As the Lakers’ season continues to look bleaker after every game, and with LeBron James already missing games due to a nagging adductor strain, talk has turned to the Lakers needing to make a trade with the last pieces they have: Russell Westbrook and two first-round picks. Even before the season, rumors swirled about that trade package potentially helping the Lakers land Myles Turner & Buddy Field from the Pacers, with even Turner himself practically begging the team to trade for him recently. Yet, even as the season seems to already be heading off the rails, a funny thing has happened: Russell Westbrook not only allowed coach Darvin Ham to move him to a sixth man role off the bench, he’s absolutely thrived out of it.
Things were looking contentious between the hometown PG and the Lakers faithful, and as Russ continued to press it felt like an unceremonious split was inevitable. Since moving to the bench, though, Westbrook has rejuvenated himself and injected life into the Lakers’ minutes with Anthony Davis or James on the bench.
As a starter, Westbrook was averaging near career lows across the board including a 30% true shooting percentage, since coming off the bench he’s looked a lot more like the old Russell Westbrook as he’s pushed his averages up in every category, including a pace for a career-high 3pt shooting percentage (though he’s highly unlikely to stay shooting over 45% from three like he has over the stretch since moving to the bench).
More importantly than Russ’ personal numbers, however, has been the impact that the move has had on everyone else. With Davis and LeBron off the floor, the Lakers’ offense looks a lot more like the Rockets’ one designed for Westbrook, and even resembles the Wizards team that he dragged to the playoffs almost single-handedly. With the bench unit, the spacing is much more suited to playing to Westbrook’s strengths, namely, being more athletic than just about everyone on a given night. He can attack the rim without worrying about Davis or James clogging the spots he likes to operate from and he can either make the decision to try and finish around the defense or he can kick it out to the perimeter. This also makes Russ a much more viable offensive threat compared to just having him launch 3’s and jump shots, so the defense collapses to stop these drives, making it a lot easier for guys like Lonnie Walker IV, Austin Reaves, and Matt Ryan to get open looks.
Reportedly, Westbrook’s stellar performance as a sixth-man has led to renewed interest in the trade market for him, potentially allowing the Lakers to get an even higher caliber player than they expected initially. But with Westbrook unlocking Ham’s offense better and more efficiently than just about anyone on the team (he’s currently the team’s leader in 3pt % and assists), it may make more sense for the team to explore keeping him and seeing what two unprotected first-round picks can net them in return to add more depth in the event that James or Davis (who is also currently in trade rumors) miss any extended time due to injuries.
It remains to be seen what the Lakers’ plan will be this season but one moment that will stay a highlight no matter what happens will be the image of Russ soaking in the adulation of Lakers fans and hearing MVP chants at the FT line as he helped lead the team to their first win of the season in his first performance as a sixth man.
If chemistry truly is important to a team’s success, sixth man Russell Westbrook may be exactly what this team needs as they battle to stay afloat throughout the season.