Russell Westbrook’s First Game As A Laker Showed Where He And Frank Vogel Need To Make Changes

Russell Westbrook’s First Game As A Laker Showed Where He And Frank Vogel Need To Make Changes

For the fourth time in LeBron James’ four-year tenure as a Los Angeles Laker, they dropped their regular-season opener. This time, it came at the hands of the Golden State Warriors, 121-114, and kicked off the LeBron-Anthony Davis-Russell Westbrook Era with a loss.

The former two were spectacular and the best players on the floor, combining for 67 points. They looked every bit the superstars who guided Los Angeles to a title fewer than 13 months ago. Westbrook, though, as the newest member of this trio, did not. He struggled to the tune of eight points on 4-of-13 shooting, four assists and four turnovers.

Some of it was his responsibility. Seven of his 13 field goal attempts were jumpers, a few of which were ill-advised, early clock pull-ups. These are not conducive to maximizing his offensive impact anywhere, independent of context.

Other portions were outside of his control. Head coach Frank Vogel elected to start DeAndre Jordan and 23 of Westbrook’s 35 minutes were spent alongside Jordan or Dwight Howard. Sixteen of them were spent alongside two of Jordan, Howard and Davis.

Worst of all, he was paired with Rajon Rondo for seven minutes and during that span the Lakers were a minus-15. Rondo did not resemble a rotation-caliber guard on a contender last season and he certainly didn’t challenge that sentiment yesterday. Even ignoring that, trotting out Westbrook next to him in the backcourt simply doesn’t benefit either of them or the team and prevents Rondo from proving my hypothesis wrong.

For a guard in Westbrook who’s best with space around him and shouldn’t be relied upon to shoot outside the paint, Los Angeles sure constructed lineups that ran counter to such a concept.

With Rondo in the fold, the two former All-Stars took turns commandeering the offense and relegating the other to spot-up duties, a job for which they’re unqualified. A high ball-screen for Westbrook shouldn’t feature Rondo as a release valve shooter. If Rondo is going to maintain a rotation spot, Vogel has to separate him and Westbrook. And if Westbrook is going to fully succeed as a Laker, Vogel has to separate him and Rondo. Possessions like these are just frivolous, imprudent efforts.

Part of the reason so many of Westbrook’s minutes were shared with an ill-suited veteran center in Jordan or Howard is because the Lakers do not play Davis as a center full time. Their goal and his goal is to avoid the constant rigors that transpire as a full-time 5, while also enabling him to be a ball-hawk defensively and attack mismatches as a scorer. There are exploits to Davis at the 4, even if he and Los Angeles are optimized when he’s a center.

I understand why Davis isn’t deployed at center more during the regular season and save it for the playoffs. But I also now wonder if the balance must shift because the team’s third-best player would so significantly benefit and more quickly integrate to a new setting. About 22 of Davis’ 39 minutes (56 percent) came without Jordan or Howard on the floor. Westbrook was present for roughly 12 of them.

Increasing his workload at center from 56 percent to, say, 75 percent, assuming he’s comfortable with that physically, would free up space for Westbrook and the offense. Davis as a 4 would be more serviceable if Jordan or Howard were viable rotation bigs, but neither really is at this stage of their careers and they both struggled Tuesday.

Davis’ dominant play-finishing slots aptly next to Westbrook, who ranked third in assists at the rim between 2018-19 and 2020-21, per PBPStats, and routinely spoon-feeds big men inside. Although Davis isn’t the 5 here, this play provides a vision of how Westbrook’s interior passing chops and his finishing prowess can harmonize if Westbrook consistently draws attention near or in the paint:

Yet on other occasions, the ways Davis as a 4 limits Westbrook’s on-ball creation manifested. He should not be resigned to catch-and-shoot responsibilities, which was the case a bit too commonly Tuesday. An intermittent spot-up three from Davis isn’t a deathknell offensively, but simply seems like a poor allocation of collective talent in general.

Replacing Jordan with Malik Monk (who admittedly struggled yesterday), Trevor Ariza (when healthy) or Wayne Ellington (also, when healthy) in the starting unit would empower Davis to be the roll man in snug ball-screens for Westbrook or inhabit the dunker spot to occupy helpers when the former MVP posts up.

While the initial results for Westbrook’s stint offensively were discouraging, game one was not without some encouraging examples process-wise. He parlayed his anti-gravity off the ball into attacking runways and his explosiveness off the catch remains so sudden and overwhelming. At this point, it’s cliche, but he has to embrace cutting. Instilling its value into him is paramount. Success followed when he was either primed to rip off the catch or sliced into the defense before the ball even swung his way.

The Lakers didn’t go to their cheat code of the LeBron-Davis empty corner pick-and-roll much, yet the outline of how Westbrook can benefit from the attention that action commands was evident. Second-side pick-and-rolls for him when the floor is properly spaced might also become a reliable tool when Los Angeles streamlines its rotation and some of their now-injured guys return. The correct lineups and play calls are necessary for this star-laden experiment to work, but Monday certainly provided glimpses of how that success could manifest.

Beyond what the opening night loss laid out, the Lakers should also scheme more sets involving Westbrook as a screener for Davis or James, particularly snug pick-and-rolls inside the arc. According to Cleaning The Glass, Los Angeles’ rim frequency against the Warriors was a pitiful 26 percent. Some of that is surely tied to insufficient floor-spacing. But a team who saw James, Davis and Westbrook play 113 of a possible 144 minutes should mash its way to the rim more than that and better catering the Xs and Os and rotations to those three guys can help accomplish this.

Similarly, if Davis and Westbrook do see more time together without another big on the floor, empty corner pick-and-rolls should spike in volume, especially in early offense, which is where Westbrook is best equipped to handle possessions.

The pace of last night’s game was a breakneck 112.5. For reference, the Washington Wizards led the NBA in pace last season at 104.67. I’m curious how sustainable that is for a veteran-laden squad. Promoting open-floor reps with Westbrook out there is prudent, but if the offense looked murky at that pace, a regression to the mean could spell a bit more trouble before daylight arrives.

Monday was the first meaningful data point along a journey of many required to assess the Russell Westbrook Experience in Los Angeles. This one, while confounding and frustrating on the surface, looks more optimistic underneath. There’s certainly work to be done, both from the coaching staff and Westbrook himself. There’s also probably a cap to growth, given his shaky jumper and inconsistent decision-making offensively. But there is absolutely substantial, attainable growth to be actualized that might have this random night in October as nothing more than the ground floor of a profitable exercise.