Westbrook Thriving Off Bench Despite Lakers’ Continued Distress


For the second-straight season, the Los Angeles Lakers begin their season towards the back of the pack in the Western Conference.

As of Monday, L.A. sits at just 3-10 on the year and second to last in the West. The Lakers are closer to having the worst record in the conference than the team is to sneak into the Play-In Tournament.

But unlike last season, one of L.A.’s high-profile sports figures is rebranding himself as one of the team’s few bright spots.

The Lakers acquired 2017 MVP and nine-time All-Star Russell Westbrook from the Wizards before the start of the 2021-22 season. By that point, Westbrook’s production continued to look great on the stat sheet but didn’t translate to wins on the court.

Last season, Westbrook’s fit next to LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Co. could only be described as survivable at best and horrendous at worst. With trade talks and fits issues galore, it appeared the Lakers would do anything to send Westbrook home.

After all, as the saying goes, addition can be done by subtraction.

Instead, Westbrook has taken on an unfamiliar-but-successful role off L.A.’s bench. And in a season plagued by losing and not having a Plan B, he’s been one of the few bright spots for the Lakers this year.

Westbrook’s 2022-2023 season by the numbers

The comparison between Westbrook’s stat line as a starter compared to coming off the bench is as drastic as night and day.

The Lakers made the decision to bench him after three games and a nagging lower-leg injury. Since then, Westbrook looks to be back to his former self in his new role:

Westbrook 2022-2023 season (starter vs. bench)

  • Starting (3 games): 10.3 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 4.3 APG, 29% FG, 8.3% from three, -5.3 plus/minus, 7.5 game score
  • Off the bench (9 games): 18.3 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 8.1 APG, 45% FG, 42% from three, -4.6 plus/minus, 14.1 game score

Based on the numbers, there are a couple of clear takeaways based on Westbrook’s production off the bench.

For starters, he’s been the focal offensive creator in the non-LeBron, non-AD minutes. With the ball in his hands more, Westbrook’s drives to the basket are easier and more efficient. In turn, that opened up his passing game.

Interestingly, Westbrook suits up in more minutes playing off the bench (29.6 MPG) than he was in the three games he started (28.5 MPG). The biggest difference for Westbrook, however, is his role and the opportunities available.

Especially next to James in the starting lineup, Westbrook’s poor outside shooting meant teams were willing to clog the paint and force the Lakers into more attempts from three. So far, that strategy is a working success for opponents. L.A. ranks 29th in three-point makes and last in three-point efficiency.

There are still some obvious flaws at this point in Westbrook’s career. His current 34% from three is the best of his career since 2017. That will regress a bit back to the mean. Defensively, Westbrook is average (at best) when he puts in the effort.

With that said, head coach Darvin Ham made the right decision. For now, it’s paid off for Westbrook.

What’s the long-term gameplan?

As of now, the outlook for the Lakers doesn’t look pretty. Even though it’s early, L.A. is towards the bottom of the barrel.

Per FanDuel Sportsbook, the Lakers project to finish between 31 and 32 wins. That’s nowhere near the playoff picture, or even the Play-In Tournament.

In the context of the team, Westbrook’s resurgence off the bench won’t do much to help L.A.’s playoff prospects. In fact, it brings into question (again) whether the Lakers should’ve traded for him in the first place.

But not all is lost. There is a decent chance Westbrook continues to perform spectacularly off the bench. If so, maybe there’s enough of a renaissance that other teams would be interested in acquiring him.

With all this in mind, there are a handful of obstacles preventing the Lakers from shipping off Westbrook to another team.

For starters, Westbrook is owed $47.1 million this season. This means the Lakers need to take back enough salary to match his contract and another team needs to be willing to take on $47 million in Westbrook’s money.

Second, there’s the issue of who would want Westbrook in the first place. There’s no clear destination except for a team with cap space, such as Indiana or San Antonio. And again, where’s the incentive in taking on Westbrook’s deal? The Lakers would have to include one or even two of their first-round picks.

That leads us to the final problem with a Westbrook trade. Would the Lakers be willing to ship off two first-rounders with Davis’ health in question and LeBron’s career on the decline? Anytime you have two of the best players in the league, you lean towards taking the risk. As of now, it’s hard to say if it would actually be worth it for the Lakers.

What does this all mean?

Westbrook’s renaissance production dispels the notion that this season would be his last, even though it was realistic to say just a couple of months ago.

Westbrook still brings value to a team, especially in a secondary creation role off the bench. Once his contract is up, someone will be willing to take a flyer on him like the Clippers did with John Wall.

As for the Lakers, Westbrook’s new bench role still proves that a) L.A. should’ve never acquired him and b) the team is inherently flawed.

There’s no telling what could happen in the next couple of weeks for the Lakers. If everything trends downhill, maybe L.A. would be willing to trade Westbrook and/or Davis for as much value as possible. Maybe the Lakers do double down on just trying to sneak into the playoffs.

There’s still plenty of time left this season, and a lot more basketball to be played. The prospects of a Lakers’ bounce-back campaign are fading fast.

But out of darkness comes a glimmer of hope. Westbrook’s resurgence can maybe be the spark that reignites the Lakers moving forward.

As always with L.A., who knows what’s going to happen with the team at this point?


About Dominic Chiappone

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