Los Angeles Lakers, The Whiteboard

The Whiteboard: How worried should the Lakers be about Russell Westbrook?

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The preseason is the preseason for a reason. The games don’t count in the standings, both teams are testing lineups and systems, slowly working their stars into game shape and taking a look at younger players who might not be on the court much once the actual games start. The predictive value of preseason play is shaky but teams and players would at least like to build some positive momentum for the regular season.

That certainly hasn’t worked for the Lakers so far.

They’ve already lost both Talen Horton-Tucker and Trevor Ariza to injury and after Tuesday night’s 12-point loss to the Warriors, the Lakers are 0-5 in preseason play and have been outscored by an average of 15.3 points per 100 possessions. Anthony Davis has only played in four of those five games but he’s shot under 50 percent from the field. Roughly half his shots have come outside the paint and he’s hit just 5-of-22 on jumpers so far. LeBron has played just two games but he’s shot 11-of-28 from the field, 1-of-7 from beyond the arc and racked up 8 turnovers to just 6 assists.

And then there is Russell Westbrook…

He was the Lakers’ biggest offseason addition and came with significant questions of fit. He’s a terrible outside shooter and provides the most value when the ball is in his hands, which is true for LeBron and Davis as well. The Lakers were betting on superior talent to find a way and so far, that talent is still searching.

Through three preseason games, Westbrook has shot 7-of-28 from the field and has amassed 20 turnovers (to 15 assists) in just 72 minutes. He’s made 3-of-8 3-pointers, which is encouraging, but the degree to which he’s looked off attacking the basket is even more concerning. Other than one bully layup against the Warriors he’s really struggled to finish through contact and has seemed to be actively avoiding it, often trading soaring layups for awkward pull-ups and off-balance fadeaways. A lot of his 20 turnovers have been just sloppy passes or careless dribbles but even when you pair them with his assists he doesn’t seem to be creating the same angles and advantages with his penetration.

Maybe some of this is just preseason, shaking off the rust, working out the kinks and not running things at full throttle. But all the questions about whether Westbrook can shoot enough, can provide enough value as an off-ball cutter, can help lighten the load on Davis and LeBron all presume that he’s offering significant value in the moments when he does get the opportunity to dominate the ball. If there is any significant erosion in the things he does best, it may not matter for the Lakers if he can mitigate his weaknesses.

COVID is hammering the Boston Celtics again

By the end of last season, every NBA team had been impacted by at least one COVID-related player absence, either because of a positive test or a quarantine due to potential exposure. But no team was hit harder than the Boston Celtics. According to data collected by Fansure, they had 157 player days missed due to COVID, nearly 40 more than the next closest team, the Dallas Mavericks.

One would have to think their luck should even out eventually but they’re off to an inauspicious start with the news that both Jaylen Brown (last Friday) and now Al Horford have tested positive for COVID. Both players are vaccinated and so one would hope their cases will be mild and they’ll be able to rejoin the team quickly. But even in a best-case scenario that is two key pieces who could miss the rest of preseason and find themselves playing catch-up when the regular season starts.

What does the Nets’ rotation look like without Kyrie Irving?

To protect themselves, the Nets have drawn a line in the sand for Kyrie Irving. And Shams Charania doing PR for Kyrie, disguised as reporting aside, there are no indications he’s going to be crossing it. Kyrie’s absence hurts the Nets most deeply on depth — both making sure they can keep two of their Big 3 on the court at all times and covering for any regular season stretches that Harden or Durant have to miss. But they can still construct some unbelievably potent lineups without Irving.

Brooklyn played just 99 minutes last season with Durant and Harden but without Irving, outscoring opponents by an average of 20.2 points per 100 possessions. The lineup they used most frequently was rounded out by DeAndre Jordan, Jeff Green and Joe Harris but their upgraded roster gives them even more flexibility. LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin could be swapped in for Jordan and Green, maxing out the shooting and passing ability. They could also put Paul Millsap in either of those frontcourt spots, sacrificing a bit of shooting for a big defensive upgrade. And, they could also go small with Patty Mills taking either of those big man slots and packing the floor with even more outside shooting.

The Nets will have to keep shifting minutes around to protect a veteran roster and leverage the right matchups night to night, but they have so many more skilled pieces on the bench to get creative with this season. They’d be better with Irving available but they’ll still be very, very good without him if everyone stays healthy.

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