Sunday, March 26 2023
NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Phoenix Suns
Mark J. Rebilas / USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Lakers, against all odds, have found a way to maximize Russell Westbrook in the regular season. He may be a bit overrated, but he’s at least actively contributing to a Lakers team that spent an entire offseason trying to trade him. Without his playmaking, they may not have been able to stay afloat when they were without stars LeBron James and Anthony Davis. As a regular-season player, he has been solid.

But ultimately, the Lakers will judge themselves on the postseason, and that’s where the concerns surrounding Westbrook amplify. The Lakers are not immune to these concerns. According to Bleacher Report’s Eric Pincus, the Lakers have concerns about Westbrook’s viability in the postseason. Whether or not that will lead to a trade before the deadline is not clear, but these concerns should have been apparent even before they traded for him in the first place.

In the 2020 Orlando bubble, the Lakers faced Westbrook’s Houston Rockets and won largely because of the weaknesses the Lakers are now concerned about. Though Westbrook was hobbled, they aggressively doubled James Harden using Westbrook’s man knowing that Westbrook couldn’t beat them from deep. He shot 7-of-27 from 3-point range in a five-game loss to the Lakers, and he almost averaged more turnovers (4.2) than assists (5) for the series.

The same principle would apply to the Lakers this season. A frequent issue for them late in games is how opponents defend the LeBron James-Anthony Davis pick-and-roll. Knowing that Westbrook won’t beat them from deep, they’ll defend him with their center, who will simply ignore him and wait for James and Davis at the rim. That functionally allows opponents to defend the two best Lakers with three men. The team has not yet found a sustainable response.

Of course, there’s another question the Lakers need to answer before they start considering postseason viability: can they even get to the playoffs? At 23-28, they’d need to win roughly 58 percent of their remaining games just to make it to .500. Even if they can sneak into the top 10 in the Western Conference, they’d have to win at least one, if not two play-in games just for the right to face off with the No. 1 seed in the first round.

The trade deadline is nine days away. The Lakers, currently on an east coast road trip, have to use that time to prove to the front office that they’re even good enough to warrant postseason consideration. If they are, a Westbrook trade is still seemingly possible. His $47 million expiring salary, combined with one or both of their available first-round picks, could net them the sort of shooters and defenders needed for playoff viability. Otherwise, it will hardly matter whether or not they make the postseason. So long as Westbrook is a major part of this roster, it simply isn’t viable for a postseason run. 



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