The Sarge, Russell Westbrook, is now in the King’s court in LA. Westbrook, LeBron James, and the Brow, Anthony Davis, are the Lakers version of the Big 3. Your belief mileage may vary depending on how you feel about Westbrook in today’s NBA, but one thing to me is clear: the Lakers wanted Westbrook because the regular season still matters.
Doing well in the playoffs isn’t a given, for anyone, ever, but getting to the playoffs used to be a question already answered when discussing LeBron James teams. He, after all, had been to eight NBA Finals in a row. If LeBron James was on your team, you weren’t just making the playoffs, you were dominating them.
Then, the King claimed Los Angeles as his kingdom, and his reign immediately ended. In 2018-19 the Lakers missed the playoffs, LeBron’s first missed dance in 13 years. Bron played in 55 of 82 games that season, about 67%. The next season, 2019-20, the NBA shut down due to Covid, and then instituted the Bubble in Orlando. LeBron played in 67 games in that shortened season, missing only 4 regular season games on his way to his fourth championship. Last year, LeBron played in only 45 regular season games, his fewest ever, good for 62.5% of the total 72 game schedule. The Lakers claimed the 7th seed, then lost in six games to the eventual Western Conference champion, the Phoenix Suns.
LeBron James has missed more games over the past three seasons than at any other time in his titanic career. Old age or bad luck? Who knows. But, patterns to a genius are harbingers of fate, and LeBron James is a basketball genius. He’s getting older and he’s playing less. Making the playoffs, once a foregone conclusion, is now a legitimate concern for a player whose co-star is the oft-injured Anthony Davis.
Anthony Davis, the Brow, has never played a full season of games. He’s never played a full 82, he didn’t play every game in the Covid/bubble season, and he didn’t play every game last year. He only played in 36 regular season games last season. Davis, a marvelous player, cannot be counted on to have a healthy season. He’s played 75 games twice in his nine year career. If LeBron were to miss a significant chunk of this coming season, he wouldn’t be able to assume that Davis would be available to shoulder the burden and keep the team afloat. If Davis’s presumed absences overlap with any possible LeBron absences, the Lakers could crater, and miss the playoffs, even by a game.
Enter Westbrook. Westbrook gets you to the f*cking playoffs. He’s missed the dance twice in his career. Granted, he’s played with immortals like Kevin Durant and James Harden (twice), and superior talents like Bradley Beal and Paul George (remember that??). But, if there’s one person in the NBA who can get to the playoffs just on sheer force of will alone, it’s Sergeant Russell Westbrook. Recall how dismal the Washington Wizards were at the start of last season, then recall how IN-CRED-IBLE they looked in the second half. The Wizzle-Wazzles dazzled in the latter half, and the Beal-Westbrook led squad crashed the playoffs, against all odds. They lost in the first round, but so did the Lakers.
Much has been made about Westbrook’s poor fit alongside LeBron and AD. The thinking goes that a LeBron team needs to surround him with shooters in order to totally unleash his greatness. I don’t see the lie in that. But, isn’t that also the thinking when it comes to Westbrook?
Russ is infamously, and I do mean FAMOUSLY, NOTORIOUSLY BAD, at shooting. He can’t hit threes, he takes a lot of ‘em. He dominates the ball to an unhealthy extent (unless he’s playing with other stars, like KD, Harden, PG13, and Bradley Kind of a Big Beal). On the other hand, you want your best players having the ball most of the time because they’re the best option you usually have. Recent Russ teams have engineered themselves around Russ’s poor shooting in order to alleviate the negative consequences of his awful outside offense. Basically, they surround the dude with shooters, and ask him to concentrate on drives and distribution.
The Lakers were going to have to surround LeBron with shooting, or at least attempt to. That’s still the plan, it just now includes another guy for whom that plan works. The Lakers won’t need to change their philosophy of perimeter depth to accentuate interior dominance and devastating drivers. So, why not grab a guy who fits your plan, who’s used to playing with superstars, and who doesn’t miss as many games to injury as LeBron has recently or Davis has consistently? Yes, Westbrook has missed time over the past few seasons, but nowhere near as much as the King and the Brow. And, while he isn’t good at threes, he’s MAGNIFICENT at other things: distributing the ball, rebounding from the point guard position, and penetration. Westbrook drove to the rim last year 17 times per game, good for seventh in the NBA, basically tied with Harden. Of the 14 players who drove at least 15 times per game, Westbrook was second in passes out of the drive (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was first, but he played in 30 fewer games than Russ, so Westbrook was kinda #1). The Sarge had the second highest assist percentage on drives. Who was first? James Harden.
The entire point of having Big 3s is so a team can weather the storm when a star player goes down during the regular season. If a star goes down in the playoffs, then yeah: you’re probably sunk. That’s why you want to keep them healthy during the regular season, in order to have them healthy during the playoffs. If Bron misses time, and Davis is out, too, well hell, the Showtime Lakers will become the Russell Westbrook Show. Which is fine! Especially if he’s surrounded by adequate teammates.
Think about it this way: let’s say LeBron assumes both he and Davis will definitely miss games this season. Would you trust Buddy Hield to keep the Lakers afloat in their absences? Or, Russ?
I know my answer. Buddy Hield is one of the best perimeter shooters in history, and LeBron could absolutely use that on his team. But, he’s not a guy who can take over games, he’s not a player who you can depend upon to win games by himself. Westbrook is. That’s why he’s a Laker now. You can’t do well in the playoffs if you don’t make the playoffs. Russ guarantees the Lakers will make the playoffs, in my opinion, unless Bron & Brow miss more time than we factor into these considerations (or, if the Lakers fail miserably at implementing their plan of acquiring perimeter players). Buddy Hield is a complementary player: he’s useful in combination with other elite players. Hield hasn’t proven himself to be a star, someone whose gravity alone can help determine the outcome of the game. Westbrook is a STAR. His gravity is IMMENSE. You can counter and say, Yeah, but Russ has always had superstars around him, that’s why he goes to the playoffs. Why doesn’t that argument apply to Harden? Why doesn’t that argument apply to AD? Hell, to KD? Playing effectively with other superstars doesn’t diminish your impact, it ENHANCES it. It’s hard to play with high usage players! It’s difficult to match your skill set to theirs, that’s why it usually takes awhile for stars to cohere (see: Heatles).
And, let’s remember, Westbrook has been SUPERNOVA for extended periods of time across the last several seasons. We all know he can rack up triple-doubles if he has to, but! He’s also shown he can excel during extended periods on post-OKC teams. See: Houston after they reconfigured. See: Washington after Westbrook got healthy. I mean, damn, I love Brad Beal as much as anyone, but what the hell has he done without another star? Why does Westbrook get denigrated (and, ditto Ben Simmons) for his shooting, but he doesn’t get elevated for his winning? At a certain point, doesn’t the scoreboard matter more than the analysis?
We’re told the Western Conference is a bloodbath. But, is that true this year?
-Kawhi’s out for the season. That doesn’t kill the Clippers, but it sure as hell weakens them.
-Maybe Klay Thompson isn’t 100% this season after missing so much time the past few years? Maybe the Warriors aren’t able to acquire any studs in free agency or via trade, and maybe their young guys don’t develop as quickly as they’d like? What if the Warriors’ Death Star isn’t actually fully operational?
-Jamal Murray is out for Denver. Just like with the Clips, that doesn’t automatically sink the Nuggets, but it sure as hell hurts their chances.
-The Jazz can have as much regular season success as they want, it won’t matter if Rudy Gobert can’t play in the playoffs, right?
-The Trail Blazers may be one straw away from a broken camel’s back, causing Maestro Dame Lillard to request a trade. But, even if Dame stays in Portland, are the Blazers really a potent playoff team? Aren’t their predictable problems on defense still there?
-Will the Suns re-sign Chris Paul? Even if they do, are the Suns as good as they looked in the playoffs against walking wounded teams? Even if they are, is that really a world-beater that scares LeBron James?
-Dallas might be a mess if they can’t put the right players around Luka Doncic. Luka can probably get you to the playoffs on his own, but is that a team that frightens you in the postseason?
-Memphis and New Orleans are too young to be scary, even if they end up having good regular seasons. Remember, experience in the playoffs matters A LOT. The Suns doing well was a complete aberration this past playoffs. History suggests that you need proper playoff seasoning in order to be considered a true title contender.
-The TimberKATS maybe don’t suck, but they’re absolutely not good.
-Ditto, the Kings.
-I dunno with San Antonio, man. Like, they could be a top three seed, and I wouldn’t be surprised. They could miss the playoffs and I wouldn’t be surprised. I have absolutely no idea. But, that suggests to me that you shouldn’t assume too much from them.
-OKC and Houston: are they even trying to make the playoffs? I doubt it?
So, I’ll ask again: who are the real dangers in the West this season? It could just be a collection of the hobbled and the pretenders, no? Honestly, there’s a chance that the West is at its weakest this coming season than it has been in many, many years. If that’s the case, then why not look for every advantage, especially one that at least suggests that you will definitely make the playoffs, which is a necessity for a LeBron team? I’ll go out on a limb and predict that Westbrook plays more regular season minutes for the Lakers this season than LeBron or Davis.
What if the Lakers are the healthiest team? If LeBron, AD, and Westbrook are all healthy, and no one else is quite at their own team’s apex, then the Lakers could straight roll through the Conference.
Which leads me to one more point regarding Russ. His two ex-teammates in Brooklyn.
The Nets have a similar situation to the Lakers. If all three of their stars are healthy, there’s no goddamn way they won’t advance deep into the playoffs. The Bucks are their only true competition, and they barely eked past a wounded Nets team that was one KD sneaker away from beating Milwaukee. A fully healthy Nets team is the best team in the NBA, fer real, end of story. An NBA Finals matchup of Russ, LBJ, and AD against Kyrie Irving, Harden, and KD is sensational. Especially when you consider that three of them used to be teammates! The young OKC Thunder trio that lost to the LeBron Heatles would once again be in the Finals, but now on opposing sides. THAT’S drama. THAT’S interesting. THAT gets you viewers.
Even the matchups are tasty! Westbrook’s defense is not as advertised, but ditto Kyrie! Harden’s defense is not as bad as advertised, but AD and LeBron are two of the better players who can attempt to defend Durant. That’s two more than most teams in the NBA!
Both the Lakers and the Nets will be enticing destinations for Ring Chasers, who we should refer to as Nazgul going forward, IMHO. Notable Nazguls include Blake Griffin, a guy who maybe would kinda sorta like to win a championship in LA but not for the Clippers? How about Victor Oladipo, a player with a lot to prove, and maybe someone willing to take a cheaper one year deal to improve his stock? DeMar DeChozan, Boogie Cousins, Otto Porter, Jr., NBA CHAMPION BOBBY PORTIS, sharpshooting JJ Redick, Patty Mills, Spencer Dinwiddie, Norman Powell, Derrick Rose, Nemanja Bjelica, Nerlens Noel, Enes Kanter, Reggie Bullock, TJ McConnell, Wayne Ellington, CARMELO ANTHONY, Torrey Craig...there are a lot of extremely useful players out there in free agency, though high end stars are probably not in the equation for either Brooklyn or Los Angeles. Not every free agent is going to get the money they’re asking for; maybe a few will seek a ring for under-market prices. Regardless, the contenders will be able to find players. And, then, once the NBA trade deadline nears, the contenders will once again be able to find players. And, then, after the buyouts, the contenders will be able to find some players one more time.
The rosters at the start of the season will not be the rosters at the end of it. This is written in NBA stone. While some teams with premier players are content to tread water during the regular season, confident in their ability to reach the postseason, many more teams do not have that luxury, due to health mostly. Any team that can guarantee a playoff spot is already at an advantage. THAT is why the Lakers acquired Westbrook. They now have another leader, another star who can damn well all but promise that his team will make the postseason, a player who’s possibly even more capable of that than Anthony Davis himself. Westbrook plays every game like it’s the Last Game. That kind of tenacity doesn’t show up in the box score, but it’s showed up in the regular season win-loss records. We sometimes discount scoreboards and results in our current era analysis-driven conception of sports. But, we do that to our detriment. We don’t have the numbers that explain everything yet, and we probably never will. The FIP-ification of sports analysis leads us to assume that our information (sabermetrics is just data) is more reliable than IRL results, but our information, our data sets, are not complete. Perhaps they never will be. Results matter too, even if we don’t have the tools to truly comprehend them yet.
But, sabermetics, and shooting charts, and plus-minus, and eFG%, and true shooting, and preconceived notions, and aesthetics, none of it can credibly dispute this simple fact: Westbrook helps get you to the Bracket. As Sun Tzu teaches us, you win the war before the battle begins. LeBron can figure it out once you’re there. The Sarge will help you win the battles, while the King makes sure you win the war.
Oh yeah, one more thing: Russell Westbrook is from Los Angeles. In a ferocious world, red in tooth and claw, in an indifferent universe that’s actively trying to kill you every instant of your life, don’t you think every inch, every 1%, matters? Don’t you think the crowd in LA will love him, perhaps even more than they adore LeBron James and Anthony Davis, two champions, but also two guys from outta town? Russell Westbrook is a native son, and his role in the NBA just got Bigger. He’s no longer a guy with an onerous contract. He’s now a tenacious demon of a player for the City of Angels. He’s a superstar playing at home. He’s an MVP who has never been truly appreciated for the player he is, only criticized for the player he isn’t. He doesn’t have a chip on his shoulder, he has chips on his mind.
Russell Westbrook plays every game like it’s the Finals. That’s why he’s great. And, that’s why he’s in LA.
*All stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com. Thank you!*