What the critics of the Westbrook trade miss when they focus on why Russ’ poor shooting isn’t a good fit for the Lakers is how his dominant presence at point guard has a domino effect that unleashes the team’s best lineup.
There’s never been any question the Lakers best lineup was with LeBron James at the four and Anthony Davis at the five but AD’s preference to play the four to avoid injuries and extend his career limited the lineup’s usage. During the championship season, Davis played center 40% in the regular season and 60% in the playoffs. This past season, the Lakers reduced his center minutes to 10% in the regular season and 20% in the playoffs.
It was like the Lakers forgot all about the lethal small ball lineup with LeBron at the four and AD at the five that destroyed playoff opponents last year in the bubble and allowed L.A. to take home their 17th NBA championship. But the sudden opportunity to trade for a future HOF point guard in Russell Westbrook may have finally forced the Lakers to do what fans have been calling for two years: play LeBron at the four and Anthony Davis at the five.
Ideally, the Lakers should start LeBron James at the four and Anthony Davis at the five. That’s the lineup Russ, LeBron, and Anthony discussed when they met two weeks before free agency to talk about possibly playing together. The early signs appear to support Davis starting at the five or at least playing major minutes at the five since the Lakers only have two centers on the roster right now and there is no talk about them pursuing anybody as a third center.
There’s also the issue of the Lakers’ starting lineup needing volume 3-point shooters to prevent teams from clogging the paint to force LA to shoot from outside. Lack of 3-point shooting is a problem adding Russ has not helped. With three superstar starters who are not elite 3-point threats, the Lakers’ other two starters must be high volume, high percentage 3-point shooters and neither center — Marc Gasol or Dwight Howard — meet that criteria.
Being able to move LeBron James off the ball to the four, the logical position for him to play to as he finishes his career, and Anthony Davis to the five, his ideal position, was the biggest benefit of trading for Russell Westbrook. While AD has always said he would play the five if needed and frankly proved it by playing center 60% of the time to win the bubble championship, he has obviously embraced Russ coming to the Lakers and him moving to the five.
What the Westbrook trade critics miss completely is that impact on the Lakers of Russ attacking the rim and throwing lobs to LeBron and AD or kickouts to the volume 3-point shooters Rob Pelinka added this offseason. The Lakers didn’t just add an elite point guard. They added a third superstar who allowed them to re-align their lineups and rotations, optimize their superstars, and prioritize playing their championship version of small ball.
The trade for Westbrook was made for a multitude of reasons, including being able to move LeBron and AD to the four and five. That’s why Anthony Davis at the five is the missing piece to the Lakers’ championship puzzle.
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