Ask most Lakers fans why the team is just 25-27, and a mention of Westbrook will be among the first words uttered. The nine-time All-Star has had a rocky tenure with the Purple and Gold, with on-court availability serving as his only consistent trait.
To Russ’ credit, the former MVP has played well over his last few games. Or at least better than he was playing. One possible reason why stems from a conversation the former MVP had with legendary big man and Laker great Shaquille O’Neal.
Russell Westbrook has made strides in his last few games
Wednesday’s win over the Portland Trail Blazers was an example of the worst of Westbrook. The 33-year-old shot 3-of-12 from the field, scoring nine points in LA’s 99-94 victory.
While that performance would have been par for the course a month ago, it was a swift departure from the recent version of Brodie.
Since being benched in the fourth quarter of LA’s loss to the Indiana Pacers on Jan. 19, Westbrook’s shooting has improved drastically. The two-time scoring champ shot 50.0% or better in five straight contests, one of which came in a season-high 35-point outburst versus the Charlotte Hornets. He also scored 20 or more points four times, the lone exception coming in the one game Russ was flanked by LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
Russ’ three-point shooting has also shown considerable improvement. After hitting one or fewer threes in 11 of 12 games, Westbrook hit two or more triples in three straight games before going 1-of-4 on Wednesday.
A conversation with Shaquille O’Neal has helped Westbrook turn a corner
Shaq has become a mentor for many big men across the league. But the Hall of Famer is also willing to lend a helping hand to 6-foot-3 point guards.
Last week on Inside the NBA, O’Neal discussed a courtside chat he had with Westbrook ahead of LA’s game against the Orlando Magic. It was the Lakers’ first outing since Westbrook was infamously benched by head coach Frank Vogel.
“I love Russ. I care about Russ. He’s done a lot for the game, but when you’re that caliber player and you’re not playing well, people take shots,” Shaq explained. “I don’t like to see people come at my guy Russ like that. So I’m watching him, analyzing him, and I finally see his problem. He wants to do so well he’s going 1,000 miles an hour. I said, ‘My man, slow down. … Just take your time.'”
A week later, Westbrook was asked about the details of his conversation with O’Neal (h/t: Silver Screen & Roll).
“It was just talking about changing speeds and different things. When somebody like Shaq is seeing and watching the game, I’m always big on listening to my elders and listening to the ones that were before me. Shaq was giving me some good advice about changing speeds at different times coming up the floor, which was very helpful not just in that game but as I watch myself moving forward and trying to continue doing that the rest of the year.”Russell Westbrook
The advice paid immediate dividends. That night against Orlando, Westbrook scored 18 points on 8-of-17 shooting with 11 rebounds, seven assists, and only three turnovers.
Lakers now face a trade deadline dilemma
A month ago, the Lakers would have loved to ship Westbrook away and admit the whole experiment was a massive mistake. However, his stock was at an all-time low, making a deal involving him — and his $44 million cap hit — highly unlikely.
Since being benched and receiving advice from Shaq, Westbrook is making huge improvements that will only help the Lakers going forward. That said, the better Russ plays, the more teams will be willing to indulge LA in trade discussions.
With the trade deadline only one week away, the Lakers can still attempt to sell Westbrook while his value increases. However, doing so would risk receiving a package incapable of improving the team much, if at all. Though remaining stagnant presents the risk of Russ falling back into his old ways, as he did Wednesday when he shot 3-of-12.
Ideally, James and Davis join Westbrook in forming the big three general manager Rob Pelinka envisioned. But with only Russ able to stay healthy, LA might need all the star power it can get when LeBron and/or AD inevitably miss time. Because as much as Westbrook has disappointed Laker fans, replacing him with Kemba Walker and Alec Burks isn’t exactly an upgrade.
Trading Russ for a legitimate upgrade is the best-case scenario. But trading him just because is not a solution. Pelinka and the Lakers only have a few days left to set the course for the remainder of a turbulent season.