Russell Westbrook is an immensely well-liked native son of Los Angeles, a proud ex-UCLA Bruin and someone who operated a few car dealerships near where I once lived. When the rumors about the Lakers’ interest in signing him as a free agent after their disappointing playoff exit after their bubble-asterisked sprint to an NBA title began to surface, many of their neighbors were overjoyed. Westbrook was coming off a solid season in relative obscurity in Washington, and, surely, combining him with Lebron and A.D. would quickly return the Lakers to the title. The team worked out a complicated five-team trade to acquire him, and all but started plans for the parade that the pandemic had denied the 2019-20 champions from throwing.
But the best-laid plans of mice and men, yada yada yada, and Westbrook became the fall guy for an even more disappointing 2021-22 season. There were outcries for Westbrook to be unloaded last summer, and it frustrated many Lakers’ supporters that a team desperate for draft choices and reinvention could not seem to find a trade offer worthy of cutting ties. Somehow–reportedly GM Rob Pelinka, perhaps in deference to James’ obsession with building a team capable of immediate contention–Westbrook was seen as treasure, when the rest of the league saw him as relative trash. So the Lakers allowed their prodigal son to exercise a $47M option, handicapping their financial agility for this season, and Westbrook came back for a second season.
And as the Lakers, admittedly amidst a rash of injuries to their other two stars, struggled to a 27-32 pre-All-Star break record, and, at the moment, sitting third from the bottom of the Western Conference, it seemed that the league was correct in not seeking to unload tangible assets directly for Westbrook. While his basic statistics to date are decent (17.4 points, 7.2 assists, 6.9 rebounds per game), other KPIs (3.7 turnovers per game, plus awful perimeter shooting (under 30% from three)) were more concerning. When an opportunity finally arose at the trade deadline to find a willing partner in another multi-team trade where the Utah Jazz were willing to throw money at the problem, in exchange for one of the Lakers’ few remaining future first round picks for the balance of the decade, Westbrook finally was no longer a Laker. Now he was their trash, too.
But literally across the hall at Crypto.com Center, the Clippers saw treasure in that trash. As Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN.com reported:
After the trade deadline, the front office met with coach Ty Lue, his staff and their two best stars — Leonard and George — to discuss the additions of Hyland, Gordon and Mason Plumlee and assess what else the team might need heading into this playoff run.
With input from the two stars, the consensus was the Clippers could still use a veteran point guard, especially after trading away Reggie Jackson and John Wall. Lue has made it clear in the past he prefers having a point guard in his rotation and the Clippers need someone to push the tempo. They rank 24th in pace and 22nd in fastbreak points through Feb. 20.
“We accept him open arms, man, let him be himself,” Marcus Morris Sr. said Feb. 10 when he joined George in campaigning to add Westbrook. “We need the personality, we need the veteran [experience]. He’s been in the playoffs a lot of times, been to the championship”.
Now, Westbrook will play alongside another pair of Los Angeles stars — Kawhi Leonard and Paul George — but will it generate better results? Our Brad Botkin isn’t so sure.
- Botkin: “This is one of the least efficient scorers and worst shooters in history who is having one of the least efficient and worst-shooting seasons of his career; his 45.2 effective field-goal percentage… registers as his worst mark since his second season. … [The Clippers] might win the title this year, but if they do, it won’t be because of the Westbrook addition. It will be in spite of it. “
George believes there are Clippers who can run the floor with Westbrook such as Mann, Powell, Hyland and Plumlee, and players who can space the floor better for the point guard.
“I mean, no knock on the Lakers and his fit there, obviously LeBron can shoot the s— out of it,” George said. “There’s guys that obviously can shoot with the Lakers as well, but I think we’re a little younger. We can run with him and that’s kind of our game is spacing the floor. … I think that’s what we can complement him [with]. We got a bunch of guys that fit that play style.”
Despite Westbrook remaining in Los Angeles with a team that has championship aspirations of its own, the Clippers believe he’ll be under less of a microscope than he was with their Crypto.com Arena neighbors — who they’ll face on April 5 (10 p.m. ET, ESPN) in a game that could be pivotal for the Lakers’ playoff or play-in hopes.
If he comes up with a decent performance in that game alone, especially if it happens to be one that puts a few nails in the Lakers’ playoff coffin, it will be seen as money well spent.
Ballmer strikes me as someone as impassioned and competitive as was George Steinbrenner. The Yankees’ first two World’s Championships in their late ’90s run were significantly helped by Mets castoffs Doc Gooden and Darryl Strawberry. Seeing Gooden throw a no-hitter in a Yankee uniform and Strawberry hitting a home run in Shea Stadium as a Yankee when damage to the old ballpark forced the Pinstripers to play a home game at Shea was upsetting to a Mets fan like myself, but serendiptious to Yankee fans. I strongly suspect Clipper Nation harbors similar possibilities.
Here’s a suggestion: Should Westbrook deliver a game-winning shot in that April 5th game, let’s have Ballmer buy a car for every Clipper season ticket holder in attendance. And we know what dealership can provide them. If Oprah can do it, so can Steve.
Crazy thought? Ah, just throw it in the trash.