Clippers reportedly plan to sign Russell Westbrook

Clippers reportedly plan to sign Russell Westbrook

From the start of speculation earlier this month that Russell Westbrook might join the Clippers, the potential fit was not obvious.

Yet Westbrook is joining the Clippers anyway, with the guard set to sign after securing a buyout from Utah, where the Lakers traded him, and clearing waivers, according to a person with knowledge of the situation not authorized to speak publicly on the matter — a move that is years in the making as the Clippers try, yet again, to fill what they view as a lead-ballhandler void by signing a past star who will arrive with questions about his effectiveness to recapture his past form.

One day after the NBA’s trade deadline closed Feb. 9, Lawrence Frank, the Clippers’ president of basketball operations, laid out criteria for effective guard play, one that included enough of a shooting threat to space out opposing defenses, a decided Westbrook shortcoming.

Others in the locker room had questioned Westbrook’s ability to mesh when he got on the court — citing his 29% three-point shooting — and what would happen if the former most valuable player did not, given the team’s other ballhandling options, including perennial All-Stars in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. They described how Westbrook had arrived in his hometown of Los Angeles in 2021 with great fanfare for how he would play off of two Lakers stars, LeBron James and Anthony Davis, and how he’d been dealt away after an oft-combative tenure when the trio never clicked.

The Clippers fortified their ballhandling options at the trade deadline with former Houston guard Eric Gordon, a valuable three-point shooter who also identified as a point guard, and second-year burst of energy Bones Hyland, whom coach Tyronn Lue identified as the point guard off the bench after his acquisition from Denver.

Frank, in his post-deadline comments, described a belief he has held publicly since last year, that the team prefers players who fill certain skill needs, not rigid positional definitions. The team didn’t need a point guard, he suggested, so much as someone who could defend multiple positions and attack defensive closeouts with drives while shooting the ball.

“The term point guard is a very, very vague term, so to me what you do is build your team around your best players and get complementary skill sets,” Frank said. “Because let’s say we had a ball dominant point guard who had other limitations. Well, how does that impact your stars?”

Internally, there was a skepticism that Westbrook would elevate the team’s star duo of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George better than Hyland, Gordon or Terance Mann, the nominal starting point guard since early January.

Where the signings of Rajon Rondo in 2021 and John Wall last summer did not move the needle with the team’s title aspirations, the eventual addition of Westbrook underscores the team’s belief in the power of a point guard.

The Clippers, ultimately, heard the vocal lobbying for Westbrook by George — who authored the best statistical season of his career next to Westbrook in Oklahoma City in 2018-19, and said he was a “huge Russell supporter” in October while coming to the guard’s defense — and Marcus Morris Sr. Each agreed that his rebounding, defense and pace were missing from the franchise’s championship pursuit.

“We can run with him and that’s kind of our game, is spacing the floor,” George said Feb. 10. “I know that’s my game, spacing the floor for being a shooter on the perimeter and then just running with him in transition — I think that’s what we can complement him [with]. We got a bunch of guys that fit that play style as well for myself, Kawhi [Leonard], Norm [Powell], Mann, and quite honestly we need somebody. You know, it sucked that John [Wall] 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.”

One element Westbrook indisputably provides — availability. The Clippers have been wracked by lineup interruptions all season because of injuries and rest-related absences, and Westbrook is one of the NBA’s most durable players, missing only three games this season at age 34.

Morris said on Feb. 10 that he believed Westbrook had been blamed for too large a share of the Lakers’ struggles during his season-and-half with the franchise. Westbrook averaged 17.4 points, 6.9 rebounds, 7.2 assists and 3.7 turnovers per game while making 47% of his shots inside the arc and 29% beyond it. He took on a reserve role with the Lakers this season. Westbrook’s current and former teams will face each other April 5 in their regular-season finale.

“I want him to come,” Morris said earlier this month. “I think that you can’t kill a wounded dog. You give him an opportunity to come back, it could be dangerous.”

George’s comments earlier this month are a window into why the Clippers believe Westbrook will work for them when he did not with the Lakers. George said the team was better suited because of its shooting. Seven players in their regular rotation shoot 37% or better from three-point range. One of Westbrook’s best stretches of his itinerant career since leaving his longtime home of Oklahoma City was in Houston in 2020, when the Rockets switched to a five-out offense eschewing a traditional center to space the court, space Westbrook carved up with effective drives.

Like past signings of point guards Reggie Jackson and Wall, Westbrook will arrive to a locker room where he has established allies, with George the common link in every case, but not the only new teammate with past familiarity.

“Watching him when I played with him, we definitely seen him jump into MVP caliber form,” Clippers forward Robert Covington, a teammate of Westbrook on that Rockets team, said in October. “The way the floor opened up and the way he attacks seams and everything. But it’s just like — when he doesn’t have the ball in his hands, it’s like a different dynamic, he can’t be as effective. Saying that, it’s not that he can’t be effective. It’s just — Russ is a playmaker. And when he doesn’t have the ball in his hands, it’s a different dynamic for him.”

In 2021, when Westbrook was nearing the end of his one-season tenure in Washington, he eyed a Los Angeles return — to the Lakers only, Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard said.

“He just said, ‘If I can get to the Lakers, that’d be something I would love to do. If not, I’ll be back here,’” Sheppard said in 2021 following Westbrook’s trade to the Lakers. “I said, ‘What about the Clippers?’ He said, ‘Hell no.’”

Now Westbrook and the Clippers have found themselves in a position to say yes to each other.