The Lakers’ overtime win over the Spurs without James last night showed why trading for a third superstar in Russell Westbrook is going to pay off big for Los Angeles as it‘s’ the key to winning the non-LeBron minutes.
The NBA experts and pundits disapproved of the Lakers’ decision to trade for Russell Westbrook because he wasn’t the elite 3-point shooter the team needed to create spacing for LeBron James and Anthony Davis. What they ignored was the impact Russell Westbrook as a third superstar could have on the Lakers’ single biggest weakness, which was winning the minutes and games when LeBron James was not on the court
So let’s take a closer look at what may be the single most important thing about the Lakers’ bold and controversial decision to trade for Russell Westbrook and go all-in on creating their own Superstar Big Three.
WHY WINNING NON-LEBRON MINUTES IS IMPORTANT
Since they signed James three years ago, the Lakers have yet to finish a season with a positive net rating for the time LeBron is not on the court. Even in the championship season, they lost the non-LeBron minutes.
LeBron was +2.4 points on the floor and -5.9 points off the floor for a -8.3 differential his first Lakers season and +9.0 point on the floor and -0.9 points off the floor for a 9.9 differential during the championship season. The trend of the non-LeBron minutes being the Lakers’ Achilles heel continued last season as LeBron was +8.6 points on the floor and -2.0 points off the floor for a -10.6 differential, his worst as a Laker.
Last night, the Lakers got their first tangible return on their gamble that adding a third superstar like Russell Westbrook would be the key to eliminating their Achilles heel and winning the non-LeBron minutes. Winning without LeBron is a big deal. The Lakers have always had a strong positive net rating when LeBron plays. What chance do opponents have if the Lakers now also dominate the non-LeBron minutes?
That’s why winning without LeBron last night was important because the Lakers traded for Westbrook in the hope he would give them a legitimate third superstar, who could with AD win the non-LeBron minutes.
HOW THIRD SUPERSTAR INSURES AGAINST INJURIES
It’s not a coincidence Rob Pelinka went all-in to acquire a third superstar after the Lakers’ lost LeBron James and Anthony Davis to injuries and suffered an embarrassing first round exit in the playoffs to the Suns.
Pelinka had seen how having three superstars had enabled the Brooklyn Nets to survive an injury plague after losing Kevin Durant for 37 games, James Harden for 36 games, and Kyrie Irving for 18 games last season. Brooklyn proved that having a third superstar could be an invaluable insurance policy against injuries to one of their three superstars. That’s why Pelinka jumped at the chance to trade for Russell Westbrook.
Having that third superstar who could cover when one of their three superstars were out with injury enabled the Nets to post a 48–24 record, second best in the East and fourth best in the entire league last season. Unfortunately, the Nets were unable to build the chemistry needed in the playoffs during their disjoined regular season and ultimately lost in the conference semi-finals to the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks.
How the Nets survived the injuries to their superstars clearly caught Rob Pelinka’s attention and was a major factor in the Lakers’ decision to trade for Russell Westbrook and build a superstar big three to match the Nets.
WHY WESTBROOK OVER HIELD WAS RIGHT DECISION
Russell Westbrook’s stats for last night’s game were 33 points, 10 rebounds, 8 assists, and 3 steals with only 3 turnovers while shooting 15 of 27 from the field, including 10 of 14 or 71.4% in the restricted zone.
While Buddy Hield is an elite 3-point shooter, he could not have done what Westbrook did last night to help the Lakers beat the Spurs in overtime. It’s the difference between an elite role player and a superstar. While Russ doesn’t solve the Lakers’ need for high volume and quality 3-point shooting, he brings the Lakers exactly what they need to win a championship: a legitimate third superstar for the non-LeBron minutes.
The next step for the Lakers is to figure out how to replicate the play we got from Russ and AD last night to win the 12 minutes in every single game the Lakers are losing when LeBron James is on the bench resting. Eventually, Russell Westbrook figuring out how to win when LeBron James is not available or is on the bench will ease the concerns and prove to the doubters that Russ is a great fit as the Lakers’ third superstar.
Once the Lakers learn how to apply what they’re learning from playing games without LeBron to the minutes each game when James rests, they will be on their way to becoming an unstoppable offensive juggernaut.