Just as everyone was settling into a day of complaining about the NBA All-Star Game, the news came across the Woj-waves: Russell Westbrook was signing with the LA Clippers.
The nine-time All-Star and 2017 NBA Most Valuable Player was on the market after agreeing to a buyout with the Utah Jazz. Westbrook landed in Utah as part of a three-team trade the night before the Trade Deadline, with the Lakers dumping him on the Jazz with a future first in order to upgrade their rotation with three different players.
The LA Clippers signed Russell Westbrook after he hit the buyout market
Since it became clear that Westbrook might hit the open market, rumors have swirled that the Clippers might be a potential destination. Rumors that may have been started, fanned and spread by none other than Paul George.
The Clippers’ All-Star wing has been vocal about wanting to reunite with Westbrook, with whom he spent two seasons in Oklahoma City in 2017-18 and 2018-19. When George requested a trade to the Clippers to team up with Kawhi Leonard, the Thunder moved Westbrook to the Houston Rockets the same summer.
It hasn’t gone well for Westbrook since. His stints with the Rockets, Washington Wizards and Lakers have been short and ended poorly. His inability to recognize how much his shooting hurts a team results in a myriad of poor shots from the guard.
Two years ago the Lakers traded valuable role players and a first-round pick for Westbrook, a move that essentially closed their window of contention because of how poorly Westbrook fit with their team. It was the Lakers’ worst move of the last decade.
Westbrook’s passing and athleticism should make him a good complementary player, but he refuses to cultivate the off-ball parts of his game – he has just a handful of plays as the screener all season, and rather than cut he likes to prowl around the arc waiting to get the ball back. He has only finished 23 plays as a cutter all season despite playing alongside LeBron James.
The Clippers can’t afford for Westbrook to have the ball in his hands, at least not when their stars are healthy. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are much more dangerous on-ball than Westbrook, and if they are handling then their new point guard will be actively hurting the team. Unless, of course, the Clippers have some secret new way to get Westbrook to change his ways.
There’s a way to talk yourself into this move. Westbrook is still incredibly dynamic in the open court, and he is dangerous driving into the paint. His speed and passing make him hard to handle on drives and he puts legitimate pressure on the rim. The Clippers have struggled to penetrate the paint this season.
Yet, again, why commit to Westbrook as the way to address that need when he is such a poor fit with this team’s stars? It would be one thing if he were coming in for a small role off the bench, but the Clippers actually promised Westbrook a starting spot.
How long until Ty Lue needs to move him to the bench? Will that fly with Westbrook, or will it immediately cause more chemistry issues for a team that already lacks a strong culture? The Clippers don’t have good leadership on their roster, and introducing another headache — or a leadership hijacker — is not the path to solving those issues.
How Westbrook’s addition could lead to the breaking up of the Clippers’ duo
Having Westbrook in the rotation is almost certainly a problem for the Clippers as a playoff team. He gives opponents a place to target on offense, and a soft spot to ignore off-ball on defense. The Clippers should be maximizing their roster around Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, but instead, they added an opinionated former star who is a terrible fit with them.
Fast forward to an early exit from the playoffs, another Clippers flameout, the pairing of Kawhi and George yet again coming up short. The Clippers don’t have a placid owner; Steve Ballmer is aggressive and has invested a lot of money into this team. Will he stand pat after a fourth-straight disappointing season?
Maybe, but maybe not. There is a very real chance the Clippers break up their star pairing this summer if things don’t go well in the playoffs. They can’t realistically trade Kawhi; he is radioactive on the trade market due to his knee issue, and at his best, he is the Clippers’ best path to a title. They will keep Leonard.
That leaves Paul George as the player to go. His lobbying to sign his old buddies in free agency, be that Reggie Jackson or John Wall or Russell Westbrook, has largely not gone well. The Clippers have their best chance to get back valuable assets to retool around Kawhi by trading George, and this way they don’t risk losing him for nothing in free agency the following summer.
Could this go well? Perhaps, but the odds are long. It’s much more likely the shaky team chemistry gets worse by adding Westbrook, the Clippers wobble in the playoffs and they lose short of an NBA Finals berth. That might lead to a departure by Paul George, either this summer on the trade market or next summer in free agency.
If so, you can trace things back to this signing. Russell Westbrook needs to accept that he is now a role player, but until he does he will be a negative influence on every team he is on. The LA Clippers are no different and are worse now than they were before signing Westbrook.