A day after trading for combo guards Eric Gordon and Bones Hyland rather than adding a true point guard ahead of the NBA trade deadline Feb. 9, LA Clippers president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank described the kind of point guard the team wanted to complement Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
“If there was a point guard who could be in our top eight or nine [players on the roster], we looked at those guys,” Frank said Feb. 10.
“Invariably, what’s important is, whether they’re a point guard or not, we need someone that won’t be played off the floor defensively, someone who can share the ball responsibilities, but not yet be so ball dominant. You know the ball is going to be in Kawhi and PG’s hands about 60 percent of the time, so it’s a delicate balance.”
After the Clippers lost to the Milwaukee Bucks later that evening, George was asked if his team needed to fill its open roster spot with a point guard. “Yeah, I mean if there’s, you know, somebody out there,” said the star guard, who had recently been asked to take on more ballhandling and playmaking duties.
George paused before offering his suggestion.
“Russell [Westbrook],” he said of his former teammate with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Ten days later, Westbrook completed a buyout with the Utah Jazz and planned to sign with the Clippers, his agent, Jeff Schwartz of Excel Sports, told ESPN, to help them pursue a championship.
While the Clippers are adding a future Hall of Fame point guard who can fill areas of need and has familiarity having played with George, there are many questions that come with adding Westbrook — especially after how the point guard’s time ended with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Why are the Clippers adding Westbrook?
After the trade deadline, the front office met with coach Ty Lue, his staff and their two best stars — Leonard and George — to discuss the additions of Hyland, Gordon and Mason Plumlee and assess what else the team might need heading into this playoff run.
With input from the two stars, the consensus was the Clippers could still use a veteran point guard, especially after trading away Reggie Jackson and John Wall. Lue has made it clear in the past he prefers having a point guard in his rotation and the Clippers need someone to push the tempo. They rank 24th in pace and 22nd in fastbreak points through Feb. 20.
They need another veteran — a former MVP with 111 games of playoff experience — who can get his own shot at the rim outside of Leonard and George come playoff time. And despite having plenty of veteran experience themselves, the Clippers can use a player to add intensity and provide energy.
“We accept him open arms, man, let him be himself,” Marcus Morris Sr. said Feb. 10 when he joined George in campaigning to add Westbrook. “We need the personality, we need the veteran [experience]. He’s been in the playoffs a lot of times, been to the championship.”
How much of a risk is adding Westbrook at this point?
There is risk for both sides.
For the Clippers, they are adding a significant veteran and personality who wears his emotions on his sleeve, and is coming off a stint playing alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis that clearly did not work.
The Clippers have won 10 of their last 14 games, but trying to integrate Westbrook at the same time as Gordon, Hyland and Plumlee could have a negative impact. The Clippers believe they have the coach and veterans to offset that and plenty of practice time with 21 games remaining on the schedule.
For Westbrook, there is risk in taking a buyout and joining the Clippers on a veteran’s minimum. If this go-around with the Clippers goes badly, it could negatively impact his free agent market this summer.
All parties, though, are said to be on the same page as far as understanding Westbrook’s role to contribute to the Clippers’ championship pursuit.
How will Westbrook fit and how different could it be than the Wall experience?
The Clippers are hoping Westbrook will be a more athletic, healthier and faster version of Wall, who came off the bench on a minutes restriction after playing 40 games in the previous three seasons. Westbrook should be able to do the things that Wall showed glimpses of earlier in the season, including pushing the pace and getting to the rim while kicking out to shooters.
Unfortunately for Wall, he did not get to play alongside George and Leonard that much because of injuries. The three played a total of eight games going 5-3 and averaging 107.1 points per possessions in their limited minutes together, outscoring opponents by a plus-4.7 per 100 according to research by ESPN Stats & Information research.
“Quite honestly, we need somebody,” said George, who helped recruit Wall to sign with the Clippers in free agency last summer. “Sucked that John didn’t work, but what John brought is what we need: A guy that can get up and down the floor and get us some easy baskets in transition.”
Westbrook has averaged 15.9 points and 7.5 assists this season, and can help improve a team weakness on the glass when the Clippers go small with his 6.2 rebounds per game.
However, Westbrook also comes with some of the same weaknesses as Wall, on a more magnified level. The 34-year-old is shooting 41.7% from the field, including 29.6% from 3. The Clippers didn’t mind Wall attacking the rim, but they did not love Wall’s shot selection at times when the point guard, who shot 40.7% overall and 30.3% from behind the arc this season, would take pull-up 3s — something Westbrook does at times as well.
Like Wall, Westbrook will be one of the Clippers’ best passers the moment he puts on the uniform. Both point guards also can have some frustrating turnovers out of their aggressive play — Westbrook is averaging 3.5 turnovers this season — and can be defensive targets for opposing teams to attack.
It remains to be seen whether Lue will start Westbrook, who was a Sixth Man of the Year candidate with the Lakers. The Clippers were hitting a groove with Terance Mann in the starting lineup at point guard for the past 21 games, during which time Mann was averaging 11.5 points on 51.7% shooting. But Lue envisions Mann as more of a small forward, so Westbrook might be able to play more of a true point guard role in the starting lineup. Norman Powell has also been thriving in his sixth man role, averaging 20.1 points per game since Jan. 6.
Why do the Clippers feel like they can be a better fit for Westbrook than the Lakers were?
George enjoyed the best season of his career alongside Westbrook in 2018-19 when he was an MVP candidate averaging a career-high 28 points, 8.2 rebounds and 4.1 assists for the Thunder. George believes the Clippers have a roster better suited for Westbrook.
“We got enough shooting to surround Russ where Russ can be Russ,” George said Feb. 10. “And I think the floor will be open for him, spacing will be there for him. I’m a big believer in and fan of what Russ’ work is. I’ve seen what he can do, night in, night out, and I think he’s still got a lot of game there.”
George believes there are Clippers who can run the floor with Westbrook such as Mann, Powell, Hyland and Plumlee, and players who can space the floor better for the point guard.
“I mean, no knock on the Lakers and his fit there, obviously LeBron can shoot the s— out of it,” George said. “There’s guys that obviously can shoot with the Lakers as well, but I think we’re a little younger. We can run with him and that’s kind of our game is spacing the floor. … I think that’s what we can complement him [with]. We got a bunch of guys that fit that play style.”
Despite Westbrook remaining in Los Angeles with a team that has championship aspirations of its own, the Clippers believe he’ll be under less of a microscope than he was with their Crypto.com Arena neighbors — who they’ll face on April 5 (10 p.m. ET, ESPN) in a game that could be pivotal for the Lakers’ playoff or play-in hopes.
“He hasn’t had an opportunity to play on a team where he could be himself and be able to play freely. Playing with the Lakers, it’s like media, media, media,” Morris said, referring to the spotlight of such a high-profile team. “And from the outside looking in, like every time something bad went wrong — Russell Westbrook. Nobody else was really getting no blame. And it just kept spiraling down.”