The day was Friday, October 28th. The Los Angeles Lakers were capping off the second leg of a two-game road trip against the Minnesota Timberwolves. After a prolonged battle with the Lakers’ coaching staff and front office, Russell Westbrook had finally accepted his demotion from the starting lineup to the second unit (a position he hadn’t held since his rookie season in 2008-09).
The initial returns were far from promising, as the 15-year veteran missed the first five field goals he attempted. But everything changed late in the second quarter after Karl-Anthony Towns dared Westbrook to pull it from deep. Splash!
The triple was only a forecast of what was to come. From there, the rejuvenated Westbrook worked the Timberwolves for a healthy 18 points, draining half of his 12 shots after missing his first five. And since then, the fallen superstar appears to have rediscovered himself in his new role:
Is Westbrook back? What’s going on here? And is this kind of production sustainable?
What’s Going on Here?
Not much, actually. Westbrook has been crafting his game for his entire life, and it’s unlikely that year 15 is the one that invites a drastic overhaul. His success hasn’t been ushered by a transformation in style, and it never needed to be.
Coach Darvin Ham himself said that Westbrook’s shift to the bench wasn’t so much a demotion as it was a “realignment.” He didn’t want Westbrook to change the way he played. He wanted to change when he was deployed.
Even at 33, Westbrook is always eager to attack. The problem is that he’s prone to mistakes when traveling at top speed, and his maximum velocity has diminished over time, making it difficult to reconcile these tradeoffs consistently. Instead, one must find the point where Westbrook’s superhuman abilities remain useful without becoming detrimental.
That’s why playing him with bench lineups makes sense. The Lakers are a top-heavy bunch. LeBron James and Anthony Davis are still clear All-Star caliber players (if not more), but the drop-off is pretty steep after that.
This results in bench lineups with a pretty low upside, which makes them the perfect environment for a player with Westbrook’s volatility. The possibility of him erupting raises the group’s overall potential. And at the same time, the scope of his blunders are mitigated because the Lakers’ bench offense is already pretty inefficient.
So his new role realigns some of his wasted possessions to make them occur while he’s playing with lackluster teammates (who already had a low chance at success) rather than James and Davis (who symbolize the Lakers’ most “valuable” possessions).
To mask their half-court shortcomings, Los Angeles has prioritized pushing the pace and getting out in transition. As it stands, they average more transition possessions than any other team in the NBA (per NBA.com).
In the starting lineup, James and ascending two-guard Lonnie Walker IV have enough power to fuel the fast-break attack during their minutes. But they can’t be on the court at all times. That’s where Westbrook comes in. His ferocious fervor and ability to push the pace on misses (and makes) propels this new iteration of Showtime in his teammates’ absence and expands its blast radius when he shares the court with them.
Another point of emphasis for Coach Ham coming into this season was the implementation of 4-out 1-in spacing principles. Westbrook’s lack of off-ball utility has often hindered these efforts, as defenses would regularly sag off of him to pack the paint (like this).
Now that he plays more without James, he doesn’t need to spend as much time off the ball, which helps the Lakers space the floor around him better.
With this in mind, teams still go under on ball-screens or sag off him altogether, which can also cause unnecessary clutter. So to remedy this, they have had Westbrook initiate offense in the post more frequently to force his defender into engaging with him directly.
Look at the difference in spacing in these two clips:
In the first sequence, Ivica Zubac lays off Westbrook out of a lack of fear for his pull-up jumper and instead joins his four teammates in forming a gate around the painted area. In the second clip, all five defenders are near the paint, but four are partially occupied by the potential kick-out pass to their man while Jordan Clarkson is left jousting with Westbrook down low (you can’t sag off someone in the post!).
Another tactic Los Angeles has used in these Westbrook-led lineups is the snug pick and roll (a ball-screen set inside the three-point line).
Ironically enough, the Lakers’ have witnessed this play be used against them in the 2020 NBA Finals when the Miami Heat leaned on this maneuver to help Jimmy Butler (another subpar outside shooter) attack downhill.
The play works because setting a screen closer to the rim gives the defense less time to react, which increases the likelihood that a firebird like Westbrook can find a runway to explode at the rim.
In short, creating situations that enable Westbrook to fully express himself and give him the opportunity to succeed while simultaneously limiting the harm he can do to the overall structure has fueled his stretch of good play.
Is it Sustainable?
It’s time to address the elephant in the room. During this five-game run, Westbrook is shooting 45.5% from three. That’s a far cry from the 30.5% he is shooting for his career and an even further margin from the 28.9% he was shooting as a Laker before this recent heater. So, it is unlikely that his current conversion rate holds up, and therefore, it is difficult to imagine him maintaining this exact level of production for the rest of the year.
However, this extended spree of seeing his jumper fall has likely done wonders for his confidence. And sometimes confidence can be just as important, if not more so, than actual ability (see Killian Hayes). Maybe his three-point percentage trends closer to mid-30s moving forward, this would still be a sizable victory for the Lakers.
Speaking of confidence, that takes us to the end of our story. It’s Sunday, and the Lakers are hosting an afternoon game against the surging Cleveland Cavaliers. It’s the eight-minute mark of the first quarter, and checking in at the scorers’ table is none other than this fable’s hero. The Los Angeles crowd that once booed Westbrook is now executing a standing ovation upon his arrival on the court.
The Lakers ultimately fell to the Cavaliers 114-100, with Westbrook unable to ignite a magical fourth-quarter resurgence. But that doesn’t matter because while he’ll never be the same player he was in his glory days, he’s proven he can still be just as entertaining in his brand-new role.