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Russell Westbrook Is Shooting the Lakers in the Foot

With every brick and loss, the Lakers’ hole gets a little deeper. If Los Angeles can’t find a way to get rid of Westbrook, there’s no way to salvage this season.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Russell Westbrook is a washed-up bricklayer who needs to be traded immediately for the Los Angeles Lakers to have any chance of saving their season.

It’s been only three games, but the Lakers are winless and their schedule doesn’t ease up over the next month. Westbrook isn’t the only problem, but he’s by far their biggest and most glaring one.

On Sunday, the Lakers blew an eight-point fourth-quarter lead against the Trail Blazers that started to slip away as soon as Westbrook checked into the game with 4:42 remaining. The Blazers had their center, Jusuf Nurkic, defend Russ and sag into the paint to clog driving lanes, suffocating the Lakers’ offense. Westbrook missed two wide-open jumpers. One was a 3-pointer with no defender making an effort to contest his shot. The other was an egregious pull-up 2-pointer with 18 seconds left on the shot clock and 30.2 seconds left in the game that caused every Lakers fan on the planet to sound like Darth Vader screaming NOOOO! in Revenge of the Sith.

Before Westbrook’s shot clanked off the back of the rim, Anthony Davis looked perplexed as he stood near half court waiting for the ball to be swung his way. LeBron James raised his arms in bewilderment. Even on the Blazers’ bench, second-year wing Greg Brown III can be seen leaping and celebrating as soon as Westbrook elevated for his shot.

ESPN’s Kirk Goldsberry put into context just how bad the shot truly was:

The Blazers came back to steal Sunday’s game after Westbrook’s shot, with the Lakers guard finishing 4-for-15 from the field in the loss. His performance against the Clippers on Thursday was even worse; he shot 0-for-11 in 27 minutes.

Westbrook has made only 38.3 percent of his midrange jumpers in his career, and the number has dipped further since he joined the Lakers. He’s gone from bad to worse, and now defenders treat him like he isn’t even on the court. Through three games this season, opponents are contesting jump shots by Westbrook only 41.2 percent of the time. According to Second Spectrum, that’s by far the lowest contest rate in NBA tracking data history, which dates back to 2013-14.

“I don’t want any of my players to be hesitant taking shots. I don’t want to give them any type of complex. I want them confident in their ability to score from all over the floor,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham told reporters after Sunday’s game. “His percentages haven’t been high. But Russ can make a 3-point shot. So it’s a matter of stepping up. If you’re gonna take it, you have to step up and make it. That’s pretty much it.”

That’s not pretty much it, though. To put Westbrook’s 41.2 percent contest rate in perspective, only two other players on record have had less than 50 percent of their jumpers contested: Joakim Noah, at 48.7 percent in 2013-14 with the Bulls, and Andre Roberson, at 48.8 percent during the 2016-17 season with the Thunder. This season, Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon’s 60 percent contest rate is the league’s second lowest behind Westbrook’s.

Yes, Westbrook can make a 3-pointer, as Ham said. So can Ben Simmons. But at least he has the awareness not to chuck away.

Defenses are ignoring Russ more than they’ve ignored anyone over the past nine seasons. And to make matters worse, Westbrook isn’t getting to the basket like he has even in recent seasons:

Last Thursday, the Clippers lacked rim protection when center Ivica Zubac was stretched to the perimeter to defend jumpers by Davis. Late in the game, with Westbrook on the floor, Clippers head coach Ty Lue instead put Zubac on Westbrook. At one point, LeBron swung the ball to Russ, who attacked off the dribble but couldn’t even get by the 7-foot Zubac, who’s much bigger and slower. Westbrook might be bothered by a hamstring that he tweaked during the preseason, but right now he lacks burst and is finishing at a career-low percentage inside.

Ham suggested on Sunday the Lakers could run more dribble handoffs with Westbrook with players whizzing around him. The problem is that play is most effective with shooters and spacing: Westbrook has made only one of 12 shots from 3 this season, and the rest of the Lakers roster has made only 22.6 percent of their shots from downtown. Ham has also discussed having Westbrook set more on-ball screens. The Lakers’ coach doesn’t have many options on the bench, but at least Austin Reaves knows to swing the ball to the stars. At least Juan Toscano-Anderson is an attentive cutter. At least Kendrick Nunn can hit some shots. Not all of them are better than Westbrook in a vacuum, but they all are better at serving the needs of the Lakers.

Obviously, Ham isn’t going to put his most sensitive star on blast in front of the media (at least not in October). Neither would LeBron or AD. But someone, anyone, needs to privately tell Westbrook to just stop shooting jump shots off the dribble, especially early in the shot clock, and instead focus on what he’s best at: attacking the basket and playmaking. And give credit where it’s due: Westbrook fought hard on defense last Thursday against the Clippers, especially against Kawhi Leonard in the fourth quarter. But no matter how much he improves on offense, the Lakers would be better off flipping his expiring $47 million salary on the trade market in a package that includes one or both of their two future first-round picks in 2027 and 2029.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that a trade involving Westbrook isn’t likely until after Thanksgiving. That’s around the same time that Dennis Schröder, who at this point is undoubtedly a better point guard than Westbrook, could return from his thumb surgery.

When that time comes, Los Angeles will explore trade combinations with the Pacers that involve center Myles Turner and/or wing Buddy Hield. Those talks are currently on hold, but Turner and Hield would both add much-needed shooting, and Turner would provide rim-protection depth behind the oft-injured Davis.

Utah has been connected to the Lakers for months, too. League sources say that before the Jazz sent Bojan Bogdanovic to the Pistons, the Lakers offered Westbrook, a future first-round pick, and second-rounders for Bogdanovic and others. Sources expect the Lakers and Jazz to resume talks later in the season with some combination of other players discussed. (Utah has Jordan Clarkson, Mike Conley, and Rudy Gay—three veterans who can all shoot.)

There aren’t many other options for Westbrook. Marc Stein reported on his Substack months ago that the Hornets were interested in Westbrook. At the time, league sources told The Ringer that the Hornets wanted to dump long-term salary with the expectation that they’d be paying big money to re-sign Miles Bridges, but he remains unsigned due to his unresolved domestic violence case.

Other than those three teams, there aren’t many possibilities, even theoretical ones. Wizards All-Star Bradley Beal has a no-trade clause and loved playing with Westbrook. Would he want to reunite with his former teammate, or trade places? If the Lakers get aggressive and decide to put Davis on the trade block attached to Westbrook, maybe the Bulls would have interest in the package.

Westbrook is the obvious scapegoat. But there is plenty of blame to go around in Los Angeles. After all, it was Rob Pelinka who acquired Westbrook, and LeBron who pushed for the Lakers to acquire him two offseasons ago instead of better options like DeMar DeRozan or Hield. LeBron got what he wanted. And Pelinka signed off on it all and built this mess of a roster with a lack of shooters and reliable wing defenders. Team owner Jeanie Buss rewarded Pelinka with a four-year contract extension after he hired Ham. Lakers fans are right to rip Buss, Pelinka, and everyone else in the organization for their incompetency. The place was dumpster fire in the years prior to LeBron’s arrival, and since they won a title in 2020 they’ve dismantled the roster. No matter how Westbrook evolves, and no matter who or what he’s eventually traded for, it’s difficult to trust the Lakers’ leadership even if the owner’s last name is Buss.

The Lakers need to nail their next move, or else they could soon be feeling an even greater pressure. James is trade eligible as soon as next offseason, and he can become a free agent in 2024. By all accounts, LeBron is happy living in Los Angeles. But what if the team isn’t even built to make the playoffs? Would he actually stay, especially considering he’s still playing at such a high level?

LeBron’s sustained greatness and the return of Davis should inspire urgency for Pelinka and Buss. With a smart Westbrook trade, they won’t be title favorites, but they’d be more formidable in the loaded West.

And if Westbrook doesn’t make further changes, whether it’s with the Lakers or his next team, he’ll be out of the NBA. This is not a potential “Chris Paul restoration project in Oklahoma City” type of situation. It’s approaching “Stephon Marbury is going to China” unless Westbrook evolves, pronto. A future Hall of Famer is right now an outright detriment to the franchise’s hopes of making the playoffs. It’s time to do something about it.