The Lakers’ Russell Westbrook Problem

For the past few seasons, it has become an annual event at some point around the All-Star break to point out the problems that Russell Westbrook has caused for his teams.

In 2019, the question was whether Westbrook could finally break out of his “the best you’re going to get out of this guy is 48 wins and a first-round playoff exit” problem in the absence of Kevin Durant. The Oklahoma City Thunder stood at 26-18 on Jan. 17 after a loss to the Lakers, and while they would win 11 of their next 12 contests to go to 37-19, the criticism proved almost perfectly valid as the Thunder finished 49-33 and lost in five games to Portland in the first round of the 2019 playoffs.

In 2020, before COVID ruined everything, the Rockets stood at 26-16 on Jan. 20, but questions swirled around the team about whether James Harden and Westbrook could share the same backcourt without the latter’s gunning for counting stats impacting the former’s ability to put up the superstar numbers around which the Rockets’ frequent Western Conference Finals appearances had hinged during their rivalry with the Warriors over the previous five seasons.

As it turned out, the answer was “badly”; while they beat the Thunder in the first round in seven games, Houston was handily knocked out by the eventual champion Lakers in five in Round 2.

In 2021, Westbrook’s counting stats were stellar but his advanced stats had fallen through the floor, prompting me on this very site to sit in baffled bewilderment at how a guy who was averaging a triple-double could post .036 WS/48 on a terrible Wizards team. Washington started the season 3-8 before a lengthy hiatus in their schedule brought on by a COVID scare (a common-enough occurrence during that weird 2021 season…and so far in 2022, for that matter) and ended up bottoming out at 17-32 before inexplicably going 17-6 the rest of the way to sneak into the play-in games and earn the right to get smoked by the Sixers in five games in the first round.

The bright side? At least Westbrook salvaged that WS/48 number a bit, even though he finished at .075 WS/48, the worst he’d put up since his rookie year way back in 2009.

Russell Westbrook

Now, in 2022, coach Frank Vogel of the Lakers benched Westbrook in crunch time during the Lakers’ seven-point loss to the Indiana Pacers on Jan. 19, a loss that just happened to be to a team that had lost 10 out of 11 contests heading into that game including four in a row.

When your coach trusts Austin Reaves, a rookie undrafted free agent making less than a million dollars ($925,258 according to Basketball Reference), over you in crunch time, that’s about as low as you can fall as a 9-time All-Star, former MVP, and member of the NBA’s 75th Anniversary team who is still only 33 years old and making $44.2 million in the fourth year of a five-year supermax deal.

And sure, the Lakers have built a brand out of washed-up former stars (although to be fair to Carmelo Anthony, his advanced stats have been solid this year, especially considering he’s on a one-year veteran-minimum contract) lately. But benched for a UDFA in a close game against a bad team? Yikes.

Westbrook leads the Lakers in minutes, and it’s not close—he has played 1,606 minutes this season, while due to injury and load management, LeBron James is at 1,245 and Anthony Davis at just 955.

Yet Westbrook has, once again, put up gaudy counting stats (18.5 points, 7.8 assists, and 8.0 rebounds) while shooting the ball poorly. His .466 eFG% is ninth-worst among the 138 players with at least 1,000 minutes played. Only five players have attempted more shots than Westbrook’s 743; all are better shooters, and only Jayson Tatum (.476) has an eFG% under .500.

Westbrook has also lost his defensive ability almost completely, posting a negative DBPM. Without his defense to prop up his Win Shares, he is once again at nearly the level he was at as a rookie, posting just a .041 WS/48 number.

And again, he is by far the Lakers’ biggest consumer of minutes. Not only that, he is the biggest consumer of minutes in the entire league, leading the NBA in that stat with his 1,606. He’s tied for 12th in minutes per game with 43.9. LeBron plays 36.6 minutes per game when he’s healthy, but he’s missed 12 contests this year and continues to be listed as day-to-day on the injury report.

So the Lakers are giving the most raw minutes of anyone in the entire league to a guy who, if everyone else on the team contributed win shares like he did, would be expected to go 17-65 in an 82-game season (.041 WS/48 x 82 games x 5 guys on the team.)

If you’ve got a starter playing 35 minutes a game and you want to be a 50-win team with a genuine chance to make a Finals run, you’re going to want at least 8 WS out of a guy who’s playing all 82 games and pulling down max-contract money. For example, on the 2018 Cavs, LeBron had 14 WS in 82 games and Kevin Love had 6.7 in 59 games (9.3 per 82.) The previous season, on a 51-win team that romped through the East playoffs, Kyrie Irving had 8.9 WS, Tristan Thompson had 7.3, and Love posted 6.4 WS in just 60 games played (8.7 per 82, rounded to one decimal place.)

You see where this is going. Highly-paid players on good teams have that expectation on them to be leaders in the most basic of all advanced stats in terms of a ratio of the stat to team wins (for WS it’s almost exactly 1:1.)

All that having been said, Westbrook has just 1.4 WS. That’s 2.5 WS per 82 games. If we look at that 2017 Cavs team again, the one that had the three guys already mentioned—Irving with 8.9 WS, Thompson with 7.3, and Love with 6.4, while LeBron posted 12.9 WS that year—you know who put up 2.5 WS or somewhere thereabouts when adjusted to 82 games?

Iman Shumpert (2.0 WS, 76 games), Richard Jefferson (2.1 WS, 79 games), and Deron Williams (0.6 WS in 24 games after coming over from Dallas in what would be the final season of his career.)

Or let’s try this from another angle. Westbrook’s WS/48 stands at .041. Among all 183 qualifiers for rate stats on Basketball Reference’s leaderboard (a leaderboard topped by the likes of Nikola Jokic, Rudy Gobert, and Giannis Antetokounmpo), Westbrook ranks 172nd, as in 12th-worst.

You know who’s in his neighborhood, and by that I mean the six other guys with WS/48 between .041 and .043? From best to worst, RJ Barrett, Luguenz Dort, Gary Harris, Garrett Temple, Jaden McDaniels, and Saddiq Bey.

Other than Barrett, whose Knicks are 22-24 and have some chance of making something of themselves if they can get it together and make a run, the other five guys on that list are there because the rules say their teams have to run five guys out there at once and they’re the only options available.

That’s the kind of player Westbrook is.

The Lakers are a win-now, veteran team that came into this season with the full expectation of contending for a title. What they’ve become, and what Vogel recognized on Wednesday when he benched Westbrook in the fourth quarter, is a team weighed down by a guy for whom everyone but he knows is washed up and who is, statistically speaking, taking a 50-win team and singlehandedly throwing a 17-win team’s minutes out there and dragging down its average accordingly.

The Lakers don’t just need to bench Westbrook. They need to trade him or possibly even cut him if they’re to have any chance of salvaging this season.