Friday, January 28 2022

Regardless of how Russell Westbrook came to be a Los Angeles Laker, the fundamental motivation behind the trade boiled down to two sets of numbers. 

  • LeBron James has played 5,979 regular-season minutes as a Laker, and the Lakers have outscored their opponents by 860 points in that time. He has spent 5,323 minutes in that span either on the bench or out due to injury, and the Lakers have been outscored in those minutes by 386 points. Both the Cavaliers (2,297 points better with James on the floor than off of it from 2015-2018) and Heat (2,402 points better with James on the floor than off of it from 2011-2014) experienced similar swings. 
  • The Lakers are 112-61 in regular-season games that James has played in and 24-37 in games James has missed. The Cavaliers went 4-23 without James in his second Cleveland stint and 10-16 in his first. Even the vaunted Miami Heat machine couldn’t muster a record above .500 without him as they went 9-9. 

All of this paints a fairly straightforward picture. Teams that have LeBron James tend to be great with LeBron James. Teams that have LeBron James tend to be miserable without LeBron James. You might say this is true of most superstars, but think of the talent that typically surrounds James. Cleveland got decimated even with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love playing without LeBron. Miami barely held its own with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. His influence on a team’s playing style is so enormous that even the NBA‘s best players struggle to toggle between Jamesball and basketball. 

The Lakers experienced this firsthand over the past two seasons. The 2019-20 supporting cast, even if not exactly by choice, emphasized shooting and defense. That structure’s primary advantage was supporting James while he was on the court, and even if the Lakers suffered in the relatively few minutes they spent without him, the core group was so strong with him in the game that they managed to win a championship. The 2020-21 roster was designed less for the minutes James played and more for the minutes he missed. Dennis Schroder and Montrezl Harrell were supposed to lift the offense in James-less minutes. The idea was that the Lakers could not only rest James more within games without fear of getting dominated in those minutes, but that they could freely sit him out of more games knowing that they wouldn’t necessarily be guaranteed to lose all of them. Keeping James healthy for the most important games was ultimately what counted. The plan failed. James did miss games. Schroder and Harrell couldn’t compensate for that. The fit was messy even when everyone was available. 

That left the Lakers with a choice to make this past offseason. They could revert back to the 2020 formula by trading for Buddy Hield, and in the process, saving enough against the luxury tax to retain Alex Caruso and some other departed role players. Or, they could double down on the 2021 formula by taking it to a new extreme. Instead of two good role players meant to lift the James-less offense, they opted for a star in Westbrook. His fit with James was even harder to fathom given his ball dominance and shooting woes, but given his age and the injuries LeBron had endured in his first three seasons in purple and gold, the Lakers chose the latter. They chose to maximize their chances of having a healthy LeBron in the playoffs rather than maximizing their upside with a healthy LeBron in the playoffs. 

Of course, all of this necessitates actually getting to the playoffs. This was one of the chief theoretical benefits of adding Westbrook. When James needed to sit with injuries like, say, abdominal strains, the Lakers felt as though he would be enough to carry them to enough wins that they wouldn’t have to rush their best player back onto the floor. LeBron’s current absence is, in that sense, exactly what the Lakers acquired Westbrook for. 

That’s what makes two losses to an Oklahoma City Thunder team that is currently winless against all opponents except for the Lakers so discouraging. The Lakers acquired Westbrook for these exact moments. So much of his value was supposed to come in winning games like these on random regular-season Tuesday nights so James could rest and stay healthy for the postseason. Yet in two games against the NBA’s worst team, the Lakers have blown 26-point and 19-point leads for two of the worst losses of the season. You can only rack up so many of those before playoff positioning, especially in a world with the play-in round, becomes genuinely distressing. 

James is expected to miss at least a week. Anthony Davis is currently questionable for Saturday’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers with a sprained right thumb. Trevor Ariza, Kendrick Nunn and Talen Horton-Tucker are still out. The Lakers surely couldn’t have planned for this degree of poor health so early in the season, but the standings aren’t forgiving to poor circumstances. Every loss the Lakers rack up now counts just as much as one they accumulate at full strength. Westbrook is the last healthy star standing. If the Lakers are going to make it through James’ absence without rushing him back and risking further injury, they’re going to need him to carry them to some wins. 

Doing so now is going to prove critical as the season progresses. The Lakers opened with the season with one of the easier schedules in recent memory. Seven of their first nine games were at home, and after Saturday’s game in Portland, so are their next five. Three of the four opponents the Lakers are slated to face in the next week are at .500 or below. Even with a depleted supporting cast, these are games that the Lakers have to be able to win. The schedule won’t be so forgiving down the line when the Lakers start to play more road games against contenders. The Lakers knew that Westbrook’s fit alongside James would be awkward. They bet on him anyway in part because of what they knew he could be without him. Now it’s time for him to prove it. 



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