Russell Westbrook’s hot shooting off Lakers’ bench may not be sustainable, but his improved shot selection is

It would be hard to land on a single low-point for the Russell Westbrook era in Los Angeles. His press conference at the end of last season is the obvious pick, but it didn’t even come on the court. There wasn’t exactly a shortage of ugly jumpers or apathetic defensive clips to choose from, but on a team whose hopes were dashed so quickly, there wasn’t a single crystalizing moment on the floor last season that could be described as the bottom for Westbrook.

No, if you were going to pick one single moment to encapsulate all of Westbrook’s worst tendencies, you’d have to pick a moment that came this season, when the 0-2 Lakers were clinging to a slim lead over the Portland Trail Blazers. The Lakers had led by as many as eight points in the fourth quarter, but with 27.3 seconds remaining, that cushion had been whittled down to just a single point. So naturally, Westbrook fired up an ill-advised mid-range shot at the beginning of the shot clock. It bricked.

Westbrook later explained that he was trying to give the Lakers a two-for-one opportunity, but strategically speaking, the value in doing so was limited by their lead. Either way, unless the Lakers had made a 3-pointer, the Blazers would have at least one possession with which to score, so the optimal play would have been to find a good shot and force Portland to take a 3-pointer to tie the game rather than allowing them the opportunity for a 2-pointer to win it. Westbrook made only 38.3 percent of his mid-range looks last season. It is not an exaggeration to call a Westbrook mid-range jumper one of the least efficient shots in all of basketball.

Westbrook has heard that message for years. He finally managed to internalize it after that single moment, which came in the last game he started as a Laker. Ever since, Westbrook has come off of the bench. And ever since, Westbrook has practically eliminated mid-range shots from his diet entirely.

That fateful mid-range jumper against Portland was the last one he’d take for 14 full days. In his first four games off of the bench, Westbrook did not take a single mid-range shot. He has taken four in the two games since, giving him an average of 0.67 per game since becoming a reserve. That’s down from almost three per game last season and a career-high of over seven when he played for the Thunder. Westbrook’s success off of the bench hasn’t been a complete reinvention of his game, but it started when he swore off of his worst shots.

That doesn’t mean he’s committed only to his best ones, though. Westbrook is getting the basket a bit more than he did as a starter, but he’s drawing fewer fouls than he did a year ago and still converting at a lower rate in the restricted area (56.8 percent) than he did at his peak. Instead, Westbrook has benefitted from one of the hotter 3-point shooting streaks of his career.

Westbrook made just one of his 12 3-point attempts in three games as a starter for the Lakers this season… but he’s nailed 12 of the 27 3-pointers he’s taken off of the bench. The Lakers would probably prefer Westbrook didn’t taken four-and-a-half 3’s per game, but it’s hard to argue with a 44 percent conversion rate, and of those 27 attempts, 24 were considered either “open” or “wide open” by NBA.com’s tracking data. If he’s going to take jump shots, at least these haven’t been contested.

Ultimately, Westbrook’s career suggests that he’s not going to keep making 3-pointers at this rate. What happens after that is less clear. Perhaps he’s felt comfortable sacrificing mid-range jumpers for 3’s because he happens to be making so many of them. It’s also possible that Westbrook feels less inclined to settle in the mid-range because the Lakers are empowering him more as a ball-handler. By coming off of the bench and sharing fewer minutes with LeBron James, Westbrook has been able to average more dribbles per touch (4.93 compared to 4.28) and seconds per touch (5.35 compared to 4.89) than he did last year as a starter. He’s playing a more familiar role even if it’s coming in unfamiliar minutes.

The sample we’re dealing with is still fairly small, and Westbrook went from zero mid-range attempts per game to two pretty quickly over the past few days. This trend isn’t set in stone. But after more than a year of begging Westbrook to change the way he played offensively to accommodate his current roster, Lakers fans are finally beginning to see the faintest outlines of a compromise forming in the way he approaches offense. At the very least, Westbrook is trying to take better shots. The results, at least individually, have thus far been largely positive. The bar isn’t exactly high here, but if the Portland shot represented the low point for Westbrook’s time in Los Angeles, his success as a reserve is the undisputed high water mark for his Lakers tenure.

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