In hopes of keeping their championship window open, the Los Angeles Lakers bet their chips on something that has become familiar both for better and for worse with this franchise.
They landed another star player that should appeal both to the Hollywood crowd and to the native Angelenos. That star player could also provide plenty of drama with his incredible performances, glaring weaknesses and unpredictable personality.
That leaves the Lakers with a question they will have to answer throughout the 2021-22 season. By acquiring Russell Westbrook in a trade from the Washington Wizards, did they land another star that will help them return to championship glory after last season’s first-round exit? Or did they land another star that could become combustible with their other star players?
The Lakers cannot comment on this deal that included sending Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell and the No. 22 pick to the Wizards until it is official. But through their actions, the Lakers spoke loudly enough.
They appear convinced that LeBron James and Anthony Davis need Westbrook’s All-Star playmaking, toughness and durability to ease the burden on their health and workload. They appear skeptical that an upgrade in role players could fulfill the same job description. They appear optimistic that James, Davis and Westbrook can determine the team’s pecking order without much fuss. They appear undeterred that leaves them vulnerable with depth, 3-point shooting and defense.
Will the Lakers’ gamble yield their 17th championship? Or did they just overplay their hand at the poker table? It’s uncertain if this gamble will yield championship riches, but the Lakers had no other choice but to go all in.
As the Lakers learned the hard way last season, they did not have the correct supporting cast to help them defend an NBA title. That would not have changed even if the Lakers had time to recharge both from a compressed season and for James and Davis to become healthy. Unfortunately, they did not have many tools to upgrade the roster. They had the No. 22 pick in the draft, which would yield a decent young player that would take years to develop. They have a mid-level exception, which would yield a player that would make marginal impact.
So the Lakers acquired a player that became a UCLA legend and a nine-time All-Star for a reason. Westbrook can help the Lakers play at a fast pace as if he were Magic Johnson. Westbrook can raise the Lakers’ intensity as if he were Kobe Bryant. And Westbrook can post triple doubles by the game as if he were Oscar Robertson.
As for the concerns surrounding Westbrook? Sure, Westbrook has joined his fourth NBA team after being traded three times in the past two years. Sure, Westbrook has had varying degrees of challenges co-existing with other star players in Oklahoma City (Kevin Durant, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony), Houston (James Harden) and Washington (Bradley Beal). Who’s to say that Westbrook won’t have clashes with James and Davis?
It’s naïve to think none of those three will face adjustments. As much as James will welcome Westbrook handling the ball to reduce the workload on his soon-to-be 37-year-old body, James will become frustrated at times with how Westbrook runs the offense. As much as Davis will welcome Westbrook’s presence so that he can operate easier inside, Davis will become annoyed at times when Westbrook passes him up for his own shot. And as much as Westbrook will welcome the star presence around him, he might at times bristle at playing the third option.
But in fairness to Westbrook, his short stints in Houston and Washington had less to do with co-existing with a star player and more to do with circumstances.
Westbrook and Harden coincided mostly well. Harden assumed ball-handling duties in half-court sets that often ended in isolation 3-pointers. Westbrook took care of ball handling duties after grabbing a rebound and then running in transition. The Rockets’ second-round exit had more to do with the Lakers’ star power and Westbrook’s rustiness from missing four seeding games and four playoff games after straining his right quad. Though Westbrook took issue with Harden’s more lax attitude toward practice, they still mostly co-existed just fine in the actual games. As for Washington? The Wizards’ struggles had mostly to do with countless absences stemmed from injuries and the league’s health and safety protocols. The Wizards still made the playoffs because Westbrook became a triple double machine.
Westbrook won’t have to worry about chemistry issues between James and Davis. Both players formed a tight bond partly because neither player fretted about their individual games. Both players cemented a culture centered on team closeness and serious preparation. And both players welcomed criticism from teammates and the coaching staff. Because of that culture, Westbrook’s intensity will fit right in.
Therefore, the potential hiccups among the Lakers’ three stars seem far more correctible than what the Lakers faced last year with finding the correct role players to help James and Davis. After showing some regular-season promise and postseason failure, Dennis Schroder won’t have as much sway in obliging the Lakers into signing him to an expensive deal just so they can execute a sign-and-trade.
Sure, this still leaves the Lakers vulnerable. They acquired Westbrook at the expense of a decent young player (Kuzma), a dependable outside shooter and defender (Caldwell-Pope) and a dominant pick-and-roll big man (Harrell). But let’s be real about the Lakers’ former role players. Because of the amount of attention James and Davis rightfully commanded, Kuzma would have never fully blossomed until he went to another team. The Lakers will miss Caldwell Pope’s consistent play, but they can land similar players on veteran’s minimum deals. And amid frustrations over his lack of playing time because of his defensive limitations, Harrell exercised his player option in hopes that the Lakers would deal him in a trade.
Will this be enough to win the NBA title? Who knows. The Brooklyn Nets’ own Big 3 in Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Harden are expected to be healthy. The Philadelphia 76ers remain determined to find the right deal for Ben Simmons. Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo and his strong supporting cast are a threat to repeat. As for the Western Conference? The Suns could return to the NBA Finals so long as Chris Paul stays while Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton develop. The Golden State Warriors, Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz are expected to be healthier, too.
But the Lakers are right back in the hunt after landing Westbrook. The Lakers’ three stars might spend next season adjusting with how to play with one ball. But by next April, May and June, it should surprise no one if James, Davis and Westbrook figure out that puzzle.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Russell Westbrook can coexist with LeBron James and Anthony Davis