guarded Westbrook this way in the playoffs last summer , sagging to the outer banks of Disney World and watching him go seven for 27 from beyond the arc in their series with the Rockets.
Shooting will have to be a priority in free agency, and it’ll have to be a priority in development. If the Lakers are able to re-sign Alex Caruso and Talen Horton-Tucker, the team will need Caruso to continue his upward trend from three-point range and for Horton-Tucker to begin his.
In its search to pair another star around James and Davis, a desire undoubtedly driven by James’ desire to upgrade the Lakers’ top-end talent, the franchise was linked to players that included virtually every perceived star on either the trade or free-agent market.
Ideally, finding someone more suited to be complementary to James and Davis would’ve been best. The Lakers could’ve prioritized defense and shooting. Kyle Lowry could’ve given them that, though they missed their best chance with him last season at the trade deadline. Lonzo Ball (remember him) seems destined to play alongside ball-dominant stars, but there was no clear pathway to him either.
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Instead, they land a player who is a gravitational force, who is at his best when he’s the center of his team’s universe.
No one has ever filled a stat sheet like Westbrook. He has almost 50 more career triple-doubles than Magic Johnson and the most in league history.
As a sidekick?
There are questions.
The reality, though, was that the Lakers’ inability to offer teams much of value limited their shopping list. And the solution was always going to be an imperfect one.
And the imperfections are glaring. But Westbrook’s other, equally obvious attributes — his seemingly unending gas tank, his work ethic, his on-court ferocity — line up with the culture the Lakers say they want to build.
If fully engaged, Westbrook, James and Davis can be a nightmare for other offenses, three star players with supreme athleticism and physicality. And a defense-first, lousy three-point shooting team has already been a successful recipe for the Lakers (winning them the 2020 NBA Championship thanks to a few weeks of hot-enough shooting).
Additionally, Westbrook is more than capable of carrying the offensive load for stretches if the Lakers need to manage James’ load. They’d hoped Dennis Schroder could be this player last season, and the returns were mixed at best.
Still, it’s all just strange, the Lakers adding talent while somehow making their biggest weaknesses even worse.
So, the Lakers will be weird. They’ll have talent at the top, a mostly empty roster below, a big shrugged-shoulders emoji approach to tomorrow.
Sentimentally, the move brings Westbrook back to Los Angeles 20 years or so after he was just a lanky kid with huge feet sitting inside a classroom at Leuzinger High School in Lawndale.
In preparation for the All-Star Game in Los Angeles, Russell Westbrook’s face has been plastered throughout the city where he grew up.
“His feet would be hanging out in the aisle, and I’d joke and tell him to be careful because he’s going to trip somebody,” his freshman English teacher, Dr. Pamela Brown, once said. “Eventually, he grew into them.”
It’s too early to tell if the Lakers grow back into champions after this trade. The “what’s next” portion of this will be critical. Rob Pelinka has a lot of work to do, the team shopping on a tight budget for the rest of their roster.
But the Lakers weren’t good enough as is. They still might not be. But the good and the bad Westbrook brings will make for an adventurous path to answering the question of who they are.
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