Home Los Angeles News Swanson: Desperate? Gutsy? Clippers think Russell Westbrook will work for them

Swanson: Desperate? Gutsy? Clippers think Russell Westbrook will work for them

Swanson: Desperate? Gutsy? Clippers think Russell Westbrook will work for them

I fathom Russell Westbrook, when he signs with the Clippers, is going to want to beat the Lakers about as much as Steve Ballmer is going to want to see butts in the seats at the Intuit Dome when it opens.

Which is to say: A lot.

But will those interests be competing? Or compatible?

Ballmer has invested $2 billion in the arena project, sparing few expenses and jumping through a myriad of hoops for the Clippers to be able to hoop in Inglewood. And he knows it will take more than the allure of a sparkling, state-of-the-art basketball palace to fill it with the type of rabid enthusiasm he envisions.

The decor, the set, the stage? Important.

The performers? More.

That’s why, in 2019, the Clippers went all in to bring aboard two Southern California-born stars Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, the two-time champion and two-time NBA Finals MVP who the Clippers are relying on for an encore performance.

The Clippers’ leading men – who have, publicly in George’s case, been clamoring for Westbrook – gave the organization some cachet just by picking it. But they haven’t hoisted any trophies, and they haven’t made a real dent in local basketball society.

Whether you’re shooting for championships or hearts and minds, it turns out winning is hard. And, apparently, the Clippers believe Westbrook – the embattled 34-year-old future Hall of Famer who reportedly is being bought out by the Utah Jazz – will make it easier?

If it’s not a sign of desperation, it’s at least a gutsy bet. Because for the Clippers, winning now is more crucial than ever, it’s the only thing that’s bound to really get the Intuit Dome buzzing. Also, the thing that will make the team’s most financially devoted fans feel good about ponying up significantly more for season ticket seats similar to the ones they have at Crytpo.com Arena.

The Clippers can’t expect to satisfy existing customers or attract new ones if they bring them out for the big reveal, turn on the lights and then, when fans direct their gaze toward the court, tell them the team down there could be really good, but we’ll have to wait and see.

And the curtain is going up soon, with just two NBA champions to anoint between now and opening night at the Intuit Dome.

The expectation was that this, finally, could be the season for the Clippers. They’d have a healthy Kawhi and PG to headline a roster with length and shooting and depth, and more: familiarity and fight.

But these Clippers haven’t made believers out of many, including, apparently, within their own locker room. At 33-28, they’re an amorphous fourth seed in the slow-simmering Western Conference.

Their deadline dealing – which netted Mason Plumlee for center depth, Bones Hyland for his offensive exuberance, Eric Gordon for his downhill drive – looks like a reasonable recalibration.

But Clippers players wanted something more, someone more. And they got on the intercom to let the world know it, their request echoing through the halls of Crypto.com Arena: We want Russ!

In the locker room after a game, George told media members: “I’m a big believer and a fan of what Russ’ work is, having one of my best seasons in my career alongside of him.” It’s true, George finished third in MVP voting in 2018-19, his second season beside Westbrook in Oklahoma City, both of which resulted in All-Star bids for George – and neither in postseason action past the first round.

Add Nicolas Batum to the chorus of support for Russell Westbrook in the case that he becomes available.

Batum empathizes with Westbrook based off of how Batum was perceived after his tenure in Charlotte. pic.twitter.com/GDs0esEml5

— Law Murray 💔 (@LawMurrayTheNU) February 14, 2023

At a practice, Nicolas Batum chimed in: “Hall of Fame, MVP, can’t really say no to that. The Clippers gave me a chance after what happened to me in Charlotte.” It’s true, Batum went from an afterthought with the Hornets to a key cog with the Clippers, a whole battalion of fans lining up behind him in L.A.

But Batum, ever so team-oriented and self-aware, doesn’t demand the ball like Westbrook. On the contrary, Batum had a game against Indiana last season in which he scored 32 second-half points and dribbled only twice. His usage this season: 11.2%.

Westbrook started coming off the bench this season for the Lakers, but his usage with the Lakers was the third-most on the team, 27.6% – almost even with Anthony Davis. And according to The Athletic, the Clippers could view Westbrook as a starter after he clears waivers and the expected signing happens this week.

So, no, the former Leuzinger High and UCLA standout isn’t a small-ripple-in-a-big-pond role player. Even at a bargain buyout price, Westbrook won’t be a low-risk addition for the final stretch. Note that none of the NBA’s top teams – Denver, Boston, Milwaukee – were linked to Westbrook.

He’ll always be a swashbuckling, boat-rocking bolt of lightning – even if a less-is-more approach might do the most to disprove his critics in Lakerland who cheered Adrian Wojnarowski’s report Monday about Westbrook’s plans to join the Clippers.

The Clippers know what they’re getting. And maybe that’s the energy they think they need with 21 regular-season games left – even though Westbrook is shooting 41.7% from the field, the second-lowest mark of his career. And his turnover percentage – 18.1 per 100 plays – is the highest of his career.

To be fair, with the Lakers it was an always awkward and eventually untenable fit. And with the Clippers, it won’t be quite so uncomfortable. It can’t be.

But still. How does he make Leonard’s job easier? How does a defense sagging off Westbrook help Leonard operate in the midrange? How will Westbrook’s knack for the ill-timed turnover play on a team that’s going to need championship-level precision? How might his defensive inflexibility tangle up the Clippers? How many minutes will Westbrook siphon from an emerging talent like Terance Mann?

How will Westbrook benefit the win-soon – like, win-now – Clippers?

One certainty: He’ll make the wait-and-see Clippers the must-see Clippers for a spell. And then what?

Despite Lawrence Frank’s post-trade deadline analysis – the president of basketball operations said the team was prioritizing shooting and the ability to guard multiple positions – the highly regarded front office can’t exactly say, “Don’t futz with the formula!” and point to a shelf full of Larry O’Brien trophies.

Or even one.

That’s what’s in the balance.

Clippers Twitter vs. Lakers Twitter today pic.twitter.com/LAUxSbxjkE

— Mirjam Swanson (@MirjamSwanson) February 20, 2023