Lakers’ Russell Westbrook adjusting to another new system

EL SEGUNDO — If you ask Russell Westbrook, he’s quick to say he hasn’t changed all that much.

His shooting form? Westbrook says it’s still the same; he’s just worked on his timing and patience. He still views himself as the player who can grab 20 rebounds or 20 assists in a single game (he’s hit both marks before as recently as his Washington days).

When asked about committing more energy to defense, Westbrook sneered: “I don’t really know where that notion comes from that I don’t defend. I’ve noticed that it’s a made-up narrative that people like to cling to.”

But his last two starts have felt and looked a little different than what fans got used to seeing last season: Westbrook starting with a burst and scoring the first baskets of each game. The 33-year-old zooming to the rim through space, or running out to the corner to spot up for 3-point opportunities.

He’s not a wholly new player – and his 4-for-12 performance against Phoenix showed some of the old habits that dogged him last season – but even Westbrook has acknowledged his role in coach Darvin Ham’s new system has pushed him to evolve a bit.

“Definitely different – just the ability to be able to get in the open floor, attack with space, take my time,” he said after Saturday’s Lakers practice. “Miss or make, shots will come as the season prolongs. But just get in that rhythm and know that I can get to any spot that I want to and get in-rhythm shots for sure, so far.”

The uneasy alliance between Westbrook and the Lakers will have NBA observers wondering when and how the two will part ways up through at least the trade deadline, but even so, there’s been flashes of the 2017 MVP’s old brilliance. His start against the Suns, for example, saw him and LeBron James taking advantage of small-ball spacing and rapid-fire pace to skewer Phoenix’s starters.

Notably against Phoenix, Westbrook was 2 for 4 on corner threes – an area where he’ll have to perform well to preserve spacing in the four-out, one-in offense. He hit a solid percentage last year on corner threes, which Westbrook said was the first year he truly took time to practice them knowing he would have to play alongside James and Anthony Davis.

“I know I’m a good shooter, and I’m very confident in myself and my ability to shoot the basketball,” he said. “Just continue working on my craft as I always have, and take good shots. The quality of shots is important. Making sure I’m not taking the bad ones is something I try to emphasize, attacking the basket.”

To gain more faith from fans, Westbrook will have to build on these individual results. Ham acknowledged openly that Westbrook’s role will be dramatically different than what he’s been used to over the years – and a lot of those functions, such as off-ball cuts, screens or guarding shooters, will challenge him to stay focused when the ball moves away from him.

“It’s easy for him when he has the ball in his hands; when he’s off the ball, his running habits, that’s what we’ve been stressing like crazy,” Ham said Thursday. “Just again being consistent with the running habits and being engaged, being active whether you’re involved directly with a pick-and-roll coverage or you’re off the ball defensively and being active with your hands, being active with your feet and being able to move around.”

Westbrook acknowledged Saturday that moving from Washington to L.A. and immediately seeing his possessions as the lead ball-handler drop was a huge adjustment. In addition to working on his perimeter shooting and off-ball movement, Westbrook said one of his preseason points is to find his right pace: Along with his struggles at the rim last season, Westbrook also had 295 turnovers and hopes to cut down that number.

“My speed sometimes speeds me up and lets me get to a place fast,” he said. “But my patience and understanding of my spacing and my spots are important to my efficiency and how I can improve in finishing around the rim, making shots and not rushing.”

Report: Lakers extend Pelinka through 2026

While general manager Rob Pelinka is facing external pressure to find success after a disastrous 2021-22 campaign, internally, the Lakers handed him more job security over the summer.

Yahoo Sports was first to report that the Lakers extended Pelinka, vice president of basketball operations, through 2026 in a contract that aligns with Ham’s. The Athletic reported that the extension was negotiated prior to the coaching search that landed Ham, so the franchise would have a coach and GM that would be on the same timeline.

Pelinka’s record as an executive has been a roller coaster since joining the front office in 2017. He was a part of James’ signing in 2018 and helped negotiate two subsequent extensions, and he helped assemble the 2019-20 title roster, including swinging a trade for Davis.  He also oversaw the moves that led to the 33-win season last year, including the trade for Westbrook that has since been widely criticized.

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Davis practices; others still missing

After missing a scheduled start Wednesday against Phoenix, Anthony Davis participated in practice Saturday, Ham said. It’s unclear whether Davis, who has been dealing with lower back tightness, will play against the Golden State Warriors on Sunday afternoon.

Juan Toscano-Anderson did not practice after bruising his right thigh Thursday against Minnesota. Dennis Schröder, who was signed only last month, has arrived in Los Angeles, but Ham said he won’t join the team until Monday pending the results of his physical exams.