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The Lakers Are Still Figuring Out What It Means to Let Westbrook Be Westbrook

We’re just a week into the NBA’s most interesting experiment, and so far, this thing has everything: the seduction of good Russell Westbrook, and the spiral of Westbrick. Lobs, turnovers, limping stars. Anthony Davis and Westbrook connecting; Anthony Davis and Westbrook colliding. We even got a bench scuffle between Dwight Howard and Davis. All told, the Lakers have two losses and, mercifully, one victory, right in time to cut the tension but not before we were reminded of just how much malleability will be required.

Frank Vogel has preached a growth mindset since taking over as Lakers head coach two seasons ago—about enduring the discomfort of early failure, and watching yourself do things you couldn’t have imagined before. This is how the Lakers built a championship offense that thrived on paint touches, post-ups, and offensive rebounds when the rest of the NBA was leaning on pace and space.

The arrival of Westbrook will test Vogel’s mantra. Historically reticent to change, Westbrook is as powerful and one-dimensional as a hammer, and you know what they say about hammers and nails. The Lakers want to let Westbrook be Westbrook, but championship teams are built on adaptability. Static entities do not last long in the playoffs.

Westbrook may never reconfigure his approach, but in just three games, the Lakers have already started adapting to make him more comfortable. After Westbrook straggled on opening night, the Lakers’ offense has intentionally revolved more around their new point guard. He burst through the floodgates in the next two games, against Phoenix and Memphis, gobbling up boards, pushing the ball in transition, and feeding DeAndre Jordan for lob after lob even as every other offensive option was starved for spacing.

But the more the Lakers hand the keys to Westbrook, the more confined they are to the perils of living and dying with his waxing and waning efficiency. Role players like Malik Monk and Kent Bazemore are streaky by nature, but Vogel can count on LeBron James and Davis to combine for 50 points. Westbrook doesn’t offer the same steadiness. He is the rare superstar who lacks consistency, picking up automatic triple-doubles and slinging kamikaze passes out of bounds in the same breath.

The Lakers will have to strike the right balance between ceding touches to Westbrook and forcing him to find his footing off the ball when he plays alongside LeBron. Westbrook is best suited for an X factor role—as a screener or cutter, rather than the player driving the action.

The Lakers can borrow an insight from Westbrook’s tenure with the Rockets here: The best way to help Westbrook change is to change the spacing on the floor.

Westbrook started clicking with James Harden only after Houston traded the 6-foot-10 Clint Capela, turned the 6-foot-5 P.J. Tucker into the starting center, and positioned Westbrook as an off-ball cutter. The move worked like a bath bomb, creating riptides inside the paint every time he moved, whether he touched the ball or not, and cutting his 3-point attempts to two per game in the second half of the 2019-20 regular season.

Harden maximized Westbrook’s explosiveness off the ball with his ability to see and exploit every cut his teammates make. But Westbrook reverted back to his old ways when he was traded to the Wizards and entrusted with the ball again.

For the Lakers, the best way to let Westbrook be Westbrook is to create space around him. When they take the court together, LeBron can easily slide into Harden’s playmaking role, but the Lakers are starting Jordan, a traditional center long removed from his Lob City prime, alongside Davis.

Westbrook doesn’t recognize every gap in the court the way James’s former running mate Dwyane Wade did, but in short off-ball bursts with the Lakers, he’s been a willing cutter. Westbrook’s gravity was apparent in the opening possession against the Suns, when he vaulted into open space after Davis was double-teamed in the post.

The Lakers would’ve gotten more out of that possession than an off-the-dribble jumper had Westbrook made that cut on a spaced-out court, which is indicative of another troubling pattern: When James and Westbrook have shared the court with a traditional center, James has reverted to the perimeter.

Despite that, Vogel has remained sticky about playing Davis at the 4. Perhaps he feels obligated to believe in Howard and Jordan, who both signed with the Lakers in free agency, just a little longer. Perhaps Davis, who said he expected to play more 5 this season, privately remains reticent about it. Or maybe Vogel is just terrified of the porous perimeter defense he’ll be subjected to with Carmelo Anthony at the 4. With Talen Horton-Tucker, Wayne Ellington, Kendrick Nunn, and Trevor Ariza injured, it’s understandable that Vogel would want to lean on big lineups. But even if the regular season doesn’t matter as much to the Lakers as what happens in the postseason, they’re going to want to win more games than they lose, and that will require a more sustainable frontcourt configuration.

Compare the clogged spacing against the Suns to the fourth quarter against the Grizzlies that sealed the Lakers’ first victory of the season. It started with James as the lone Big Three member, checking Westbrook out at the 10-minute mark.

Vintage LeBron, flanked by shooters with Howard ready to catch lobs in the middle, opened up Anthony and Monk for a barrage of triples. It was like the first heavy rainfall in the middle of a drought, and a reminder that the Lakers need to let LeBron be LeBron too.

In crunch time, Vogel turned his musings on the virtues of discomfort on himself and gave up on playing a 7-footer next to Davis. Westbrook and Davis checked back in at the five-minute mark of the game, and with space to operate, the Big Three opened the Grizzlies up with blistering cuts and transition jams. The apotheosis of their newfound synchronicity came with three minutes left in the game, when Westbrook set a pick for James, rolled, and found Davis cutting for a dunk. It is here that Westbrook, who started setting picks only in recent years, looks closest to the chaos-inducing bowling ball that parted seas in Houston.

So much of what the Lakers did in the final minutes of the game went against their natural preferences, but it was also the only time they had the space to leverage their explosiveness, to harness the terror and beauty of three freight trains like Davis, James, and Westbrook running in the same direction at the same time. In doing so, they convinced the Grizzlies, one of the best defensive teams in transition in the league last season, to foul in the backcourt on purpose instead of trying to handle the oncoming attacks.

Davis, James, and Westbrook are dribbling galaxies. They need open space to hang out in each other’s orbits without grinding against each other.

After the Lakers lost to the Suns, Westbrook preached patience. “Guys are figuring out how to run with me and play a little faster, and I’m figuring out how to do other things like moving off the ball and doing things that I’ve kind of got to figure out,” he told reporters. “We’re all adjusting to one another and that’s a process. It’s not going to happen in the first week of the season, and we understand that.

“I’m OK with the struggle of figuring it out and making sure that we’re putting ourselves in a position to do the right things so that ultimately at the end of the year we can be playing our best basketball.”

But reality can be more complicated. In fact, it was Davis who broke Westbrook’s nerve in the bubble, shutting his attacks down on switches until the 3-point attempts he bottled up for months finally started flying again. It’s easier to stick to new habits when your efforts are met with success. There’s no telling how this version of Westbrook, or these Lakers, would react to such a scenario. The situation is different—hell, Davis is on Westbrook’s side now—but the breaks of the game don’t change: The process of becoming a champion is fragile and tenuous, full of internal and external resistance. Every step of the way, opponents will try to goad the Lakers into the comfort of the familiar. The best antidote for the Lakers is to familiarize themselves with what makes them uncomfortable.

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