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Assessing Russell Westbrook's Playstyle with the Lakers

Updated: Mar 16, 2023


(1) (Citations at End) , Per Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

It is important to note that the lens in which Westbrook’s impact on the Lakers is measured, deviates from the way in which it was viewed during his tenure with the Wizards. That is in large part due to the fact that this season he is a complementary star to Lebron James and Anthony Davis. That is a title that carries much more weight than being a complementary star to Bradley Beal.

As it pertains to winning and building the Lakers into a reputable contender, thus far, the return on investment for Westbrook has not paid strong dividends. 22 games into the season, the Lakers sit at .500 and are projected by fivethirtyeight to finish the season with a record of 36 - 46. In addition, fivethirtyeight projects that the Lakers have a measly 24% chance to make the playoffs, 0.8% chance to make the NBA Finals, and a 0.2% chance to win the Finals.(2)

While it is true that the Lakers underwhelming start to the season cannot be solely attributed to the play of Westbrook, I would like to further explore the ways in which Westbrook’s playstyle has contributed to both the early season success as well as the early season obstacles that have accompanied the Lakers.

Turnovers are the first statistical metric that I would like to use to explore the impact that Westbrook’s playstyle has had on the Lakers this season. It is a telling statistic that helps to paint a picture of the dexterity a player exhibits in their decision making, their ball protection, and their ability to make winning plays without error. A player with a low volume of turnovers, and a low turnover rate is indicative of someone who exhibits such characteristics, whereas a player with a higher volume of turnovers and a higher turnover rate can be indicative of someone who does not exhibit such things.

Thus far, the volume at which Westbrook has turned the ball over has been very unruly. He currently leads the NBA in total turnovers 104, second in turnovers per game at 4.7 and carries a turnover rate of 19.4%. That rate is the highest of his career, despite holding the lowest usage rate, 28.7% ,since his second year in the NBA. It is not just that Westbrook has turned over the ball at a high rate, but also at some very inopportune times. For example, take this turnover at the end of the Oklahoma City game: (3)


(Per House of Highlights)

Turnovers of this magnitude are unacceptable for a Lakers team striving to win a championship. When assessing the point guard, or chief decision maker (defined as player who led the team in assists for the championship winning team) for the past 5 NBA champions, there is not a precedent for a team containing a player who turns the ball over at the rapid rate that Westbrook does. So for a Lakers team striving to win a championship, Westbrook's decision making is an area that needs to improve.

As a team, the Lakers average 16.2 turnovers per game, which is a 6.8% year over year increase, and rank 28th in the league in that department. So while Westbrook is not the only responsible party for the Lakers early season struggles at taking care of the basketball one cannot deny that his playstyle has only perpetuated this issue, and in turn, impacted the Lakers chances at competing for a championship.

Shot selection is the second statistical metric that I will utilize to explore the impact that Westbrook’s playstyle has had on the Lakers thus far.

Thus far Westbrook is shooting 45.2% percent from the midrange. For players shooting the midrange at or above the volume that Westbrook does (3.8 FGA per game, 20th in the league), 47.99% is the average shooting percentage. Despite being slightly below the average in this small sample size, throughout the duration of Westbrook’s career, he has shown the propensity at shooting the midrange at or above a league average rate. It follows then, that Westbrook allocating his focus towards the midrange is an investment that can yield strong results for the Lakers. It already has, at some opportune times: (4)


(Per MLG Highlights)

Westbrook focusing on the midrange, is also a way in which he can mitigate some of his struggles from 3 point land. (5)


(Per ESPN)

Despite Westbrook’s proven proficiency at driving to the basket or shooting the midrange, he can become extremely trigger happy. The video above substantiates that claim. After a strong midrange jumper and another drive to the basket at crucial moments, Westbrook followed up that brilliance by shooting an unsolicited three point shot.

25.5% of his shot attempts come from the three point line. That is a 3.4% increase in volume from last season, despite his shooting percentage remaining the same, at 31.3%, and below the league average of 34%. However, the silver lining in Westbrook’s three point shooting is that he is converting 52.9% of his attempts from the corner. An adeptness that could prove itself useful as the season progresses.

Many people have asserted that the unpredictable nature of his shot selection is just who he is as a player. It would be very negligent to dismiss the truth to that statement, especially when looking into his numbers to start the year. However, I would add that this is all part of the spectrum of the Westbrook experience. Because while true, flashes of his brilliance, that come as a direct result of his shot selection, have been exhibited by Westbrook this year.

Look no more recently than the Lakers near 25 point comeback against the New York Knicks. It was Westbrook’s energy that led the charge and his 18 points in the third quarter that helped claw LA back into the game. During that quarter Westbrook had a game high +10 of his time on the floor, shot 7/10 from the field, had 3 assists to only 1 turnover, and as seen in this third quarter shot chart, exhibited a healthy shot selection.


(6)

(7)This performance was a direct follow up to Westbrook leading the charge of a 17 point comeback against the Detroit Pistons. He had a game high +20 during that quarter, scored 15 points on 7/12 from the field, had 6 assists to 2 turnovers (3:1 ratio) and exhibited another healthy shot selection quarter.



(8) (Per Basketball Reference)

(Per Bleacher Report)

(9) Flashes have also been shown of the potential between a pairing of Westbrook and Lebron in the backcourt: (10)

(Per The Asylum)

(11) These clips illustrate the value of having Lebron in the backcourt with Westbrook as it minimizes the pressure and volume of situations that Westbrook has to make decisions. It takes the ball out of Westbrook's hands, and puts him in easier scenarios in which he can maximize his success and the output of the team. This certainly should be a strategy that the Lakers deploy at a higher frequency as the season progresses and into the postseason.

Ultimately, newly constructed Lebron James led teams take time, and the addition of Westbrook as a complementary star, does not deviate from that trend. The 2015 Cavaliers who eventually won the Eastern Conference started the season 19 - 20. However, those who exercise appropriate judgment to remain doubtful can easily contend that the challenges faced this year diverge from the flaws of other Lebron James led teams.


For example, the health of Lebron is no longer a foundational element to be relied upon. A man who has been an ironman for nearly two decades, is now showing the first signs of deterioration. Not in his play style (25.8 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 6.8 apg) and efficiency but in his body. He is not even as readily available; he has played in 50% of games this season, and 72% of available games in the last 4 seasons (all with LAL). This is directly after being available for 94% of games in the first 15 years of his career. It remains to be seen how the health of Lebron and others play out for the remainder of the season. That same 2015 season referenced was one in which he missed 2 full weeks to nurse a back injury. (12)

Nonetheless, like any LBJ led team, the true barometer remains how this team performs come playoff time. I wrote over the summer how Westbrook defined the Wizards season by lifting the team back into the postseason and how he has been a near guarantee of a postseason appearance for every team that he appears on. While true, the key difference between this season and last is that the metric and barometer of success has significantly changed. Westbrook went from a player tasked with lifting the floor of a team, to a player now expected to help lift the ceiling of this Lakers team.

22 games into the season, the returns on the Westbrook trade have been varied. However, for now, time remains the luxury that Westbrook and the Lakers have. It is November, not March or April, and there is plenty of basketball that remains to be played. Still, one cannot help but wonder the extent in which the outlook of the Lakers will evolve if and when they get healthy.

Citations:

  • (1) Rude, “Russell Westbrook Says It’s ‘Surreal’ to Be Back Home in L.A., Playing for Lakers.” (2) Silver, “2021-22 NBA Predictions.” (3) House of Highlights, Russell Westbrook With a COSTLY TURNOVER With Lakers 2 Down vs Thunder.

  • (4) Naufalmh, Westbrook Going Insane with Back 2 Back Shots in the Final Minutes of Lakers vs Miami Heats Game. (5) NBAgamingboy, Russell Westbrook MISSES Game Winning Shot, Heads to OT - Heat vs Lakers | 10/10/2021. (6) “Los Angeles Lakers at New York Knicks Shot Charts, November 23, 2021.” (7) GMFB, Los Angeles Lakers vs. New York Knicks Full Highlights 3rd Quarter | NBA Season 2021-22. (8) “Los Angeles Lakers at Detroit Pistons Shot Charts, November 21, 2021.” (9) Bleacher Report, Russell Westbrook Goes Off In the 4th Quarter In Win Over Pistons.

  • (10) “The LeBron James-Russell Westbrook Pick-and-Roll Shows Promise in Lakers’ Crunch-Time Win over Grizzlies - CBSSports.Com.” (11) GMFB, Los Angeles Lakers vs. Memphis Grizzlies Full Highlights 4th Quarter | NBA Season 2021-22. (12) Singh, Sanjesh “Lakers’ LeBron James, Russell Westbrook to Make Preseason Debut vs. Warriors.”

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1 Comment


Aaron Mebrahtu
Aaron Mebrahtu
Nov 30, 2021

Great analysis Chibuzo. Looking forward to reading more of your articles.

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