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A nuanced look at Russell Westbrook’s fit with Clippers

Fans on both sides are deciding they already know how this one will go, so what should we expect from Russell Westbrook with the Clippers?

The Los Angeles Lakers play the Los Angeles Clippers in an NBA regular season game at Arena in Los Angeles on Wednesday night, Nov. 9, 2022.
Russell Westbrook goes past Terance Mann to get to the rim, but will he do the same in the Clippers’ rotation?
Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

A clip of Anthony Edwards describing the one thing he’d change about the NBA went viral this All-Star weekend.

There were lots of hot takes in the replies, but I was most intrigued by those about his age, especially given the fact it was originally posted to praise him showing wisdom beyond his years. The agreeable points basically suggested that young players should want to play all the time, but older guys who have been at the top of their game for years should be more inclined to look after their bodies and prolong the peak period of their careers.

It got me thinking about Kawhi Leonard and Paul George’s pleas for a more traditional point guard on the Los Angeles Clippers, and then the news broke that Russell Westbrook was on his way. My immediate reaction was that I wasn’t thrilled, but that I would be prepared to shift my mentality to support both the team and the player. That should really be the mentality of anybody who claims to follow this franchise, but I’m not here to judge those people. Instead, I’m here to hear their concerns.

Because there are a lot of concerns. Lawrence Frank indirectly expressed some of his own just after the NBA trade deadline had passed, saying:

“You always build your team around your best players and get complementary skill sets. Because if, let’s say, we had a ball dominant point guard who had other limitations, well, how does that impact your stars?”

Firstly, let’s go back to Edwards’ point. Older guys like, let’s say, Kawhi and PG want to protect their bodies and prolong their peak years. I understand that and have been on board with it for a large part of this regular season especially.

My only problem I could ever express with our stars load managing – and I’m sorry to fans that are buying tickets, but it’s a lottery that other intensely-scheduled sports like soccer have to deal with – is when it impacts the team in the clutch. That could be the case if their load management has stopped their team being able to get their reps or they have left themselves short on the physical and mental preparation that’s required.

I also have a problem when it leads to the team recruiting players that may help that individual cause, to the detriment of the team’s overall cause. That may seem harsh on Westbrook, though I would point out there have been bigger assassinations of his personal character on bigger platforms than this since he was traded by the Los Angeles Lakers, but there is still a good chance that his style negatively impacts the team. If it did, and the reason to recruit him was to allow our stars to take possessions off in the clutch, then I cannot possibly get on board with that.

As L-Frank also expressed in the aforementioned press conference, basketball is mostly positionless in the modern day, and you want the ball in the hands of your best player down the stretch in games. I would have no beef with Russ’s role on the team if that was still the case and the Clippers ran with the most complementary combination of guys on any given night, but I am worried that the evidence of this season suggests that isn’t always the case and that prototypes still matter too much to this team.

Terance Mann is not a prototypical point guard, but he has been a damn effective one through the past 12 games that he has started alongside Kawhi and PG. He has provided a scoring boost in the first quarter when this team have traditionally been good starters, he has knocked down shots from deep, he has been a sneaky good offensive rebounder and he’s been a plus defender. It is expected that his minutes will take the biggest hit by the arrival of Westbrook and that is a reasonable cause for concern to those that want to see this team play to their strengths.

How many of those skills listed for Mann could we legitimately argue Russ will bring based on the evidence of his career since the Oklahoma City Thunder decide to blow it up in 2019? His numbers will always come with the caveat that he’s been a high usage player on his previous teams, but that is part of the problem. Can he really adapt to being a low usage player and play provider to let others take the lead? His assist numbers can be used to provide reassurance around that, but again, the usage numbers.

OK, guy, but he’s been earning a maximum salary on those teams so the expectations are different now. I hear that, but he’s still coming in with a reputation and there has already been talk of him being a potential starter, which doesn’t necessarily reflect him being a guy that was brought in on a veteran’s minimum.

There’s still no way to factually state how this is going to go, so ignore opinions that act like that is possible. The Clippers have turned around the careers of other guys coming in from bad teams, and this is just one more project for Tyronn Lue and his coaching staff to oversee. The evidence may stack up badly against Russ’s record, but if he can make the required mentality shift first and foremost then there’s a chance this could work.

We should all be hoping it does, because what good is being right when your team is the league’s laughing stock once again? And, to our stars, what good is being well rested when you’ve got no rings to show for it? That’s something for us all to ponder.