Sometimes, positive results can justify poor process. Thursday's Los Angeles Lakers victory over the Indiana Pacers was one such occasion. The Lakers overcame a 12-point deficit at the beginning of the fourth quarter to win a thriller, but in the process, Darvin Ham made an odd lineup decision: he left Russell Westbrook on the floor for crunch time. Ham would later describe the decision as a "no-brainer," citing Westbrook's defense and ability to switch across the positional spectrum as reasons for playing him.
The numbers don't support Ham on that front. When Westbrook is on the court in the fourth quarter, the Lakers allow 123.1 points per 100 possessions this season. That's the worst figure on the team. When he isn't? That figure drops to 102.8. Westbrook's absence late in games has been the difference between a great defense and a terrible one. We've covered the issues his poor shooting creates offensively in depth. Ham is often cognizant of these issues and determines whether or not Westbrook will finish a game based on how well he's played in the game itself.
But he surely didn't do that on Thursday because Westbrook had perhaps his worst game of the season. He shot 2 of 16 from the field, turning the ball over four times in the process. It's the latest poor game in an increasingly startling streak. Over his past seven games, Westbrook is shooting 32 of 99 from the field and 5 of 29 from 3-point range. In those games, the Lakers have lost his 201 minutes by 59 points.
Correlation does not necessarily equal causation, but it's hard not to wonder how the state of the team has affected Westbrook. Anthony Davis returned to the lineup on Jan. 25. Rui Hachimura made his debut the same night. Lonnie Walker IV returned three nights later. Suddenly the Lakers have more mouths to feed, and they'll have another one coming back soon enough. Austin Reaves has not yet been ruled out for Saturday's game against the New Orleans Pelicans, and even if he misses that one, it won't be long before the Lakers have him on the court as well.
When that time comes, it's worth asking how much value Westbrook really provides to this, specific Lakers roster. Walker is a similarly explosive athlete. Reaves has shown he can handle some of Westbrook's playmaking responsibilities. Dennis Schroder has outplayed him offensively for months now and has carved out a permanent role in the starting lineup.
The three of them have combined to shoot roughly 36.5 percent from deep on the season. That's hardly elite, but it's something. No NBA team makes fewer 3-pointers than the Lakers. Getting league-average shooting out of three guards who can replicate Westbrook's primary talents in the aggregate is extremely meaningful when he himself is shooting 28 percent on 3s and cramping the spacing for everybody else.
If those three are the team's best guards, minutes suddenly look sparse for Westbrook. James and Davis are going to toggle between 35 and 40 depending on the night. Thomas Bryant seems to have beaten out Wenyen Gabriel for the backup center minutes, but that is a role Westbrook obviously cannot fill. Hachimura is starting for now. Troy Brown Jr. is the primary backup wing at this stage, and his size and shooting are critical. If anyone on this roster has a track record of defending bigger players as Ham suggests, it's Patrick Beverley. After a miserable start to his season, Beverley is now shooting over 41 percent from deep in his past 19 games. No Laker, individually, does everything that Westbrook does. But as a group, they manage to check each box without presenting the crippling weaknesses that Westbrook does.
The trade deadline is the obvious solution here. If James, Davis, Schroder, Walker, Reaves, Brown, Bryant and Beverley have entrenched themselves as this team's top eight, it would make sense (as it has since the offseason) for the Lakers to use Westbrook's $47 million salary to find the right No. 9 and No. 10. Bojan Bogdanovic would fill a gaping hole as a shooting forward. Fred VanVleet and/or Gary Trent Jr. are better 3-and-D guard options than anyone on this roster. If OG Anunoby is attainable with the picks the Lakers have, he'd be ideal. There are options here if the Lakers are willing to sacrifice first-round picks.
But even if they don't, what has become clear as the Lakers have gotten closer and closer to full strength is that there's no longer any reason for Westbrook to be playing 32 minutes in must-win games in which he is shooting 2 of 16 from the floor. That doesn't mean he has to be excised from the rotation entirely, but he simply has not been one of this team's eight best players lately, and with a suddenly healthy roster that does not suit him, Ham needs to acknowledge that the Lakers would be better off using players whose skills actually complement one another.