Predictably, the Los Angeles Lakers are off to a disastrous start to the season. After getting demolished by the apparently-not-tanking Utah Jazz on Monday night, the Lakers are just 2-8. They have the NBA’s 15th-ranked defense (which actually isn’t too terrible), but are undermining it with the worst offense in basketball — and as a result, they sport the league’s second-worst point differential per 100 possessions.
Fairly or not, the avatar of these struggles for many has been mercurial, highly paid guard Russell Westbrook. The Lakers were transparently desperate to move on from Russ this past summer, but ended up being unwilling to pull the trigger on a deal. Instead, a player the team clearly did not plan on having around is not only still on the roster, but has been heavily involved from the jump — leading to a cycle of poor play, clashes with the coaching staff and, ultimately, a banishment to the bench. For longtime NBA watchers, the entire saga reeked of … well, something extremely familiar.
Stop me if you’ve heard this story: A 34-year-old former perennial NBA All-Star, scoring champion and league MVP who was widely known for his individual offensive exploits and indefatigable competitiveness is on the downside of his career, bouncing from the franchise that drafted him to play for his fourth team in just a few seasons. It’s been quite a while since he was at the top of his game; his porous defense has been a problem for years, and his ability to get wherever he wants on the floor and create any shot at any time no longer makes up for it because he can’t make those shots with the same degree of consistency. (But he damn sure is willing to take those shots anyway.)
That sure sounds like the Westbrook story, right? It should, because it is. But it’s also the story of Allen Iverson, who in his age-34 season went through something a lot like what Westbrook is going through right now. While Westbrook still has time to avoid The Answer’s ultimate fate — and he may have already begun that process (emphasis on may have) — the final chapter of Iverson’s Hall of Fame career wasn’t a happy one, making him a cautionary tale for future players following the same path.
Before the steep, late-career decline, Iverson had been an outright superstar with the Philadelphia 76ers for a decade. He was the face of the franchise and one of the best players in league history. When he hit his early 30s and it was clear that things had run their course in Philly, Iverson demanded a trade and the Sixers eventually sent him to Denver, where he teamed with a fellow All-Star in Carmelo Anthony. A couple of years later, the Detroit Pistons traded for Iverson’s expiring contract in an effort to reboot the team after their sixth consecutive conference finals appearance ended in a third consecutive loss at the doorstep of the NBA Finals. The Pistons declined to re-sign Iverson that offseason, so instead he caught on with the Memphis Grizzlies. Memphis asked Iverson to come off the bench, and he was — to put it lightly — extremely unhappy with that request.
Things quickly spiraled out of control and Iverson was waived just over two months after signing with the team. He re-signed with Philadelphia a few weeks later and played out the rest of the season with the franchise that had made him the No. 1 overall pick 14 years earlier, but his career was effectively over by then. The precipitous decline in his skills, coupled with his outright refusal to adjust even a little bit the way he played the game, had made his place on an NBA roster untenable.
Beat-by-beat, that’s essentially just how things have gone for Westbrook. He was an outright superstar with the Oklahoma City Thunder for more than a decade. He was a face of the franchise and one of the best players in league history. When he hit his early 30s and it was clear that things had run their course in OKC, Westbrook opened himself to the possibility of a trade and the Thunder eventually sent him to Houston, where he teamed with a fellow All-Star (and former teammate) in James Harden. Things swiftly went awry with the Rockets, who sent him to the Washington Wizards in what amounted to a salary dump. For some reason, the Lakers decided they wanted in on the Westbrook experience, and acquired him the following summer. The deal was quickly and obviously a calamity, and the Lakers themselves were a train wreck.
Even the two players’ individual performances were remarkably similar, both overall and in terms of their respective career paths. It’s no wonder that when you head to Westbrook’s Basketball-Reference.com page and check out the career similarity scores section, this is what you’ll find:
Plot their season-by-season RAPTOR ratings against each other and you can see why that might be the case. Both players’ effectiveness took a steep nosedive as they entered their second decades in the NBA:
Things may have reached their Iversonian breaking point for Westbrook during a sequence late in L.A.’s Oct. 23 game against the Portland Trail Blazers. With about 30 seconds left and the Lakers leading the Blazers by a point, Westbrook cruised up the floor and, astonishingly, let loose with a hasty pull-up midrange jumper to the horror of the Laker crowd, the play-by-play crew, teammate LeBron James and just about everyone else on earth. (The Lakers would go on to lose the game, naturally.)
It was a play that encapsulated everything that has gone so terribly wrong with the Westbrook experience in Los Angeles. First of all, it was a bricked jumper. Second, it showcased his mind-boggling aversion to reining in his aggressiveness even the slightest bit. And third, it highlighted just how many people had absolutely had their fill of the Westbrook experience itself.
Russ was held out of the Lakers’ next game with what the team said was a recurrence of a sore hamstring — an injury Westbrook had previously blamed on the fact that new Lakers coach Darvin Ham had him come off the bench for a preseason game rather than start. Flashbacks to Iverson’s Grizzlies era could hardly have been more intense: Starting Westbrook was becoming impossible considering his poor fit alongside the LeBron-led lineup, and he was balking at coming off the bench. Given the tenor around the team at that moment, it wouldn’t have been surprising if we just never saw him play in Forum blue and gold again.
But rather than continuing to throw a fit the way Iverson did, Russ has actually come around and acquiesced to his new reserve role. And a funny thing has happened since he did. He actually started playing better!
In six games coming off the bench, Westbrook has averaged 19.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game, while shooting 51 percent from the field, 48 percent from three and 79 percent from the line. Before the loss to the Jazz on Monday (which James sat out with foot soreness), the Lakers had actually outscored their opponents by 13 points across Westbrook’s 150-plus minutes played during that stretch. (And the Lakers of recent vintage don’t usually outscore anybody.)
In addition to spending more of his floor time playing in lineups that better suit his strengths and weaknesses, playing with the reserves has allowed Westbrook to spend a smaller share of his minutes playing against opposing starters. For the significant majority of his career, Westbrook played somewhere between 35 and 50 percent of his minutes with all five opposing starters on the floor, according to PBPStats.com. This season, that number has plummeted south of 25 percent. And for only the third time ever, he’s played more than 30 percent of his minutes with two or fewer opposing starters in the game.1 At this stage of his career, playing against a reduced level of competition can only help.
The shift hasn’t helped the Lakers all that much in the win column. They’re 2-4 with Westbrook playing with the second unit, and they’ve gotten blasted by a combined 51 points across their most recent three games. Simply sending Westbrook to the bench seems extremely unlikely to be the key move that turns their season around. In fact, the best chance of that happening might still come through a Westbrook trade.
But if the move hasn’t saved L.A.’s season, it might actually extend Westbrook’s career, which would help him avoid the way things ended for Iverson. His apparent willingness to take on a slightly different, slightly reduced role is the first-ever glimmer of hope that he recognizes where he is at this stage of his career. He still hasn’t changed the way he plays all that much, of course. (Baby steps, folks.) But if Ham can persuade him to come off the bench, perhaps there’s a coach out there, somewhere in the multiverse, who can get him to also set the occasional screen or up his intensity and focus on defense.
And in fact, it’s not unheard of for stars of Westbrook’s caliber to have second acts in their careers as role players. Dwight Howard was a backup center for years. Grant Hill and Vince Carter spent quite a while toward the end of their careers as complementary pieces. Somewhere inside Westbrook, there is still a player with useful NBA tools. Accepting what those tools are, and being willing to access them while putting others back in the shed, is the key to his staying in the NBA beyond this season — and getting off the career track that proved to be Iverson’s downfall.
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