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The price they paid to get him seemed steep. They gave up Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Montrezl Harrell, all young, viable role players, plus a first-round draft pick to get the nine-time All-Star.
But oddsmakers still gave the Lakers the second-best odds to win the 2022 NBA championship, behind only the Brooklyn Nets.
What followed was the most disappointing season in franchise history and possibly NBA history.
Granted, Westbrook wasn’t nearly as much to blame individually as many claimed. But, one can’t really say he had a great season or at least one as great as he is accustomed to having, either.
Westbrook didn't meet expectations
The apparent thinking behind the Westbrook trade (and it was very sound thinking, even if one wants to argue that the execution was off) was an aging LeBron James needed to lessen his workload handling the ball, making plays and scoring with the ball in his hands.
Over his 14-year career, Westbrook has been one of the game’s best at attacking in the open court, getting to the rim and finishing and hitting the open man.
Whether because of age, roster instability due to injury or a crisis of confidence, Westbrook wasn’t really Westbrook this season.
He ended up averaging 18.5 points, 7.4 rebounds and 7.1 assists per game this season, which seems reasonable, given he was playing with James.
But Westbrook’s play was up-and-down throughout the schedule.
He went through a rough stretch in January and February in which his points and assists were consistently much lower than usual. He seemed to spend a good part of the year trying to find the right balance between aggressiveness and control.
James missed 26 games this year due to injuries. It was thought Westbrook could keep the Lakers competitive without their MVP. Instead, they went 8-18 without him.
By comparison, last year, when L.A. had Dennis Schroder starting at the point, it went 12-15 without James — and in most of those games, Anthony Davis was also out.
Lakers fans were hoping Westbrook would raise the floor of the team, which a third star is supposed to do. He didn’t do so, and it was at least partly due to his many flaws.
Westbrook and his faults
The three weaknesses of Westbrook fans were concerned about were outside shooting, turnovers and defense.
His outside shooting never improved as a Laker. He made 29.8% of his 3-pointers on the year, which is slightly below his 30.5% career average.
On a number of occasions, Westbrook not only missed perimeter shots badly, but he also didn’t even hit the rim.
Laker fans are booing Russell Westbrook after this awful miss 😳 pic.twitter.com/yOrAtlB5EA
— NBACentral (@TheNBACentral) February 6, 2022
At times this season, he also had problems making layups, which was mysterious given how deadly he has historically been at slashing to the hoop and finishing.
But what seemed to infuriate Lakers fans even more was Westbrook’s indifference or inattention on the defensive end.
Some have accused him of ignoring his defensive responsibilities to grab more rebounds so he could pad his stats and get more triple-doubles.
Russell Westbrook doesn't contest three pointers, his teammates help him grab rebounds, & takes breaks on defense to get triple doubles. pic.twitter.com/KYkXEXxdZM
— Basketball Forever (@Bballforeverfb) April 1, 2017
According to NBA.com, with Westbrook on the floor, L.A. had a 111.5 defensive rating. Without him, its defensive rating was 111.0.
While he wasn’t fully to blame for the team’s defensive problems, it was clearly (slightly) better off without him on that end of the floor.
Then there’s the matter of Westbrook reportedly not being receptive to feedback from coaches and teammates, something that has been well-documented.
But Westbrook does deserve credit for cutting down his turnovers, something that had troubled him for several years. He averaged 3.8 turnovers a game on the season, compared to 4.8 last year. He hadn’t averaged so few turnovers since the 2013-14 season.
In fact, in the last 40 games of the schedule, Westbrook averaged 2.9 turnovers per game, which is outstanding for anyone, but especially for a high-usage player like him.
In defense of Westbrook
Despite his multiple flaws and weaknesses, a lot of what went wrong with the Lakers this season wasn’t really Westbrook’s fault.
Did he hurt the team, at times, with his bad outside shooting and defense? Yes.
Because Westbrook was the new guy and because of his seemingly prickly personality, it was too easy to make him the team’s scapegoat.
Off the court, Westbrook, by all accounts, is a wonderful human being with a good soul. He has done plenty for the African-American community, and he even produced a documentary about the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, an incident that had been hidden from the consciousness of white Americans until recently.
But from the perspective of Lakers fans, all that goodwill had seemingly been erased by one terrible season of team basketball.
Toward the end of the season, however, Westbrook proved he can still be a valuable player, even though he’s a tough fit.
It started with a clutch 3-pointer that forced overtime versus the Toronto Raptors and atoned for a mistake he had just made.
RUSSELL WESTBROOK CLUTCH!!!
— Hoop Central (@TheHoopCentral) March 19, 2022
That was the start of a 10-game stretch that ended the season in which Westbrook put up 22.2 points a game on 52.1% overall shooting and 41.5% shooting from downtown, plus 7.4 rebounds, 7.1 assists and just 3.4 turnovers per game.
The Lakers will look to trade him this offseason, and hopefully, that stretch has reminded the rest of the league he’s still a very good player.
The only way to properly grade Westbrook is for one to distance themself from emotion.
Perhaps he didn’t help the team, at least not nearly as much as some projected, but did he really hurt the team that much?
The real blame needs to go to who and what the Lakers gave up to get him, plus the $47 million he is owed for next season that would make it very difficult for them to field a good team if he were to stay.
Final grade: B-minus