Evidence exists that this works: For a span of 1 minute, 39 seconds, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook flashed that they can be the two-headed, turbocharging, floor-commanding, do-everything duo that motivated the Los Angeles Lakers to overhaul their roster in the offseason.
Trailing the Cleveland Cavaliers late in the second quarter on a Friday night in October, Kent Bazemore grabbed a defensive rebound and, before even putting it on the floor, flung a go-ahead pass to James, who was streaking up the middle of the court.
The 17-time All-Star caught the ball, advanced near half court with one attack dribble and zipped an outlet pass up the right wing to Westbrook, who was anticipating James’ dart near the 3-point line. The nine-time All-Star took one dribble to get into the lane, James kept sprinting and Westbrook wrapped a feed around his torso that found an airborne James for an alley-oop layup.
Three possessions later, Westbrook corralled a long defensive rebound, and James headed up the floor a couple of strides behind him. As Westbrook checked off coach Frank Vogel’s mantra, “Paint to Great,” by proceeding to the lane and drawing the attention of two Cavs defenders, James zoomed from the 3-point line to the free throw stripe. Once there, James received a shovel pass from Westbrook, barged through the open space and finished the play with a one-handed hammer dunk to tie the game just before halftime.
“It’s all about progressing and understanding the playmaker that you’re playing with. Understanding his court vision, his awareness,” James said afterward. “So, just running a lane with Russ. He’s usually out in front of the pack because of his pace, his intensity; but when you run with him, you get rewarded.”
The question is, are the Lakers built with enough defensive fortitude to generate the stops to springboard attacks for James and Westbrook? Or are their highlights against the Cavs too rare to count on? How well the Lakers can maximize their union will determine just how far this team can go.
“Their open-court chemistry has been there since Day 1,” said Vogel when asked about the sequence. “When I was talking to you guys about how good they have looked in practice, that’s what I was seeing. Those open-court situations have been really dynamic, really exciting, really fun to be a part of.”
Lakers assistant coach Phil Handy was literally there for Day 1 of James and Westbrook in August when the pair met for a joint workout under his guidance at the Yeshiva University High School gymnasium in Los Angeles.
“Just great. Great energy. They really fed off each other that first workout,” Handy told ESPN. “Two guys getting in the gym and really trying to figure out how to build their relationship and really just from a standpoint of supporting each other. It was just great energy, man.”
As footloose and fancy-free as those fast breaks have felt, the shared experience has been scarce.
Those dimes from Westbrook to James were two of his 19 assists to James in the 13 games they’ve played together so far this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. James has only assisted Westbrook nine times this season, missing out on more opportunities in part because of the 12 games James has missed because of various injuries, a suspension and a false-positive COVID-19 test.
Part of those paltry totals is surely because each player knows the other can get his own shot, so they both focus their distribution efforts elsewhere. Westbrook is averaging 8.7 assists, fourth in the league, and James is averaging 6.6, which would be 14th if he reached the minimum-games requirement.
But the meager amount also underscores another major issue facing the Lakers through the first quarter of the season: their defense isn’t where it needs to be for L.A. to play the way it needs to play to get those two going. The Lakers are 15th in defensive rating after ranking first last season and third the year before that when they won the title in Vogel’s first season at the helm.
And even when they have gotten stops, they’ve wasted too many possessions. The Lakers are 28th in turnovers per game, with Westbrook (4.6) and James (3.6) second and ninth, respectively, in the league.
Both developments — the defensive breakdowns and the turnover binges — are chiefly responsible for the lackluster start to the Lakers’ grand plan.
There’s been some improvement in that area. After coughing up six turnovers in a disheartening loss to the New York Knicks, Westbrook has only averaged 3.3 turnovers over the Lakers’ past six games, with the team logging a 4-2 record.
“We want to create more opportunities for shots at the rim, give ourselves an opportunity to score more points; but also when it comes to that, we have to be able to take care of the ball,” James said this week.
The organization’s thinking was that to maximize two great open-court players — and keep the teammates happy who signed up to surround them — L.A. would push the pace, with Westbrook as the catalyst.
“What it takes care of is shot attempts for everybody,” Lakers assistant coach David Fizdale, who was on the Miami Heat‘s staff a decade ago when James and Dwyane Wade attempted their own two-man tango, told ESPN. “You don’t have a guy very often saying, ‘Man, well, I never touched the ball.’ Well, we got 125 possessions, 130 possessions in the game. You should have.”
Beyond letting everybody eat, the strategy also is meant to organize: more instincts; less thinking. Especially when you’re talking about a team with so many new faces looking to learn a new offensive system, this keeps things simple. Said Vogel: “When the ball is outletted to Bron, Russ has got to fly. When the ball is outletted to Russ, Bron is going to fly. And that’s the best way to complement those guys.”
Fizdale remembers the growing pains that James, then 25, experienced while first playing with Wade, then 28.
“The thing that we didn’t plan on was those two were actually trying to get out of each other’s way,” Fizdale said. “And that was our early problem offensively, is, they were like, ‘OK, are you going to do this? Or should I do it?'”
James will turn 37 later this month, has won four championships and has a reported net worth north of $1 billion. Westbrook is 33 and has earned more than $250 million in NBA salary alone; he is back home in L.A. and in search of a ring.
“I think where Russ is in his career from a standpoint of being close and almost having it and not getting it and being very open to doing what’s necessary to win a title,” Fizdale said. “I think that he’s really there.”
Of course, not everyone sees Westbrook that way.
“Russ reminds me of Allen Iverson, wanting to win but wanting to win on his terms,” one Eastern Conference executive told ESPN. “If he can take a step back and win in L.A., it will validate everything else he’s done in the league.”
Westbrook, when informed of the Iverson parallel, pushed back.
“I disagree for multiple reasons,” Westbrook told ESPN. “No. 1, I believe that I am a one-of-a-kind player, and I respect Allen and respect everything he’s done for the game, but I’m not comparable to Allen Iverson by any means. No. 2, is that I’ve been probably — I feel, myself — always trying to fit in to do the best for the betterment of the team. And I’ve always done that in my career, and I’ll continue to do that and whatever happens, happens. If we win a championship, cool. If we don’t, I’m OK with that too and life goes on.”
While Westbrook might find peace with the outcome, there is no denying the title pressure that is the backdrop for this Lakers season. Every losing streak feels longer. Every bit of funky body language is scrutinized. Every news conference sound bite is cataloged.
The Lakers’ 13-12 start to the season has already caused Vogel’s job to be questioned. They’ve cycled through 12 different starting lineups in those 25 games, the second most in the league, behind the Philadelphia 76ers. The injuries and inconsistency have led the coaching staff to put everything on the table and ponder whether they have to change their high-paced plan on the fly, sources told ESPN.
The stakes are high.
A similar dynamic existed when James first played with the Heat. But whereas the pecking order in Miami was eventually settled after the Heat lost to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 Finals and Wade told James that the team would only get as far as it could with James leading the action, it might not be so obvious in L.A. Given James’ early-season injuries, the Lakers might need Westbrook to step up and not step back.
“This isn’t the same team as I saw when I was in Miami,” Fizdale said. “This is much different, where Dwyane was a 2-guard, Russ was a point guard and he’s only known the ball. And that’s a big difference, where Dwyane had done both so it allowed LeBron to handle it a lot more, and now it’s getting Russ to have that give and take with LeBron. It’s a totally unique and new experience.”
After Westbrook had one of his strongest games of the season — 24 points and 11 assists against just four turnovers in a 117-102 win over the visiting Boston Celtics on Tuesday — it was clear how much the full Westbrook experience is being welcomed by the Lakers.
“I think at the beginning of the year, Russ was a little bit passive,” Anthony Davis said. “And we were just trying to tell him, be himself. Don’t try to be anybody else. The more you’re aggressive, the more you open up for everyone else. “
It’s hard to compare James’ partnership with Westbrook to what he went through with Wade or even how he meshed his game alongside another ball-dominant playmaker in Kyrie Irving when James returned to Cleveland in 2014.
While James’ usage rate of 29.3% this season is lower than his first season with Wade (31.5%) and his first with Irving (32.3%), suggesting James might be more apt to defer to Westbrook, that could have more to do with being a 19-year veteran and slowing down ever so slightly than it does with serving as a stamp of Westbrook approval.
A confidant of James’ once likened the four-time MVP’s outlook heading into a new season to a man with a refrigerator strapped to his back standing at the base of a mountain and expected to reach the summit.
Handy believes that James will welcome sharing the load with Westbrook.
“Just somebody that he trusts and relies on,” Handy said. “You have another guy that’s been a point guard at a high level for a long time, and that just allows LeBron to have his usage rate to where it’s not so high and doesn’t wear himself down throughout the season.”
There’s a Jekyll-and-Hyde quality to Westbrook’s game. He leads the league in clutch-time turnovers with 12, according to NBA Advanced Stats data, but he also is tops in clutch-time assists with 15, two ahead of the Phoenix Suns‘ Chris Paul.
Westbrook’s inconsistent play contributed to the Lakers developing a bad habit early in the season, coming out flat after halftime and letting opponents take control in the third quarter. Then again, he single-handedly helped L.A. overcome that weakness by averaging 10 points in the third in the past seven games. That leads the league over that span, and L.A. won six of those seven third quarters.
In early November, Westbrook followed up a four-game stretch in which he averaged 23.3 points, 6.5 assists and 3.3 turnovers, leading to a 3-1 record for L.A., with a putrid night in Portland. With James sidelined and Davis exiting early with the stomach flu, Westbrook scored just eight points on 1-for-13 shooting with six assists and six turnovers. The Lakers were blown out — trailing by as many as 34 points in the third quarter — in a performance so bad it brought on criticism about the very core of the team’s approach.
“The Lakers focus too much on the names versus the games of each person,” one prominent agent told ESPN after the loss to the Trail Blazers.
The context of the comment is, of course, that Westbrook, the MVP, gold medalist and all-time triple-doubles leader, has all the clout imaginable. But the trade L.A. stopped pursuing — for the less famous, sharp-shooting Buddy Hield of the Sacramento Kings — to change course and land Westbrook from the Washington Wizards will remain a major what-if so long as the Lakers struggle.
While Hield is having a strong season for Sacramento — his 3.6 made 3-pointers per game ranks second in the league, behind only Stephen Curry — no one would argue that Westbrook can’t do more to help a team win than Hield can. Westbrook also can do more to help a team lose too.
After the clunker in Portland, Westbrook stayed confident.
“I’m very elite at what I do, and I believe that every single night, and that’s how I need to play,” he said. “Simple as that.”
That iron will has made Westbrook the future Hall of Famer he has become.
And it’s why the Lakers’ 2021-22 season will live on the edge between greatness and disaster until James and Westbrook can prove they can build a winner together.
Denver Nuggets forward Jeff Green — one of only three players to have ever been teammates with both James and Westbrook before they joined up on the Lakers — is sure that it will work.
“Of course they’ll figure it out,” Green, who played with Westbrook in both Oklahoma City and Houston and with James in Cleveland, told ESPN. “They both understand the ins and outs about what it takes to win. They both are going to lay it on the line and do what it takes for their team to win. And that’s what I respect about them both. They are both about team.”
James, Westbrook and the Lakers are in the thick of it now. For better or for worse.
“People have never seen any player like me before,” Westbrook told ESPN. “When people do things that have never been done before, people’s first response is to point out the negatives of why it happened, how it happened. And that’s reality. That’s the world we live in. For me, that’s why I’m OK with being comfortable in doing the things I’m doing for the game and trying to win, and I can live with that.”