Russell Westbrook Shoots the Lakers in the Foot – The Ringer

Russell Westbrook Shoots the Lakers in the Foot - The Ringer

Russell Westbrook is a washed-up Mason who needs to be traded immediately to the Los Angeles Lakers to have any chance of saving his season.

It’s only been three games, but the Lakers are winless and their schedule isn’t slowing down for the next month. Westbrook isn’t the only problem, but he is by far their biggest and most glaring.

On Sunday, the Lakers blew an eight-point quarter lead against the Trail Blazers, which began to slip away as soon as Westbrook entered the game with 4:42 remaining. The Blazers had their center, Jusuf Nurkic, defend Russ and slouch into the paint to clog driving lanes, suffocating the Laker’s offense. Westbrook missed two wide-open jumpers. One was a 3-pointer with no defender making an effort to contest his shot. The other was a blistering pull-up 2-pointer with 18 seconds left on the shot clock and 30.2 seconds left in the game that made every Lakers fan on the planet sound like Darth Vader screaming. NOOOOO! in Revenge of the Sith.

Before Westbrook’s shot rumbled off the back of the rim, Anthony Davis looked perplexed as he stood near half court waiting for the ball to be swung to him. LeBron James raised his arms in dismay. Even on the Blazers’ bench, second-year wing Greg Brown III can be seen jumping and celebrating as soon as Westbrook goes up for his shot.

ESPN’s Kirk Goldsberry to put into context how bad the shot really was:

The Blazers came back and stole Sunday’s game after Westbrook’s shot, with the Lakers guard finishing 4-of-15 from the field in the loss. His performance against the Clippers on Thursday was even worse; he shot 0-for-11 in 27 minutes.

Westbrook has made just 38.3 percent of his mid-range jumpers in his career, and the number has dropped further since he joined the Lakers. He went from bad to worse, and now defenders are treating him like he’s not even on the court. Through three games this season, opponents are contesting Westbrook’s jump shots just 41.2 percent of the time. According to Second Spectrum, that is by far the lowest contest rate in the history of NBA tracking data, which dates back to 2013-14.

“I don’t want any of my players to hesitate to shoot. I don’t want to give them any kind of complex. I want them to be confident in their ability to score from all over the floor,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham told reporters after Sunday’s game. “His percentages were not high. But Russ can make a 3-point shot. So it’s about stepping up. If you’re going to take it, you have to step up and do it. That’s almost it.”

That is no almost it, though. To put Westbrook’s 41.2 percent contest rate into perspective, only two other players on record had less than 50 percent of their jumpers contested: Joakim Noah, at 48.7 percent in 2013-14 with the Bulls, and Andre Roberson, at 48.8 percent during the. 2016–17 season with the Thunder. This season, Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon’s 60 percent contest rate is the second lowest in the league behind Westbrook’s.

Yes, Westbrook can do a 3 pointer like Ham said. So can Ben Simmons. But at least he has the consciousness not to throw away.

Defenses ignore Russ more than they’ve ignored anyone over the past nine seasons. And to make matters worse, Westbrook doesn’t get to the basket like he has even in recent seasons:

Last Thursday, the Clippers lacked rim protection when center Ivica Zubac was stretched out to the perimeter to defend Davis’ jumpers. Late in the game, with Westbrook on the floor, Clippers head coach Ty Lue instead put Zubac on Westbrook. At one point, LeBron swung the ball to Russ, who attacked off the dribble but couldn’t even get past the 7-foot Zubac, who is much bigger and slower. Westbrook might be bothered by a hamstring he tweaked during the preseason, but right now he lacks burst and is finishing at a career-low percentage inside.

Ham suggested Sunday that the Lakers could do more dribble handoffs with Westbrook with players swinging around him. The problem is that play is most effective with shooters and spacing: Westbrook made just one of 12 shots from 3 this season, and the rest of the Lakers roster made just 22.6 percent of their shots from downtown. Ham also discussed Westbrook setting more on-ball screens. The coach of the Lakers does not have many options on the bench, but at least Austin Reaves knows how to swing the ball to the stars. At least Juan Toscano-Anderson is a sharp knife. At least Kendrick Nunn can hit some shots Not all of them are better than Westbrook in a vacuum, but they are all better at serving the needs of the Lakers.

Obviously, Ham isn’t going to blast his most sensitive star in front of the media (at least not in October). Neither does LeBron or AD. But someone anyone, needs to privately tell Westbrook to just stop shooting jump shots off the dribble, especially early in the shot clock, and instead focus on what he does best: attacking the basket and making plays. And give credit where it’s due: Westbrook struggled mightily on defense last Thursday against the Clippers, especially against Kawhi Leonard in the fourth quarter. But no matter how much he improves on offense, the Lakers would rather flip his $47 million expiring salary on the trade market in a package that includes one or both of their two future first-round picks in 2027 and 2029.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported that a trade involving Westbrook is not likely until after Thanksgiving. That’s around the same time that Dennis Schröder, who is arguably a better point guard than Westbrook at this point, could be back from his thumb surgery.

When that time comes, Los Angeles will explore trade combinations with the Pacers that involve center Myles Turner and/or wing Buddy Hield. Those talks are currently on hold, but Turner and Hield would both add much-needed shooting, and Turner would provide rim-protecting depth behind the oft-injured Davis.

Utah has also been connected to the Lakers for months. League sources say that before the Jazz sent Bojan Bogdanovic to the Pistons, the Lakers offered Westbrook, a future first-round pick, and second-rounders for Bogdanovic and others. Sources expect that the Lakers and Jazz will resume talks later in the season with some combination of other players being discussed. (Utah has Jordan Clarkson, Mike Conley, and Rudy Gay – three veterans who can all shoot.)

There aren’t many other options for Westbrook. Marc Stein reported on his Substack months ago that the Hornets were interested in Westbrook. At the time, league sources said The Ringer that the Hornets wanted to dump a long-term salary with the expectation that they would pay big money to re-sign Miles Bridges, but he remains unsigned because of his unsolved domestic violence case.

Apart from those three teams, there are not many possibilities, even theoretical ones. Wizards All-Star Bradley Beal has a no-trade clause and loved playing with Westbrook. Would he want to reunite with his former teammate, or trade places? If the Lakers get aggressive and decide to put Davis on the trade block tied to Westbrook, perhaps the Bulls would have interest in the package.

Westbrook is the obvious scapegoat. But there’s plenty of blame to go around in Los Angeles. After all, it was Rob Pelinka who got Westbrook, and LeBron who pushed for the Lakers to get him two offseasons ago instead of better options like DeMar DeRozan or Hield. LeBron got what he wanted. And Pelinka signed everything and built this salad of a roster lacking shooters and reliable wing defenders. Team owner Jeanie Buss rewarded him with a four-year contract extension after he hired Ham. Lakers fans are right to rip Buss, Pelinka and everyone else in the organization for their incompetence. The place was a dumpster fire in the years before LeBron arrived, and since they won a title in 2020 they dismantled the roster. No matter how Westbrook develops, and no matter who or what he ends up trading for, it’s hard to trust the Lakers’ leadership even if the owner’s last name is Buss.

The Lakers need to nail down their next move, or they could soon feel even more pressure. James is trade eligible as soon as next offseason, and he can become a free agent in 2024. By all accounts, LeBron is happy living in Los Angeles. But what if the team isn’t even built to make the playoffs: Would he actually stick around, especially considering he’s still playing at such a high level?

LeBron’s continued greatness and Davis’ return should inspire urgency for Pelinka and Buss. With a smart Westbrook trade, they won’t be title favorites, but they would be more formidable in the loaded West.

And if Westbrook doesn’t make any more changes, whether it’s with the Lakers or his next team, he’ll be out of the NBA. This is not a possible “Chris Paul restoration project in Oklahoma City” type of situation. “Stephon Marbury goes to China” is coming unless Westbrook develops, soon. A future Hall of Famer is now a complete detriment to the franchise’s hopes of making the playoffs. It’s time to do something about it.

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