In Lakerland, it’s far too early for panic, but it’s never too early for concern.
It’s one thing to blow a 26-point game to the perpetually tanking Oklahoma City Thunder, especially with so many new parts and LeBron James out with an ankle injury.
Never mind the irony of the statistically aware Russell Westbrook taking issue with Darius Bazley, who played to the final buzzer in true Westbrook fashion, prompting Westbrook’s ejection after his outburst.
It’s not a novel idea, and no one is breaking new ground here, but it’s apparently easy to overlook how dominant he can be when he’s healthy and showcased. Health is always a relative concept. When he falls awkwardly, his legs appear to be too long for his body more than any other coordinated big man in recent memory. He can also have a significant impact on games even when he is a supporting character.
And, because of the dominant personalities and styles of James and now Westbrook, he finds it difficult to assert himself if he wants to.
It’s a catch-22 situation, with each potential solution posing a new problem for a talented but fundamentally flawed team. Playing Davis at center more often is likely the best way to maximize this roster’s potential, but it also exposes a player who gets hurt… to getting hurt. Maximizing Westbrook in order to keep Davis around for the long haul means a lot of counting stats for the triple-double king, but the decision-making process leaves a lot to be desired. Furthermore, the roster isn’t set up for Westbrook to go Road Runner, as his decisions frequently reflect Wile E. Coyote’s thinking.
Of course, James is the ultimate decision-maker, and he may be the NBA’s most powerful supercomputer. He can orchestrate almost any offense and, in general, figures things out as time passes. However, James-led offenses are frequently conceived with only one person driving it — James himself.
Wednesday night’s game was a case study in Laker issues. Westbrook had a triple-double on his old turf, but he also had 10 cringeworthy, unnecessary turnovers. The Lakers couldn’t get back on track after the lead grew to 26 points and the Thunder began their comeback by simply competing — the discipline was nonexistent.
There are far too many players attempting to make plays who should not. Too many Lakers aren’t understanding that the ball should go through Davis first — and that James’ absence shouldn’t be interpreted as a free-for-all with the extra possessions. If Davis doesn’t call for the ball or the coaching staff doesn’t make a note to run things through him, there are plenty of Lakers willing to fill in, even if they shouldn’t.
When Carmelo Anthony can summon old glory against the Memphis Grizzlies like he did Sunday night, scoring 28 points and hitting six three-pointers in 27 minutes, it’s a lifesaver, but that’s not a nutritious diet. He’s only hit six three-pointers in a game six times since 2017. Even Westbrook will have a night or three that will make you squint and make you believe in the stat sheet.
It’s difficult to tell whether Davis naturally defers to more experienced players or if he’s at ease working the cracks. Before the trade for Westbrook was completed, the three met without tampering and discussed sacrifice.
It may sound counterintuitive, but Davis’ sacrifice should be more forceful. He is respected by James enough that he was a catalyst in getting James to be more intentional defensively in the 2019-20 season for the first time in years, which led to the title in the Orlando bubble.
Davis shot 38 percent from three in that bubble, his best stretch from deep in his career, so it’s difficult to expect a repeat performance. However, dominance is to be expected. If he’s the sun around whom everything revolves, one would think it reduces the likelihood of mistakes and high-turnover games — and that’s assuming an offensively engaged Davis leads to Deebo-like defensive awareness.
Much has been made of the Tim Duncan/Kevin Garnett comparisons, which were validated by his unexpected inclusion in the list of the 75 greatest players (actually 76). Duncan’s affect was always loud, despite his quiet demeanor. He became engrossed in the game but never lost.