Media day for the 2022-23 Los Angeles Lakers has passed. With today being the first day of the team’s training camp, time has all but officially ran out for the organization to trade Russell Westbrook. Discussions have fallen through with the Utah Jazz, with the slimmest of chances that something could materialize with the Indiana Pacers or San Antonio Spurs, but as it has seemed for weeks now, Westbrook will be a Laker until the trade deadline at the very least.
With that realization, there comes new reports about how Darvin Ham will construct the team’s rotation around Westbrook. This specific report came via The Athletic after it was announced the Lakers would be signing Dennis Schröder. It stated that “the prospect of Westbrook coming off the bench is being strongly considered,” something that Russ has not done since his rookie 2008-09 season. Ham further gave validity to this report during the media day on Monday, saying the following:
Ham says of Russ starting or coming off the bench, "we have a variety of options to fill in our back court" and that defensive effort and execution will be key for determining who plays in there. Notably does not commit to Russ as a starter. https://t.co/oVV3Nzt7pu
— Kyle Goon (@kylegoon) September 26, 2022
We all know what 48 minutes of gameplay with Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, and Anthony Davis looked like last year, but what differences would Ham be able to take advantage of if Russ were to come off the bench to start the season? I tried to envision this below while laying out a full 12-man rotation I would expect if Ham were to make this dramatic decision.
In this hypothetical situation, I would have a starting lineup of Damian Jones, Anthony Davis, LeBron James, Austin Reaves, and Patrick Beverley. This lineup may lack a lot of spacing and 3-point shooting, especially with Jones at center instead of Thomas Bryant, but I do think it gives the team a level of defense right out of the gate that the team may have never had at any point last season.
For this exercise, I’ve also kept LeBron and AD’s rotations pretty much the same as they always have been when both players were healthy and in the lineup during their three seasons together. This way, when Westbrook comes in at the six-minute mark of the first quarter, LeBron is off the floor shortly after to let Westbrook cook as much as he can these days with Kendrick Nunn, Juan Toscano-Anderson, AD, and Thomas Bryant alongside him. Although AD’s poor shooting (in recent years) is still out there, Nunn, JTA, and Bryant provide spacing that could allow Russ and AD to knife into the open parts of the opposing team’s defenses in the final three minutes of the quarter.
The main objective with this very dramatic move of taking Russ out of the starting lineup is to offset his and LeBron’s time on the court as much as possible. When LeBron was healthy last season, the two played 1389 minutes together (team-lead in terms of two-player lineups) with a Net Rating of -1.5.
Simply put, the two don’t fit well together on the court since the things that LeBron is best at are the only things that Russ is even good at.
That objective of off-setting them as much as possible doesn’t come to full fruition until the second half, as LeBron’s normal rotation does have him coming back in the 2nd quarter immediately. Eventually the first half (and the second half) end with AD at the five, LeBron at the four, with Austin Reaves, Kendrick Nunn, and Patrick Beverley making up the 1-3. I think this will be the team’s best lineup over the season despite the obvious height deficiencies that it has (that’s just something that’s going to happen when half your team is guards).
Other than offsetting the two heavily ball-dominant players in LeBron and Russ, this move of taking Russ out of the starting lineup also carries benefits that he and the other four players on the court should be able to take advantage of including:
- Russell Westbrook gets to play alongside Thomas Bryant and other shooters as much as possible. I especially love the idea of Russ playing alongside Nunn and either Toscano-Anderson or Troy Brown at the three. Not only are JTA and Brown at least competent from deep, but they could also prove to be excellent fast-break partners with Russ as well as willing and efficient cutters to slice through the defense while finding themselves on the other end of a Russ dime at the end of the process.
- This was said many times last season when contemplating the always unrealistic idea of Russ coming off the bench: He gets to play against worse defenders! That’s naturally what happens when you’re playing more against bench units in the middle points of each half. Westbrook should have much more ease in getting to the rim, scoring, and facilitating for his teammates with this advantage given to him.
- With the Lakers’ frontcourt exhibiting much more athleticism and agility behind the backcourt on defense, I can be a little more confident in Russ and Patrick Beverley not playing much together. Beverley could be a pretty valuable backcourt partner with Westbrook, with Beverley allowing him to still be inept on that end, but I think I prioritize surrounding Westbrook with shooting more than a defensive crutch. I think teams will always be able to take advantage of Westbrook on that end. It’s capitalizing on his offensive power and burst that’s most important to me. And with Anthony Davis and another center on the floor with Westbrook at all times, I feel safe focusing on that prioritization.
Of course, there is no perfect fit to be found with this roster even if Russell Westbrook were to be sent home entirely. But even though this may be the best option for the Lakers to find as much success this season as they can with him around, the execution of it could still present some negatives including:
- The most obvious of which would be Westbrook’s happiness becoming a cancer in the locker room. Looking back on the 2019-20 championship team, I think an underrated ingredient to their success was how much they all enjoyed not only playing together, but being together. If Westbrook were to respond to the benching in a confrontational and sour manner, it could ruin the entire vibe of the team right from the jump.
- As I said, there is no perfect solution as to how to structure these rotations. There are still plenty of major weaknesses in the 5-man lineups I envisioned above, most notably that many of the lineups — especially the closing one that I think is the best lineup the team can put out — are teeny, tiny. Beverley is 6’1”, Nunn is 6’2”, and Reaves is 6’5”. Now imagine that 1-3 going against the likes of the Western Conference’s best 1-3. It may not be pretty…
- With all of these small guards, it makes the team even more dependent on having a jumbo frontcourt with AD at the 4. Bringing Westbrook off the bench further increases the need to have AD at the 4 and not at the 5 where the Lakers have found success in the past few years as AD may be the best small-ball center in the Association aside from Draymond Green. Despite those past successes, it’s just not feasible to have AD play the 5 often given the lack of legitimate options as his frontcourt running mate in those lineups.
- LeBron and AD play 36 minutes per game with this rotation. That’s probably too much, but hey, I’m not here to save those two guys’ legs. They wanted the pressure of being two of three max-contract players on the roster. With that desire comes larger responsibility to carry that weight on their shoulders. If they can’t do that, then this team was doomed from the beginning.
Other than the pros and cons that will come with this experiment, there are some variables that could quiet those cons or even strengthen those pros. One being a Westbrook who actually heeds Darvin Ham’s advice to actually try on the defensive end. Bryant and Jones being able to be above-average at defending perimeter players could also help as this would allow them to close games to avoid that height deficiency at the 1-3 positions. And given the fact that the team has about three wings, it would be extremely beneficial to the team while also shaking up my theoretical rotation if Toscano-Anderson or Brown proved to be far more impactful than expected.
No matter what happens with the possible variables that could improve on or change this, this does seem to be the best plan of action to make the Lakers as competitive as possible. It takes Westbrook’s horrible defense off of the floor in crunch time, reduces the time that Westbrook spends on the court with LeBron and AD while allowing him to feast on the opponent’s bench perimeter defenders, and it maximizes the spacing the Lakers’ have on the court at all times.
Any rotational plan with Russell Westbrook starting is doomed to fail as the above is nearly unavoidable when having him start each half with 6-8 minutes alongside LeBron and AD right off the bat. Darvin Ham and the Lakers can’t get off to a horrific start this season by doing that. They have to put Westbrook’s feelings to the side, hope he will be the professional he says he will be, and try and maximize the team’s potential as much as they can.
Starting with bringing a future hall-of-famer off the bench.