Westbrook Trade Signals End of Tumultuous Tenure with Lakers


“You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

Harvey Dent couldn’t have said it any better when describing the rise and fall of Russell Westbrook‘s NBA legacy.

Like Two-Face, you clearly see two sides either defending or annihilating Westbrook’s career. One side points to his statistical resume, unprecedented counting-stat accumulation, and moments of total dominance in Oklahoma City. Meanwhile, the anti-Westbrook camp focuses on his limitations, limited playoff resume, and a restricted upside with him on your franchise at this point in his career.

Westbrook faced a breaking point to begin this season, needing to take a back seat given his offensive limitations and liability as a defender. Even with other problems plaguing the Lakers, his 2021-2022 decimated L.A. right from the beginning.

And now, after 11 seasons with the Thunder, Westbrook sees himself joining his fourth new team in four seasons dating back to the 2020 season.

It’s a unique fall from grace, something rarely seen for a player as defiant, productive and well-known as Westbrook. For the NBA history nerds out there, it’s another confusing detail in Westbrook’s Dr. Jekyll and My. Hyde-like NBA career.

Simply put, it’s another wrench thrown into one of the most complex NBA legacies to analyze for a superstar of Westbrook’s caliber.

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Doomed from the start in L.A.

Ironically, the Lakers dealt Westbrook to Utah to acquire what they used to get him in the first place: quality depth.

In 2020 and 2021, L.A. relied heavily on having a two-way, versatile supporting cast that could provide quality regular season minutes without much downside in a postseason context. The Lakers acquired Westbrook in July 2021 by trading Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell, the 22nd pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, and two-second round picks.

(Keep in mind Westbrook jumped ship to both Houston and Washington in back-to-back seasons before heading to the Lakers. Within a year, each franchise quickly flipped him the season after acquiring him. Just saying.).

The move failed on multiple fronts, from Westbrook’s enormous two-year contract worth over $91 million to his questionable fit next to LeBron James and Anthony Davis. The Lakers finished with its worst record (33-49) since the 2016-17 season in Westbrook’s first season in L.A.

From a statistical perspective, Westbrook’s tenure with the Lakers ranks as some of his career worse. This season, he’s dealing with career or near-career lows across the board:

Westbrook’s 2022-2023 season by the numbers

  • Minutes per game: 28.7, lowest in career
  • Points per game: 15.9, lowest since 2008-2009 (age-20 season)
  • Field-goal attempts per game: 14.0, lowest since 2009-2010 (age-21 season)
  • Field-goal percentage: 41.7%, lowest since 2009-2010 (age-21 season)
  • Three-point percentage: 29.6%, lowest since 2019-2020 (age-31 season)
  • Free-throw attempts per game: 4.6, lowest in career
  • Free-throw percentage: 65.5%, lowest in career

Even with Westbrook embracing a bench role, the Lakers continued to struggle this season. Worse off, L.A. struggled with chemistry concerns up until the trade deadline from the preseason to the day James broke the NBA’s all-time scoring record just a few days ago.

Translation: the Lakers fell flat on its face by getting Westbrook.

A complex legacy

What makes Westbrook’s NBA resume difficult to comprehend?

During the preseason, The Lead broke down Westbrook’s career in full detail. That won’t be fully rehashed here, but there are three main elements to consider here:

  1. Weighing counting stats versus playoff contributions
  2. Skill set, looking at all of the good, bad and ugly
  3. Determining his ceiling as a franchise player

Obviously, Westbrook’s statistical output is impressive: two-time league scoring leader, three-time league assist leader, and three-straight seasons averaging a triple-double (only Oscar Robertson achieved that feat just in 1961-1962). Between 2011 and 2021, Westbrook averaged 24.7 points, 7.9 rebounds, 9.0 assists and 1.8 steals per game.

Yet, he profiles as the ultimate floor-raiser, ceiling-crasher superstar. Statistically, the shooting splits are bad for a primary creator with under 44% from the field and around 30% from three for his career. He averages over four turnovers per game, never having an effective field-goal percentage higher than 49.3% (2019-2020, when Houston embraced a five-out, small-ball system to give Westbrook the absolute best lineup to maximize his offense).

There are also the numerous playoff disappointments, both from an individual front (40.8% from the field and 29.6% from three in 111 career postseason games) and from a team one (Westbrook’s teams are 10-23 in the postseason since 2016-17 with four first-round exits).

Sure, Westbrook as your best player guarantees you 35-45 regular-season wins. But in the postseason, the ceiling isn’t too high for a turnover-prone, inefficient scorer.

What comes next?

More specifically, is there a “what-comes-next scenario?”

Given Westbrook’s age (currently in his age-34 season) and declining performance, there isn’t an obvious destination. He profiles as a poor fit on most teams, and that remains the case with the All-Star break looming. Point guards tend to decline fast except for the John Stockton‘s and Chris Paul‘s of the world.

As of now, Westbrook remains on the Jazz roster, with a buyout between him and the franchise unclear. The Bulls, Clippers, and Heat are reportedly expressing interest.

Yet, it’s a weird ending for a career, right? Sooner before we know it, isn’t crazy to think Westbrook might just be done as a semi-valuable contributor. It’s reminiscent of Allen Iverson, a statistical machine who thrived for 11 seasons with Philly before ending up with three different teams in his final four years and flaming out after his age-34 season. Sometimes, that just happens in the league.

Westbrook’s career remains a polarizing one, depending on who you talk to. He’s been given plenty of chances the past couple of seasons even with declining production and effectiveness.

Moving forward, there might never be another.

About Dominic Chiappone

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