After the trade deadline, Los Angeles Clippers president Lawrence Frank addressed the fact that they had not added a "true" point guard to the roster. He essentially told reporters that, for a team that features Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, it was more important to acquire players that fit with the stars rather than checking a positional box.
The Clippers were looking for "someone who won't be played off the floor defensively," Frank said on Feb. 10., "someone who can share some of the ballhandling responsibilities but yet not be so ball-dominant that—you know, the ball's going to be in Kawhi and PG's hands 60 percent of the time, so it's a delicate balance."
Frank continued: "They gotta be able to shoot because in the playoffs, the stars, they're not going to have a lot of space, so we wanted to check that box with Eric [Gordon]. The ability to drive a close-out because you're going to see a lot of rotations when people put two on the ball. And then, on the other end, can you guard multiple positions?"
If the Clippers had declined to get into the Russell Westbrook business, that quote could have functioned as a simple explanation as to why: Westbrook is a former MVP and a future Hall of Famer, but he's not a floor spacer, he's not a stopper and he needs the ball in his hands.
The Clippers did, however, decide to get into the Westbrook business. And at a press conference on Wednesday, a reporter recited the criteria that Frank had laid out 12 days earlier. How in the world does this signing square with that?
"When we're talking about the trade deadline, we were basically saying, 'Hey, look, we wanted to add someone who would be in our playoff rotation,'" Frank said.
Frank said that, at the time, he was "talking about Eric Gordon vs. quote-unquote that true point guard." After the deadline, he said, the Clippers looked at the buyout market and the "areas that we can fortify" the roster. They decided that Westbrook's strengths -- "the force, the intensity, the rim pressure, the ability to get downhill, just his general style of play and who he is" -- would help the team.
Coach Tyronn Lue said there were "a lot of talks -- front office, players, coaches" -- leading up to the signing.
"We had really upfront, honest dialogue," Frank said. "Not just internally but also with Russ and his agent, Jeff Schwartz. I thought it was a really, really clean process in that we talked through a lot of different possibilities to make sure that this could be a really good relationship."
Frank said that he and Lue sat down with Westbrook and went over "all the different possibilities, all the different things that could happen during his experience, to make sure that he knows exactly what he's signing up for."
The subtext of this is simple: Westbrook is joining a team with championship aspirations. The Clippers aren't bringing him in on a max contract or trading away any players to get him. In theory, he can help them by getting into the paint, pushing the pace and creating easy scoring opportunities. But if he's not doing that, or if his weaknesses are overshadowing those strengths, then Lue will play other guys ahead of him.
"Russ is just another weapon for T-Lue, who has certain skill sets that the team can use," Frank said.
If this partnership works beautifully and Westbrook helps the Clippers win a championship, then everything that Frank said on Wednesday will seem clear-sighted. He called Westbrook "one of the most explosive and intense competitors in the league" and praised his ability to grab-and-go on the break, drive-and-kick in the halfcourt and switch onto bigger players on defense. Frank even said that Westbrook will help by delivering post-entry passes, and he brought up Westbrook's experience playing 5-out offense with the Houston Rockets in 2019-20. They are looking for him to "contribute," not to be the star of the show or part of a Big 3.
"We know where our focal points are," Frank said. "And everyone else is a complementary piece to Kawhi and PG."
If this partnership ends in disaster, then all of the above will sound silly, and so will Lue saying that Westbrook will "make it a lot easier for PG and Kawhi." Some of the talking points at this press conference sounded awfully similar to ones that have been repeated at Los Angeles Lakers press conferences in the last 18 months. The hope, from the Clippers' perspective, is that the environment he was in with the Lakers was so ill-fitting as to be irrelevant or even downright misleading. The hope is that, if there exists a perfect situation for Westbrook, it's this one.
Unlike the Lakers, the Clippers can surround Westbrook with shooters. If they so choose, they can use him exclusively in 5-out lineups, the way the aforementioned Rockets did after the 2020 trade deadline. Neither George nor Leonard needs to control possessions the way that LeBron James does, and neither of them needs to set up shop inside the 3-point line the way that Anthony Davis does.
The ideal version of this Clippers team is a supercharged version of that Houston team. They have way more depth and way more versatility, and Westbrook is in line to play a smaller role. They're only 33-28 on the season because they lacked any semblance of continuity for most of it, but their ceiling is demonstrably high. From Jan. 10 to the All-Star break, they went 10-4 with the second-best offense in the NBA, and on the season they're 10th in defense.
"The ultimate goal is to win a championship and to me whatever is asked of me, whatever they need me to do, I'll do it," Westbrook said. "And do it to the best of my ability."
The Clippers "want Russ to be Russ," Lue said. "If he's doing too much or not enough, I'll let him know." Lue also took responsibility for making sure the pieces fit.
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There is no mystery, however, about Westbrook's game or how this could go wrong. The whole league is aware of his issues with shot selection and turnovers, as well as his reluctance to set screens. The Clippers should be able to accentuate his strengths, but it's unclear how well they will mask his weaknesses. Already, Lue has said that "the biggest thing" is figuring out how they will use Westbrook off the ball.
"We gotta help him," Lue said. "It's going to take a little time. Because you've been used to playing a certain way and a certain style of basketball your whole career, and that's what makes him Russell Westbrook. So we don't want to take that away from him at all, but when he is off the ball, just finding things that he can do off the ball that impacts the game and impacts winning and impacts our team."
The Clippers don't have much time. With 21 games remaining in the regular season, they're fourth in the West, but only two games separate them from play-in teams. The starting lineup they've been using -- Terance Mann, Marcus Morris, Ivica Zubac and the two stars -- has outscored opponents by 14.8 points per 100 possessions, but it has only played 142 minutes together over 10 recent games. In their six-week sprint to the playoffs, they want to both build some cohesion and improve their positioning in the standings.
Unlike most signings on the buyout market, this one comes with meaningful risk. Westbrook's presence complicates Mann's playing time, and it complicates everything for the second unit. In order to integrate him, the newly acquired Bones Hyland and Mason Plumlee could be marginalized. If things aren't going smoothly in Westbrook's minutes, there could be fraught discussions within the Clippers organization about how long to stick with him.
That is the downside for the Clippers. They have decided that the upside is worth it.