Lakers

Westbrook’s Legacy Faces Critical Boom or Doom Season

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All good things must come to an end.

That’s the most accurate way to describe the productive but historically controversial NBA career of Russell Westbrook.

The Lakers face a difficult path forward to contending this upcoming season. 

Los Angeles is coming off an injury-riddled and inconsistent year. LeBron James is running out of fuel on the basketball odometer and Anthony Davis’ play disappointed. The team made minimal upgrades in the offseason, and there are few ways to improve the roster.

There’s plenty of blame to go around for the Lakers’ disastrous 2021-2022 campaign. But it’s not hard to believe Westbrook’s subpar season and poor fit with the team played a big role in L.A.’s struggles.

Westbrook’s ball dominance overlapped with LeBron and AD. Throughout the season, he was turnover prone and inefficient. Without the ball, teams would sag off and dare him to take jumpers. Statistically, he put up decent numbers, but his impact to help the Lakers win was nonexistent.

The NBA community has heard this story before with Westbrook. Every team that took a chance on him quickly dumped him to another franchise immediately in the next offseason. Since 2019, Westbrook has played for four different teams in the last four seasons. 

From a historical perspective, it’s unfathomable to see how fast Westbrook has fallen from basketball grace. In 2017, Westbrook submitted one of the best point-guard seasons in league history. Now, there’s a possibility he could be out of the league in the near future.

Considering his individual dominance just a few years ago, Russell Westbrook’s waning play in recent seasons comes as a shock. 

Then again, we’ve seen this in NBA history before. Tracy McGrady, Isiah Thomas, David Thompson, Bill Walton, Allen Iverson, Kevin Johnson. The list goes on and on. Sometimes, the NBA’s best of the best have nothing left to give.

Westbrook might be at that point.

If so, his NBA career is nothing short of interesting to analyze.

Westbrook By the Numbers

Westbrook’s case as one of the best guards ever all lies in his statistical production.

For starters, his 2016-17 season ranks as one of the best MVP campaigns ever.

Westbrook became the first player to average a triple-double in a season since Oscar Robertson in 1962. He also became the first to do so for two and three-straight seasons.

Additionally, you can’t discount how underwhelming the Thunder roster was in 2017. Taj Gibson was the fifth-highest scorer on the team. Westbrook averaged nearly 16 points more than the next-best scorer (Victor Oladipo). Westbrook averaged 10.4 assists per game, but no other player on the team averaged more than 2.6 assists on the season.

Only three players have averaged 30 points and 10 assists for a season: Westbrook, Robertson and Tiny Archibald. Archibald played in a diluted era as the NBA was losing talent to the ABA. Robertson’s numbers are inflated because of the high shot attempts, rebounds and juiced pace. 

However, Westbrook’s season doesn’t really coincide with a historical asterisk of any kind.

Whether with or without Kevin Durant, his production was superb for the Thunder at his apex:

  • Russell Westbrook (2011-2016; Durant on team): 23.7 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 8.0 APG, 1.9 SPG, 44% FG, 31% 3PT, 82% FT
  • Russell Westbrook (2017-2019; Durant not on team): 26.8 PPG, 10.6 RPG, 10.4 APG, 1.8 SPG, 43% FG, 32% 3PT, 77% FT

But as Mark Twain famously said: “there are three types of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” 

And unfortunately, Westbrook’s stats sugarcoat his inability to be a winning player.

Great Stats, Terrible Team Success

Westbrook’s individual performance has never really translated to deep playoff runs. This is especially true when Durant left the Thunder in the 2016 offseason.

Westbrook is a high-volume, low-efficiency scorer who’s turnover prone and a net-negative on the defensive end. He’s averaged four turnovers per game in his playoff career. In 111 postseason games, Westbrook has shot 41% from the field and under 30% from three. 

Even with Durant, Westbrook’s inefficiency hindered the Thunder’s ceiling as a contender. 

But without Durant, Westbrook’s postseason resume is straight-up disastrous.

Between 2018 and 2021, Westbrook shot under 39% on almost 21 shots per game in the playoffs, including 30% from three on over five attempts a game. Westbrook has the highest turnover average in NBA history and the ninth-highest in NBA playoff history. 

Even worse: with Westbrook as the franchise star in OKC, he lost to inferior teams in back-to-back playoffs.

In 2018, the Thunder lost to the Jazz, when Donovan Mitchell was only a rookie. Westbrook shot below 40% from the field and averaged over five turnovers per game.

Then, OKC was embarrassed by Portland in 2019. Westbrook averaged a triple-double for the season, Paul George placed third in MVP voting, and the team was functionally deep.

But instead of making a deep playoff run, Damian Lillard trounced the Thunder in five quick games.

2019 First Round: Portland vs. Oklahoma City 

  • Lillard: 33.0 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 6.0 APG, 46% FG, 48% 3PT, 2.4 SPG
  • Westbrook: 22.8 PPG, 8.8 RPG, 10.6 APG, 36% FG, 32% 3PT, 1.0 SPG

Can you win a title when your best player misses over 60% of his shots in the playoffs, turns the ball over constantly, plays unreliable defense, and fails to adjust his game in the postseason? If he’s your second star, there’s a slight chance.

But, as your number-one option, absolutely not.

Westbrook’s Murky Future in the NBA

Currently, Westbrook is a poor fit on any NBA roster.

Why? Because he has failed to adapt his game as he ages out of his prime. 2022 Russell Westbrook plays identically as he did in 2017, even as his performance, athleticism and abilities will continue to wane.

Even with the Rockets in 2020, who played super-small-ball to better integrate Westbrook into the team, he flamed out after one season. As the NBA changes, Westbrook remains exactly the same.

Westbrook’s inability to shift into a smaller role diminishes his value to any true contender. His poor play with the Lakers demonstrated his struggles to adapt with other ball-dominant stars.

Additionally, Russell Westbrook’s contract is a handful for any team to acquire. He will make over $47 million this season. The Lakers would have to attach multiple first-rounders to get off his contract. Any team acquiring him needs to have enough cap space or send enough players back to make the money work.

Recently, Westbrook was rumored to be shipped to the Pacers. His name has also been floated with Brooklyn amid Kevin Durant’s trade request and the Lakers looking to acquire Kyrie Irving.

For now, any trade appears to be on standby, which means Westbrook remains a Laker for the immediate future.

But this begs the question: will the Lakers just send him home? His fit was clearly horrible last season. You would think L.A. wouldn’t want to run the Westbrook-LeBron-AD trio again. There’s a decent possibility the Lakers would rather take their chances without Westbrook this season.

Yet, from a historical perspective, it’s crazy to think that one of the best guards in NBA history might just be done being an effective contributor. 

Westbrook’s Legacy Moving Forward

There’s still time for Westbrook to turn his NBA career around, however.

He needs to adapt his game. There’s no way to sugarcoat it. He’s not the same player that he was with the Thunder. Westbrook must be willing to accept a smaller role on offense, fewer touches, and potentially a bench role.

On the court, Westbrook needs to improve off the ball. He could be an excellent cutter and off-the-ball screener. On defense, Westbrook needs to gamble less and maximize his athleticism.

The NBA community has been preaching this for years, though. And yet again, Westbrook chooses to stay the same. Even at the expense of his legacy, impact on the court, and success of his team.

Westbrook can’t afford to be traded to another team. If dealt, nothing will stand out more than “played for five different teams in five-straight seasons.” Even if he’s moved, he might just be cut from the roster. Rumored destinations like Indiana or San Antonio aren’t looking to keep Russ for the season amidst a rebuild.

It’s now or never for Russell Westbrook to turn his legacy around. If it doesn’t happen this season, his NBA career might be over. For being one of the NBA’s most statistically accomplished players ever, that would be a sad way to walk away from the league. 

Then again, we’ve seen this in NBA history before. Who says it can’t happen again?

About Dominic Chiappone

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