After a disastrous start, the Lakers have been building positive momentum. Moving Russell Westbrook to the bench has been a big part of their turnaround.
Don’t look now, but the Lakers have five of their last six games and climbed their way out of the Western Conference basement. Some improved shooting numbers have helped (thank you, progression to the mean) but a string of solid performances from Russell Westbrook has been key as well.
Westbrook was an absolute disaster in the first few games of the season but has played extremely well since being moved to the Lakers bench.
As a starter, Westbrook was averaging 10.3 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game, shooting 28.9 percent from the field and just 1-of-12 from beyond the arc. As a reserve, he’s averaging 15.7 points, 4.9 rebounds and 8.1 assists per game, shooting 41.5 percent from the field and 35.0 percent from beyond the arc. The shooting percentages are still a drag on the Lakers’ offense but he’s been far more productive.
Why is Russell Westbrook thriving on the Lakers bench?
One could argue that the difference between starting and coming off the bench has been largely symbolic since he’s playing almost an identical number of minutes per game (28.5) as a starter and coming off the bench (28.3). But hidden in those minutes totals are a few really important distinctions.
In his three games as a starter, the four players he shared the floor with most often were Anthony Davis, Lonnie Walker IV, LeBron James and Patrick Beverley. Since moving to the bench, it’s been Austin Reaves, Davis, Walker IV and Troy Brown. Another piece of this change is that he’s playing a much lower proportion of his minutes against opposing started.
The move to the bench has overlapped with LeBron missing six of the Lakers’ last nine games but those two variables together have given Westbrook an opportunity to work more with the ball in his hands, the only reason scenario he’s been able to demonstrate any value.
As a starter, Westbrook had the ball in his hands for an average of 4.4 minutes per game, with an average touch length of about 4.37 seconds. Since moving to the bench, it’s been 5.9 minutes per game with an average touch length of about 5.63 seconds per game. Playing the same amount of minutes this is a significantly higher percentage of the game with Westbrook working as the primary initiator. Again, LeBron’s absence is a BIG factor here but it’s clear that getting more out of Westbrook means accommodating his desire to work on the ball, which unfortunately comes with some sacrifices.
Westbrook won’t be able to maintain that same load when LeBron returns, nor should he. But there is also a lesson of the Lakers in trying to separate their minutes as much as possible. LeBron is averaging 35.5 minutes per game and Westbrook should be on the floor for every minute he’s sitting. That would minimize the minutes when they’ve overlapped which have been particularly bad for the Lakers — minus-5.8 points per 100 possessions so far this season.