Russell Westbrook‘s successful transition from superstar to sixth man is a very uncommon event in NBA history. Despite a history of non-starters becoming important players, like Manu Ginobili and Jamal Crawford, there’s still a stigma of demotion to not being on the court when the game begins. However, in his second season with the Lakers — despite the team’s overall disappointing results — Westbrook may be on pace to add to his Hall-of-Fame career by winning Sixth Man of the Year.
Per our HoopsHype advanced statistics, Westbrook is arguably the top candidate for the Sixth Man of the Year Award. Per Global Rating, he’s currently second among eligible players for the award, only behind Christian Wood… who has started in 17 of his 42 games, including the last 16 he’s played. According to the award rules, a player must come off the bench in more than half of their appearances to be eligible. Barring a return to a reserve role, Wood will soon become ineligible, leaving Westbrook as the front-runner.
It’s extremely rare for a player who has won the MVP award to win Sixth Man of the Year too. Since the award’s inception in 1982, only two players have accomplished that feat: Bill Walton and James Harden. In Walton’s case, he won the Sixth Man award at a point in his career when he was clearly unable to play starter minutes, averaging less than 20 minutes per game with Boston. On the other hand, Harden won the award while playing for Oklahoma City before rising to stardom with the Houston Rockets.
Besides Walton and Harden, only a select few former MVPs have received votes for the Sixth Man of the Year award. These include Bob McAdoo in 1985 (sixth place), Moses Malone in 1991 (sixth place), Magic Johnson during his brief 1996 comeback (fifth place), and Derrick Rose from 2019 to 2021, with his best result being a third-place finish two seasons ago. With no serious injuries or comebacks from retirement to be considered, only McAdoo and Malone’s late careers as bench players are similar to Westbrook’s situation — and neither of them was really close to winning the award.
Over the last five games, Westbrook has averaged 24 points and 6.2 assists on 39.1 percent from deep. Since Jan. 4, the Lakers’ net rating with Westbrook on the court has been the second-best among players with at least two games played at plus-10.7, only behind LeBron James. In contrast, when he is not on the court, the Lakers have been outscored by 8.1 points per 100 possessions, again only surpassed by LeBron James. While his numbers may not be as good as his prime days in Oklahoma City, Westbrook is effectively making the team better with his contributions.
This impact should not be underestimated. With key rotation players like Anthony Davis, Lonnie Walker, and Austin Reaves sidelined due to injury, there is additional pressure on LeBron to perform every night. While James has not disappointed, Westbrook’s increasing consistency has been crucial in drawing attention away from the defense. His ability to shoot close to the league average from beyond the arc has made it difficult for opponents to leave him open, creating more space for his teammates and increasing his opportunities to attack the rim. While not the dominant force he was with the Thunder, Westbrook has been one of the most productive players in drive plays over the last 10 games, shooting at a 53.4 percent success rate in those situations.
Westbrook’s run has helped the Lakers post a competitive 7-4 record in the last 11 games despite the wave of injuries they’re suffering. With Davis likely back soon, having Westbrook as a legit third star option again is really welcome news for a struggling franchise. It also gives Russ a great shot to win Sixth Man of the Year.
– Alberto De Roa