The Los Angeles Lakers — who have won five of six games and are just starting to find a rhythm — suffered a setback on Thursday, when it was announced that LeBron James has a strained abdomen and will miss one-to-two weeks, at least.
James missed two games last week due to ankle soreness, and will now sit out another handful as the Lakers work to develop cohesiveness.
LeBron might have been able to play through the injury if it was the postseason, but the Lakers are reportedly being extra-cautious with the 19-year veteran in November. This is understandable, of course.
For one, the Lakers are fortunate to be in their friendliest and most home-heavy stretch of the season.
Secondly, James is almost 37-years old and his body is no longer the indestructible tank that it was for the first 15 or so years of his storied career. Since joining the Lakers, LeBron has dealt with multiple aches and pains, including a severe groin strain (missed 27 games) in 2018-19 and a high ankle sprain (missed 20 games) late last season.
Furthermore: this is the benefit of acquiring Russell Westbrook.
As we all know, Westbrook's fit with the Lakers isn't seamless and his playoff struggles are long-running. But the organization (particularly, LeBron) wanted a third star to ease the burden on LeBron through the marathon regular season.
For all his flaws, Westbrook, who has no off-switch, is amongst the best innings-eaters in NBA history. He's also at his best when he's running the show.
Last week, in the Lakers' 125-121 overtime win over the San Antonio Spurs, Westbrook put up 33 points, 10 rebounds, and 8 assists in his first truly superb game in Los Angeles. He played 40 points and shot 15-of-27 from the field, with three turnovers. As I wrote afterward, his performance was emblematic of his value.
Westbrook/AD pick and roll with an empty side. Spurs fight over and that's just going to let Russ turn the corner. Turbo button and the finish. pic.twitter.com/5m9zRo7ISz
— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) October 27, 2021
The next night, Westbrook was excellent out of the gates, then spearheaded the Lakers' shocking collapse. He turned the ball over 10 turnovers, hoisted less-than-ideal shots in crunch-time, and was unnecessarily ejected in the final seconds.
Russ pledged to be better and more responsible. To his credit, in the three games since (three wins), Westbrook has nine total turnovers. He's been brilliant at pushing the pace, getting downhill, flying out of nowhere for rebounds, and finding bigs for lobs.
Russell Westbrook with the save and the lob to DeAndre Jordan 🔥pic.twitter.com/Tt03qFPYZd
— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) October 27, 2021
Over that recent span, Westbrook is averaging 22.0 points, 7.7 rebounds, 7.0 assists on 48.2% shooting.
With LeBron now sidelined for the foreseeable future, Lakers will need Russ to maintain that combination of play-making and aggression. He needs to continue generating as many points as possible — either via scoring, setting up teammates, Kobe assists, or simply creating high-percentage shots by pushing the rock before the defense is set. It's all productive.
Get fancy with it, @russwest44 👀 pic.twitter.com/l0qZ3xMIa5
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) November 3, 2021
Frank Vogel has already made a clear effort to stagger LeBron and Russ minutes (their chemistry is improving when they are on the court together). So far, non-LeBron Westbrook minutes have not been stellar (101.7 points per possession), but part of that is due to the other injuries to key supporting pieces. In general, the Lakers' non-LeBron minutes in 2021-22 have been a legit improvement over the past two seasons.
I expect Russ to put forth a much stronger effort against his former team on Thursday. Then, he'll have to keep it up for the next one-to-two weeks, at least.