The quest to maximize whatever elite years remain in LeBron James took another turn, and perhaps the sharpest one yet, with the Los Angeles Lakers getting Russell Westbrook in a major Draft-day trade.
This was a deal that required the Lakers to cross their fingers while shaking hands with the Washington Wizards. That’s because, as combustible as Westbrook is — he’s rewritten all the triple-double records in the book — his skill-set fits only in certain systems and situations. Placing Westbrook next to LeBron and also Anthony Davis will require adjustments and sacrifices with everyone involved in this Big Three experiment, but especially with Westbrook.
First, the deal itself: Westbrook, the 2024 second-round pick and 2028 second-round pick go to the Lakers and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Kuzma and the 22nd pick go to Washington, as first reported by The Athletics’ Shams Charania.
Westbrook is easily the heavyweight in the deal, as a former MVP and nine-time All-Star who’s coming off his third career season averaging a triple-double – 22.2 points, 11.5 rebounds and 11.7 assists in his only season with the Wizards.
Westbrook now goes to his fourth team in four years, and just as curious, he’s aligned with yet another superstar in an effort to develop championship chemistry. There was no payoff in Oklahoma City with Kevin Durant and then Paul George, or the Rockets with James Harden, and certainly not the rebuilding Wizards who had little to offer as help besides Bradley Beal.
— Russell Westbrook (@russwest44) July 30, 2021
With the exception of reaching the NBA Finals with Durant — and that happened almost 10 years ago — Westbrook has advanced as far as the conference finals just twice despite those starry tandems.
Westbrook proved last season at age 32 that he’s still a highly productive point guard who plays at a rapid pace. That aids him at reaching the rim for layups, pushing the ball upcourt on the fast break, and out-rebounding taller players even in traffic. It also results in turnovers, too, as a result of his high-risk, high-usage style.
A bigger problem is shooting; Westbrook rated as the worst high-volume shooter in the NBA last season, and his career 3-point efficiency is 30.5%. Also, free-throw shooting is suddenly an issue, as Westbrook shot just 65% last season, which makes him a risky option in the final few minutes of tight games.
Of course, if Westbrook had only few deficiencies, the Lakers would not be able to get him in exchange for role players and a low first-round pick.
There are reasons for optimism for the Lakers, though. Westbrook has multiple incentives next season, his 14th. He’s coming home — he was raised just minutes from the team practice facility — and the chance to play for a championship has perhaps never been greater than now.
He’ll be teammates with LeBron, a player he respects, and a player who’d be willing to adjust for someone of Westbrook’s caliber. One area where LeBron can and probably must sacrifice is ball-handling. While LeBron assumed that role since arriving in LA three years ago to great success, Westbrook is most effective with the ball. Without it, Westbrook must play off the ball, where his shooting issues become more glaring.
Also, Westbrook has never had a big man with Davis’ talent. Therefore, the change of scenery plus an uptick in the caliber of running partners should trigger something positive within Westbrook, or at least the Lakers hope.
Whether it results in another championship is anyone’s guess, though. LeBron and Davis are coming off a frustrating season because of injuries largely to blame for their first-round playoff exit. Now they’ll get a celebrated third partner who will allow them to recharge and reboot.
The reason for adding Westbrook is clear: The Lakers are doing whatever they can, within the constraints of the salary cap, to give LeBron as many swings at the championship plate as possible. With LeBron entering a 19th season, he’s running out of time to get a fifth ring. And Westbrook is running out of teams.
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