16 games into the 2021-22 NBA season, it’s hard to deem the Los Angeles Lakers’ decision to swap their depth for Russell Westbrook as a success.
Westbrook entered Wednesday averaging 19.4 points and 8.3 assists on .427/.292/.685 splits and leads the NBA in turnovers per game (5.3). His defense has been as maddening as advertised. He hasn’t consistently struck the ideal balance (or better yet, imbalance) between paint-attacking and settling for jumpers. He has overseen numerous second-half collapses and his late-game decision-making has been head-scratching. The Lakers are 9.2 points per 100 possessions worse with him on the floor.
On a positive note, in the Lakers’ solid effort against the Milwaukee Bucks (albeit in a loss) on Wednesday, Westbrook had his best game of the season — and not just because the bar is low.
In 36 minutes, he posted 19 points and a season-high 15 assists. His shot selection was acceptable (with one hilarious exception). He repeatedly got downhill and created high-quality looks for his teammates (though the Lakers had a cold shooting night). Most importantly, he turned the ball over just three times.
Plus, the Bucks’ All-Star counterpart, Jrue Holiday, was held to eight points on 3-of-13 shooting.
“I do think we’re really benefiting from the offensive space. We had a ton of great looks from the 3-point line,” Vogel said postgame about the Lakers’ small lineup, which they’ve been starting with the past three games. “I think Russell Westbrook had his best game as a Laker tonight. 15 assists and three turnovers. Clearly, he’s benefiting from that space, and AD is as well. … Lot of positives.”
Wednesday was not Westbrook’s first promising moment with the Lakers. He led Los Angeles to an overtime win vs. the San Antonio Spurs in a game that encapsulated his value, especially when LeBron James doesn’t suit up.
He put up a 20/8/9 and +25 in a triumph over the Houston Rockets. He posted back-to-back triple-doubles in gritty wins against the Charlotte Hornets and Miami Heat. In the latter, which remains the Lakers’ best win of the season, he was stellar down the stretch while dealing with Kyle Lowry.
He has even shown flashes, albeit not enough, of cutting and screening (the inverted pick-and-roll he and LeBron whipped out a few times was particularly encouraging).
As Anthony Davis noted following the Bucks’ loss, it’s hard to truly evaluate the Lakers until the team is at full strength. That certainly applies to the Westbrook-LeBron fit, which will determine the Lakers’ ceiling. In actuality, we can’t properly assess the trade until we see how Russ performs in crunch time of playoff games.
Fortunately, there’s reportedly a “50/50” chance LeBron returns on Friday. But regardless of how rapidly things click into place (or not), Westbrook can always do what he did vs. Milwaukee: responsibly create for others. That’s elite point guarding.