The Lakers earned their first win of the season on Monday, beating the Denver Nuggets 121-110 and avenging their loss in the Mile High City last week. LeBron James and Anthony Davis combined for 49 points, 21 rebounds, and 10 assists. But one of the key storylines from the victory was Russell Westbrook, who had 18 points, eight rebounds, and eight assists off the bench.
Have Russell Westbrook and the Lakers Figured it Out?
We Over Me
There’s no denying that Westbrook and the Lakers have been the talk of the town (mainly for the wrong reasons). However, the decision to bench Westbrook for the last two games has been magnified. He only came off the bench during his rookie year in 17 of 82 games played. The 2017 MVP, nine-time All-Star, and all-time triple-doubles leader seemed to be a shell of himself last season. However, he, like everyone else on the roster, came into this year with chips on their shoulders, as proven by GM Rob Pelinka.
After the loss to Minnesota, Westbrook reiterated his commitment to sacrifice, as quoted by ESPN’s Dave McMenamin: “I’ll sacrifice whatever it is that needs to be sacrificed — parts of my game that I’ve done for years to accommodate whatever it is that the coach needs me to do, and I’ll continue to do that.”
Head coach Darvin Ham has continuously preached a “we over me” mentality throughout the offseason. Moving someone of Russ’s caliber to the second unit was a clear example of that. As he mentioned in his press conference after a loss to the Trail Blazers—where Westbrook was benched in the final moments: “We don’t have time for people to be in their feelings.”
Ham’s Support of Westbrook
Things have trended upward since then. In the last two games, Russ has delivered 18 points, eight rebounds, and 5.5 assists per game on 41-37-64 splits. The fact that he finished Monday night’s game with the starters and received the praise that he did bodes well for his relationship with the team.
After his first win as a head coach, Ham spoke about Westbrook, saying, “I told him he’s gonna thrive…A player of [his] magnitude, for [him] to do this, it’s going to send waves, it’s going to help our team.”
He continued, “He’s helping us in so many areas coming off the bench, like scoring, rebounding, assists. He’s giving those other guys [Austin Reaves, Matt Ryan, Wenyen Gabriel] confidence. It’s tailor-made for our group, as it’s built, for him to be in that role, [to] gain his rhythm. And when Bron, AD, our starters, come on the floor, he’s in a good mood. He’s in a good mix because he’s playing and competing at a very high level.”
Can This Work Moving Forward?
Westbrook leading the second unit with James’s and Davis’s staggered minutes seems effective. Though it’s only been a couple of games, it is a telling sign of how this could look going forward.
The Lakers’ next three opponents are the New Orleans Pelicans, Utah Jazz, and Cleveland Cavaliers. In terms of points per game, their benches have scored 30.5, 44.8, and 35.3, respectively, all in 16-20 minutes a night. With the Pels and Cavs relying heavily on their starters, this could mean more opportunities for the Lakers to take advantage of the weaker opposing benches. They could also have difficulty with the red-hot Jazz, who are 6-2 to start the year, thanks in part to their strong second unit (and, of course, Lauri Markkanen).
Westbrook has always seemed the most comfortable with the ball in his hands. Having players who complement his style off the bench is critical. Reaves, Ryan, Gabriel, and other bench guys reap rewards next to Russ, who gets to play freely, find his teammates with great looks, and score within the perimeter. As Ham mentioned, once Westbrook gets into a groove, it leads to better play when he’s in with LeBron, Davis, and the other starters.
Still, there is plenty of optimism that came from Monday night’s win. It will be fun to see how the team builds on this momentum, both from their solid starting lineup and promising bench play.
Darvin Ham’s plan has made some lemonade out of lemons. For now, it appears Westbrook and the Lakers are starting to figure it out, getting back on track and making a move towards redemption.