It didn’t take long after the Los Angeles Lakers acquired Russell Westbrook via trade for the criticism of how the team’s top three players fit together on the court to arise.
Westbrook has historically been a high-usage, ball-dominant type of superstar, which makes it curious how he can perform at his finest when LeBron James remains the best player on his new team. Factor in Anthony Davis, who when healthy plays like the best two-way big man in the NBA, and there’s a bit of a conundrum.
But elite basketball players rarely worry about “fit” as much as the media, fans, or even front offices might do. The common belief among them is they can “figure it out,” especially when their respective teams have the type of talent – and in this case, experience – to contend for an NBA championship.
The “old” label doesn’t concern them, either.
“I kind of laugh at it,” James said before doubling down: “I actually really do laugh. I’m just saying that.”
If there’s anyone who knows what it takes to make things work with a co-running mate, it’s the man who catapulted the NBA’s player empowerment era.
Entering a remarkable 19th season still atop the NBA pyramid, James was an image of a calm and composed general on Los Angeles Lakers media day. When he wasn’t explaining his thoughts on the current vaccine debates surrounding the NBA and its players, he preached the importance of hard work, patience, and camaraderie.
Los Angeles’ title defense came to a screeching halt when they were bounced out of the first round by the new reigning Western Conference champion Phoenix Suns last postseason. While it was the play of Chris Paul, Devin Booker, and company which spearheaded Phoenix’s triumph, it’s fair to wonder if the Lakers would have prevailed had they not battled the injury bug.
Both LeBron and Davis missed time during the regular season and were far from their best selves in the playoffs, but still led their adversaries 2-1 in the series. The fact that LA looked dominant when the duo was healthy might have been enough for Rob Pelinka to maintain the band, yet he tinkered by adding a former MVP whose biggest asset this coming season is perhaps just what the Lakers need to retaliate.
“His energy, his pace, you watch how he gets down the floor. It’s the same thing here a couple years ago – you get the ball, we pushing. It’s the same thing with Russ, you have to run, cause he’s running,” Davis said.
“We need Russ to be Russ,” LeBron, 36, explained further. “We don’t need Russ to change for anybody, that’s why we got him. It’s our job to all help him feel comfortable in our system, and he’s going to be as dynamic as he’s always been.”
A triple-double machine, Westbrook brings elite scoring, rebounding, and passing for a playmaker his 6-foot-3 size. His defense isn’t as impactful as it once was, but his ability to spark fastbreaks for easy scoring opportunities at 32-years-old remains elite.
The homecoming of the former UCLA Bruin sounds like the shot in the arm required for a Lakers team that will have the oldest average age this NBA season.
Davis, who called Russ an “elite lob passer,” explained it interestingly in the context of a challenging 82-game marathon:
“When it starts getting to get game 60, game 50, it’s, ‘Alright, I need a day,’ but when you got a guy like that bringing the energy and motor, it gets you going.”
Westbrook has been criticized in the past for his shot-selection and occasional “selfish” tendencies, although the only time in his career it was truly definitive that he was the second-best player on his team was when Kevin Durant was still with the Thunder. Otherwise, he’s been the go-to guy. It’s seldom for even No. 1 options to be completely flawless.
Outside of a brief reunion with James Harden in Houston, this will be the first time Westbrook comes in as the clear-cut No. 2 on the depth chart, if not three.
Winning a title with Russ as the do-it-all main man has its obvious challenges. But in a set-up where he can focus on what he contributes best, while LeBron and AD handle the chief responsibilities of being the best players, will be fascinating to monitor.
“My job,” Westbrook said while donning his new Lakers jersey, “is to make sure to uplift Bron, AD, make sure those guys are competing at the highest level, making sure I’m making my teammates around me better.”
All about the game
James was so excited for the start of a new campaign that he got up at 5:30 am on media day. He even joked some, jesting that he missed the media’s great and sometimes not-so-great questions. Given a period of rest and recovery he and AD did not have the offseason prior, the so-called “King” looked fresh and prepared, as if primed for another coronation.
“It’s all about the journey and putting in the work,” he preached again and again.
But preparations began beforehand. Following their elimination, James reportedly set up a war-room to determine which players fit the Lakers moving forward. Reflection ultimately led to desiring Westbrook, who conspired to finally become a Laker. Since then, as LeBron put it, the two have been “tied at the hip.”
“We’re going to continue to do that,” he emphasized. “We’re going to hold each other accountable, AD is going to hold us accountable, we’re going to hold AD accountable, because it’s going to start with us.”
“When we connected, I think it’s because we both understand and know what it takes to be able to win,” Westbrook shared his perspective. “Obviously, Bron understand what it takes to get to that next level and I’m able to learn and understand things from him along the way.”
When Russ says, “next level,” he means an NBA title. James has four and AD has one. Durant, Russ’ former partner, already has two. Steph Curry is three rings ahead of him. Even Kyrie Irving has one.
As Westbrook chases the remaining elusive accomplishment on his resume, his mindset focuses on the possibilities of what his new squad can accomplish, rather than the difficulties along the way, which, to be fair, he also acknowledges as reality:
“There will be times when it may not work, there will be times it’s clicking on all cylinders.”
Before they were known as “Peanut Butter and Jelly,” James and his first-ever co-superstar, Dwyane Wade, weren’t the perfect fit together on paper.
Both were phenomenal individuals when attacking the rim, but didn’t complement each other from a spacing perspective. It played a role in Miami’s downfall against Dallas during the first year of the Big Three era, when the Mavericks played plenty of zone defense to deter penetration.
But their chemistry and style aligned in time for those Heat teams to win the next two titles, in large part because of Wade’s deference to James.
LeBron was a great basketball fit next to Kyrie and that resulted in Cleveland’s first-ever NBA championship, but off the court, it didn’t jive as well as Cavs fans might have hoped for.
Along the way, James had to learn playing with big men who were used to getting the ball in the post in Chris Bosh and Kevin Love. The result? Both All-Stars turned into floor-spreaders.
And when he got to the Lakers, ultimately, he had to develop on-court chemistry with Davis, although that came fairly easy.
“I watched enough sport and enough basketball to know what I need to do to help the ball club depending on the acquisitions that we make per year,” James contextualized this new ordeal.
“I’m very cerebral of what I need to do in order for our team to be as great as we can be, and also being able to counterpart what Russ brings to the table, and all other guys we have as well.”
If there’s a counter to the “age” criticism for the Lakers, it’s wisdom.
While role players like DeAndre Jordan, Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony, and Rajon Rondo might be past their primes, there’s no questioning their share of playoff battles and how that can help swing the margins of a postseason matchup.
When the Lakers won the title in the bubble, they were sparked by a wiser and older roster, too.
And Pelinka did his job securing enough young talent, bringing in the likes of Malik Monk and Kendrick Nunn while retaining Talen Horton-Tucker and adding Austin Reaves. It’s uncertain if these players would be part of closing lineups, but their impact will be felt during the regular season.
“I honestly don’t pay much mind to it,” Westbrook said of the noise, “because the game will tell you what to do.”
If there’s anything “the game” has taught us, it’s that this Lakers team, from the top trio down to the supporting cast, are pretty damn good at it. – Rappler.com
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