Russell Westbrook is coming off one of his best seasons, having posted a career high in rebounds and another in assists that was enough to lead the N.B.A. And for the fourth time in five seasons, he averaged the vaunted triple-double, typically defined as reaching double-digit numbers in points, rebounds and assists. Before Westbrook, it seemed almost impossible to average a triple-double once, much less multiple times.
But those numbers weren’t good enough to land him on the All-Star team last season, the first time the 32-year-old hadn’t been selected since 2014. It was in part because his Washington Wizards were not very good. But the Wizards’ barely making the playoffs was a perfect microcosm of the general debate about Westbrook’s legacy: It’s not a sure thing that Westbrook’s style of play is conducive to winning basketball, even with his gaudy numbers.
And now Westbrook is with the Los Angeles Lakers, traded for the third time in three years. Former Most Valuable Player Award winners like Westbrook typically do not play for four different teams in successive seasons while still putting up numbers comparable to when they won the honor.
Westbrook will again have superstar teammates, this time LeBron James and Anthony Davis on an unequivocally so-called superteam. On paper, this new iteration of stars assembled to chase a championship should easily compete with teams like the Milwaukee Bucks, the reigning champions, and the Nets, both of whom have star trios of their own.
This will most likely be the best chance Westbrook has had to win a championship.
These Lakers are better than the Oklahoma City Thunder team Westbrook helped take to the finals in 2012 alongside a young Kevin Durant and James Harden, where the three M.V.P.s-to-be were outmatched against the James-led Miami Heat superteam. These Lakers are more talented than the 2017-18 Thunder team with Carmelo Anthony and Paul George, which bowed out in the first round of the playoffs. When Westbrook reunited with Harden — now a bona fide star — in Houston in 2019-20, James’s Lakers easily dispatched them in the postseason’s second round. And it goes without saying that the current Lakers team is better than last season’s Wizards, even though Westbrook was playing with Bradley Beal, one of the league’s best scorers.
Westbrook has not lacked for star teammates, but he has lacked the success that is expected to come with having them, and that may be an indictment of his style of play: high-volume scoring, weak shooting and elite rebounding that is devalued in favor of shooting. Some of this is also an indictment of the rosters Westbrook has played with. The 2017-18 Thunder team had an ill-fitting Anthony, who had difficulty adjusting to a lesser role. In Houston, the Rockets traded away center Clint Capela and opted to play small ball, which had limited effectiveness. In Washington, the Wizards dealt with injuries to key players, like Rui Hachimura and Thomas Bryant, and were hampered by a coronavirus outbreak.
But if Westbrook can’t figure out how to win next to James and Davis, who won a championship with some of the players the Lakers traded for Westbrook, it will be a blow to Westbrook’s legacy.
After Durant left the Thunder in 2016, Westbrook became the focal point, and the Thunder were eliminated from the playoffs in the first round for three straight years.
A large part of the issue with Westbrook is that he has been an inefficient scorer for much of his career. His career true shooting percentage — which accounts for free throws and 3-pointers — is 52.8 percent, whereas the league average is around 55 percent. And he takes up a lot of possessions to score his points as a result.
His defense has also been suspect.
This is where his joining James and Davis makes for a fascinating, and potentially treacherous, situation. Two of the players the Lakers traded for Westbrook — Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — were helpful defensively and with floor spacing. That meant they didn’t need the ball in their hands to make their presence felt on the floor. Kuzma shot 36.1 percent from 3 last season, while Caldwell-Pope was at 41 percent. Westbrook’s career average from 3 is 30.5 percent. A data point helpful to Westbrook: Kuzma shot only 31.6 percent from 3 in the Lakers’ championship year.
The fit with Westbrook, James and Davis will be a mad experiment. Westbrook needs the ball in his hands to be effective, while James usually runs his team’s offense. James’s best teams have been loaded with shooters to toss the ball to when he drives into the paint. Davis is one of the most offensively skilled big men but, like Westbrook, inconsistent from 3, at 31.2 percent for his career. Even James is a career 34.5 percent shooter from deep — around average.
This means the Lakers will presumably start three players who aren’t the most reliable shooters in today’s N.B.A., which is so dependent on efficient offense generated by spacing. The Lakers have some counters with their other additions: Kent Bazemore, Anthony and Wayne Ellington — all of whom shot better than 40 percent from 3 last season.
Westbrook’s career usage rate — how often he uses possessions — is 32.51 percent, second to only Michael Jordan in N.B.A. history. James is fifth at 31.55 percent. If Westbrook is using more possessions than James next season, something has gone terribly wrong. For the Lakers to be at their best, Westbrook is going to have to take a back seat, and some players — think Allen Iverson — don’t adjust well to that, because their skills and ego don’t allow them to.
Players have steadily complimented Westbrook as a teammate. But does he know that he will have to watch the ball a lot more than he’s used to? With the Wizards last season, according to the league’s tracking numbers, Westbrook’s usage percentage with Beal on the floor was about 26 percent, compared with 33.9 percent when Beal was off. For Beal, his rate was at about 29.8 percent with Westbrook on, and 38.2 with him off. But the Wizards didn’t have a third player of Davis’s caliber.
Westbrook will be helpful if he plays to his strengths. He is a relentless slasher and because of his ball-handling and penetration, he will create easier shots for James and Davis. He also pushes the fast break. The Lakers were 21st in pace last season, making them one of the slowest teams, while Westbrook’s Wizards were the fastest. Westbrook plays every possession as if he is trying to outrun a vengeful lightning bolt, and that’s if he’s not the lightning bolt himself. That will help the Lakers add a new dimension to their offense: Westbrook and James are among the best fast-break players the league has seen.
Westbrook’s days of averaging a triple-double are most likely behind him. Davis and James are exceptional rebounders and playmakers, leaving less for Westbrook to put on his plate, at least statistically. But Westbrook’s addition to the Lakers, as well as that of Dwight Howard and Anthony, makes this one of the most intriguing roster constructions in the last decade.
But if Westbrook is unable to jell with his latest batch of star teammates, the Lakers may end up being an ill-fitting, must-watch mess.