Lakers’ Russell Westbrook is saving his NBA career

This is how it should be:ÂRussell Westbrook, racing to the scorer’s table, coming off the bench to carve up a second unit. On Sunday, Westbrook checked into theÂLakers’ game against Detroit midway through the first quarter. He foundÂAnthony Davis for a short hook. He blew past theÂPistons’ defense for a driving layup. He finished a six-minute stint with six points and four assists, helping L.A. preserve an early lead.

It’s a role Westbrook has long appeared built for.

It’s only now that he has seemingly chosen to embrace it.

Westbrook often shrugs when asked about his transition to a reserve. “Whenever my name is called,” Westbrook said recently, “I’m ready to go.” The numbers don’t lie. He’s averaging 15 points off the bench. He’s dishing out eight assists. His plus/minus isn’t great (minus-2.5), but it’s better than it was in three games as a starter (minus-5.3). He isn’t a sniper from three-point range (32.1% since joining the second unit), but it’s an improvement for a player who has cracked 30% just once since his MVP season. His energy, says Lakers coach Darvin Ham, “motivates everyone.”

“It says he’s selfless,” says Ham. “[That] he is willing to sacrifice. He’s willing to add a new element and a new chamber to our team in terms of how balanced we are and how balanced of an attack we can have.”

As a reserve, Westbrook has been adaptable. Need scoring? Westbrook is there, with 24 points in a buzzer-beating loss to Indiana last month. Playmaking? How about the 11 assists—against zero turnovers—Westbrook handed out in a season-best win over Milwaukee. “He has had to score more in games with Anthony Davis out and LeBron not really at full strength,” says former NBA coach and TNT broadcaster Stan Van Gundy. “But what’s impressed me the most is that he’s really tried to focus on being more of a playmaker, to get in the paint and make plays for other people.”

Watching Westbrook struggle to fit in with the Lakers last season, Van Gundy was sympathetic. “He was the guy who had to change,” says Van Gundy. “Nobody’s asked LeBron to change. Nobody’s asked AD to change. The guy who’s had to change has been Russell Westbrook, and you’re asking a former MVP to change at 33 years old. That’s not easy, asking a guy to play a different role at that age with all the individual success that he’s had.” Westbrook’s willingness to change even more, says Van Gundy, is admirable. “From the outside, I don’t sense resistance on his part this year,” he says. “I don’t see him pouting about coming off the bench. He’s not making passive-aggressive comments in the media. I see acceptance from a guy who’s trying to make it work.”

It isn’t easy. The number of players who have transitioned from superstar to super sub can be counted on one hand. Allen Iverson couldn’t do it. Carmelo Anthony fought it for years. Dwyane Wade is one of the few who did, coming off the bench for 70 games in his final season. From afar, Wade says, he appreciates Westbrook’s efforts.

“It’s not his ability not to be able to do anything,” says Wade. “It’s just that sometimes it’s about the situation. So at this age, at this time, with this team right now, the best situation for Russ was to come off the bench and be able to have the freedom that he has to just be Russ. To not have to overthink all the time about, O.K., LeBron. O.K., I got to get the ball to AD. O.K., I got to shoot this. O.K., I don’t want to shoot. He doesn’t have to think as much. Russ has now put himself in a better situation by coming off the bench.”

Westbrook turned his season around after embracing the sixth-man role with the Lakers.

He has. In the short term, with Westbrook pivoting from a liability the Lakers appeared eager to offload to an asset that L.A., at the very least, won’t just dump. It wasn’t a sizzling-hot take to suggest before the season that this one might be Westbrook’s last. The market next summer for headstrong 34-year-old point guards with diminishing skills who were hell-bent on being a starter isn’t expected to be robust. Westbrook’s willingness to come off the bench, however, changes the calculus.

“This will change how people view him,” says a high-ranking team executive. “If he’s willing to be a change-of-pace point guard, to play less minutes, to have defensive energy, top-tier teams are going to be interested in him this summer. The Iverson comparisons are fair. Allen could have played three or four more years if he had been willing to come off the bench. He would have had a field day against second units. Westbrook can do the same.”

Wade, who retired after two seasons as a sub, agrees. Westbrook, says Wade, can not only have success in a sixth-man role. He could also grow to enjoy it.

“If I wanted to keep playing another two, three years, I would’ve loved being in that same role,” says Wade. “I would’ve had an amazing last three years of just having fun in that role. Coming off the bench playing 20 to 25 minutes a game … [Russ] made a great decision to prolong his career.”

Indeed. Teams, including the Lakers, will closely monitor Westbrook. Not just how he plays in the sixth-man role, but how happy he is playing it. It could get bumpy. Westbrook sat for the entire fourth quarter of the Lakers’ win over the Pistons. He didn’t grumble—L.A. salvaged a 3–3 road trip—but some, like Van Gundy, wonder whether he eventually will.

“If things don’t get appreciably better for the Lakers, is his happiness in that role going to still be there or is he going to look around and say, ‘You know what? This is BS. We’re not winning. I’m coming off the bench behind guys I’m better than,’” says Van Gundy. “It’s a hard role for him. It’s either got to work for him or it’s got to work for the team, or that buy-in is not going to go on forever.”

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