The NBA scriptwriters strike once again. Just when we thought that former All-Star guard Russell Westbrook’s time in Crypto.com Arena was up after being dealt by the Los Angeles Lakers in a massive three-team trade, Westbrook pulled the ultimate UNO reverse card.
After coming to a buyout agreement with the Utah Jazz, Westbrook will now be moving his stuff to the locker room across the hall as he now is a member of the LA Clippers. After nearly two years of scrutiny and disrespect, while wearing the purple and gold, Westbrook now embarks on a storybook revenge tour that includes being a part of a playoff team. Something that LeBron James and Los Angeles Lakers may not be able to say come the season’s end.
But one big question remains: What does Russell Westbrook bring to a team like the Clippers with real championship aspirations? Let’s take a deep dive into the makeup of the Clippers and contextualize Westbrook’s last few seasons to better understand what he is bringing to the table.
You are guaranteed to get two things from Russell Westbrook on a nightly basis: High energy and an up-tempo play style.
In the last season and a half with Russell Westbrook being the lead minute-getter at the guard position for the Lakers, they have ranked in the top-5 in pace.
Last season they finished 4th in pace. Remember this was the 1st team All-Old Man team everyone was clowning at the start of the year for assembling a group of guys who would’ve been a super team if this was 2012. Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, Avery Bradley, Trevor Ariza, DeAndre Jordan and even Isaiah Thomas got 4 games in with that team. Not a ton of athletes to get out and run, but Russ was able to help that team pick up the pace and play fast.
A similar narrative for this season. The Lakers currently rank 2nd in the league in pace with only 4 games played without Russell Westbrook since the trade deadline. Meaning with him on the floor, this had been the fastest-playing team in the league behind only the Golden State Warriors.
That’s with Anthony Davis and LeBron James missing time and guys like Patrick Beverly, Austin Reaves, and Troy Brown Jr. being some of the team’s leaders in minutes/games played this season. Again, not the most athletic, run-and-gun bunch of guys. But Russ was able to get them to play track meet basketball.
This is where he instantly can help the LA Clippers.
If you include this season, in the four years since acquiring Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the Clippers have only been top-10 in pace once. That was the very first season in 2019-20 where they were 8th. This team has a knack for falling into iso ball because they have two players in Leonard in George who has perfected self-creation offense to the point of being nearly unstoppable in one-on-one matchups.
They also tend to become stagnant because these seem to be the only two guys on the team that are aggressive about hunting their shot. Hence why somehow 32-year-old Marcus Morris is taking the third most shot attempts per game on the team (12.8) just barely ahead of Norman Powell (12.6). With all these athletic wings on the team like Terrance Mann, Leonard, George, and even Robert Covington, this team is better built to get out and run.
The other thing they have that the Lakers lacked when Russ was on the roster was three-point shooting.
The Lakers were notoriously known for their lack of spacing, so many were down on the Westbrook move before him even taking a single dribble in a Lakers uniform. But the Clippers have spacing. So far this season the Clippers rank 7th in the league in three-point percentage shooting 37.8% as a team. This was partially thanks to Luke Kennard (44.7%) who is now with the Memphis Grizzlies.
But amongst players still, on the team that is taking at least three attempts from beyond the arc a game, six are shooting 37% or better led by Norman Powell who is at 41.7%. This team has knock-down shooters around Westbrook which can open the floor more for his slashing, downhill style.
It gives him reliable guys to kick the ball out to on drives where he needs a bailout for a better look. And for a player that likes to grab rebounds and push the ball in transition a lot, this gives him an arsenal of players who can thrive in catch-and-shoot and trailer three situations.
From a roster construction standpoint, Russell Westbrook will feel like a kid in the candy store in terms of well he fits next to these pieces as opposed to the guys on the Lakers.
But more so than the basketball fit, two intangible-based things make this pairing a potential match made in heaven.
The first is Westbrook’s durability. If there is one thing we know for sure, it’s that Clippers have a well-documented history regarding injuries and load management. Now things may improve in the load management department considering there are less than 30 games to go and position in the playoffs on the line.
But just having another reliable, steady hand on the floor is big for this roster. This season Westbrook has played in 52 of 55 games while a part of the Lakers. He also actively embraced an off-the-bench role, something many including Westbrook himself couldn’t have foreseen happening a season ago. So, he’s humbled himself into being more open to a reduced role and has the durability to be a reliable night-to-night threat for a team in desperate need of consistency.
The second and the maybe most important thing is that the Clippers want him.
Since practically the minute the deal with the Wizards happened for Westbrook, most Lakers fans, NBA fans, and media were not moved by the acquisition. There was literal doubt from the very beginning, and he’d been right back on the trade block in the minds of most from the minute he suited up in the purple and gold. But before signing Westbrook, Clippers’ players were pushing to get him. Specifically, his former OKC Thunder teammate Paul George.
LA Clippers star Paul George made it clear last week that he would love Russell Westbrook on the LA Clippers. Speaking after a loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, George said, “I mean if there’s somebody out there – Russell. If it makes sense and obviously it goes with our team, we’re all for it. You know, we need a point guard.”
In that same postgame interview following the loss against the Bucks, George said, “I just think we in particular got enough shooting to surround Russ where Russ can be Russ. And I think the floor will be open for him, spacing will be there for him. I’m a big believer in and a fan of what Russ’s work is, having one of the best seasons in my career alongside of him. I’ve seen what he can do, night in, night out, and I think he’s still got a lot of game there.”
George added, “I’m biased when it comes to Russ, and I really think he can improve the team. He’s such a big talent. He rebounds, he finds guys, he makes the game easy for everyone, and I think he’ll come, and he’ll mesh. He’ll figure out how we play, and he’ll adjust to it.”
Of course, all the lobbying could simply be short-lived considering we haven’t seen the fit on the floor just yet. But we all know it’s much easier to come to work and be a team player when your team wants you around.
Westbrook no longer has the pressure of being berated with trade rumors. No more having to hear LeBron James praise guys (like Kyrie Irving) who could only be acquired by shipping Westbrook out. He is now on a team that has openly expressed that they see a real basketball fit with him as part of the roster and that they are ready to embrace what he brings to the table.
That’s got to be music to Westbrook’s ears.
As mentioned before, everything is always going to be peachy when the games are played on paper and in hypotheticals. So, we still must wait to see how things look with this group on the floor. But all signs point to Russell Westbrook playing happy, healthy basketball for the first time in at least two years.
Not saying he’ll turn back the clock and revert into MVP Russ. But he could be just the wildcard the LA Clippers need to finally make the long-awaited NBA Finals run that many have been expecting for the last three seasons. The Clippers’ championship aspirations could truly be determined by which version they get of Russ: Super inefficient shot chucker or downhill threat and diming decision maker?
Was getting Russell Westbrook as an X-factor a smart decision? Only time will tell.
Hi there! My name is Jalon Dixon, but most people just call me Jay. As an aspiring, young sports writer and podcaster, I enjoy discussing sports (mainly basketball and football) and sharing my knowledge with others. Growing up right in the middle of Towson University, Morgan State, Goucher College and others, I have gotten the chance to learn so much about a handful of the different athletic teams that thrive here in Baltimore. I want to be the voice of local fans and teams that may not get the same spotlight as others, but still play a big part in our everyday lives. My motto is “Always Embrace Conversation,” so if you ever want to give me feedback on a piece or even just have a friendly sports debate, feel free to email me! Hope you enjoy my work and maybe even learn something along the way.