PLAYA VISTA, Calif. — Russell Westbrook smiled from ear to ear as he sat in front of the microphone before his introductory news conference on Wednesday.
After a tumultuous end to his tumultuous season-and-a-half tenure with the Los Angeles Lakers, the new LA Clippers guard said he was happy to be on a team that wanted him, that he was happy to stay home with his family in Los Angeles — and that he would do whatever the Clippers needed from him to win, with the ultimate goal being a championship.
“For me, it’s just finding my way to be able to help other guys,” said the 34-year-old former NBA MVP, who is preparing to play for his fifth team in five years. “It’s something I truly embrace, and that’s what I will do — make sure I can make the game easy for all these guys that are here, find out their spots, what they like, what they don’t like. And that’s going to be a process for me, but I’m ready for the challenge and looking forward to it.”
That process will be relatively short. The Clippers have just 21 regular-season games remaining before the playoffs start, beginning with Friday’s home tilt against the Sacramento Kings that is expected to be Westbrook’s debut with the Clippers. How the nine-time All-Star is incorporated into a team that has won 10 of its past 14 games also will fall to Clippers coach Ty Lue, who, reciting a time-tested phrase, said he simply wants “Russ to be Russ.”
“If he’s doing too much or not enough, I’ll let him know,” Lue added. “But we want him to be the player that he is, the MVP, the Hall of Famer, everything he brings every single night. We want him to be that person, that player. And then we’ve just got to make sure that it’s in the confines of our team and what we’re trying to do teamwise.”
The Lakers recently traded Westbrook and a first-round pick to the Utah Jazz, marking an end to his up-and-down stint with the team. After the Jazz completed a buyout, Westbrook signed with the Clippers, who had both All-Star Paul George and fellow forward Marcus Morris Sr. openly call for Westbrook to join the team.
Being wanted, Westbrook said, was deeply meaningful, but Clippers president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank downplayed the idea that the Clippers’ acquisition was based largely on their own players — namely their stars — pushing for it.
“We always listen,” Frank said. “Everyone brings different perspectives. And I think with every decision you make, you listen to your partners. With Kawhi [Leonard] and [George], their opinion matters. Ty Lue’s opinion matters. The evaluator’s opinion matters. The front [office’s opinion matters]. So what you do is, you put it all together, and then, ultimately, at the end of the day, it’s my job to do what’s the best decision for the Clippers.”
“I think this process was really healthy in the sense that we had really up-front, honest dialogue — not just internally but also with Russ and his agent, Jeff Schwartz,” Frank added. “I thought it was a really clean process in that we talked through a lot of different possibilities to make sure that this could be a really good relationship. We value the voices, and I think it’s very important to have that open dialogue, and I’m happy with the outcome.”
On Feb. 10, after the trade deadline, Frank described the qualities in a point guard who could best fit the Clippers’ current construct, as the team lacked depth at the position after dealing Reggie Jackson and John Wall. Frank said the Clippers would want someone who “won’t be played off the floor defensively, someone who can share the ball responsibilities, but not yet be so ball dominant.”
When asked about those remarks on Wednesday, and what Westbrook could bring, Frank said that when the Clippers evaluated the buyout market, they felt that Westbrook’s strengths in terms of his “force, the intensity, the rim pressure, the ability to get downhill, just his general style of play and just who he is” would fill holes for the team headlined by Leonard and George.
“Russ is one of the most explosive and intense competitors in the league,” Frank said, “and we think the many strengths he has will augment and really help our team.”
It remains unclear whether Westbrook will come off the bench or start for the Clippers, and Lue didn’t reveal his preference on Wednesday. But Lue did say he believes Westbrook will make the game easier for Leonard and George — his former running mate with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“We know that the style of play that we play, a lot of time it’s a grind-out game, with PG and Kawhi getting easy shots,” Lue said. “But I think Russ can help manufacture some of those easy baskets like John [Wall] did for us. … And it’s my job to make sure everything works out. So I’m excited for the challenge.”
Westbrook averaged 15.9 points and 7.5 assists and 6.2 rebounds for the Lakers, and his rebounding, in particular, is expected to be a boost for the Clippers.
But Westbrook also is averaging a career-low 28.7 minutes per game, and his scoring, field goal attempts (14 per game) and field goal rate (41.7%) are all at the lowest marks since his rookie season in 2008-09. Westbrook also has been a ball-stopper. According to Second Spectrum, Westbrook has the 11th-longest average time per touch on offense this season at 5.32 seconds per touch. George has highest such average on the Clippers at 4.37 seconds per touch.
When asked about how Westbrook will play off the ball, Lue made clear that the ball will be in his hands, as well.
“You don’t average a triple-double without having the ball in your hands,” Lue said. “We know he can make plays and make the right plays. The biggest thing is, when he is off the ball, what we’re going to do with him, how we’re going to use him. It’s going to take a little time. When you’re the MVP of the league and a Hall of Famer, you’ve got to change your game in some areas. So we’ve got to help him.
“It’s going to take a little time, because you’ve been used to playing a certain way, 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 he can do off the ball that impacts the game and impacts winning and impacts our team, as well. So we will do that.”
Westbrook offered his take.
“I think the most important thing is coming in, keeping the pace high, using my speed and ability to get into the paint [and] get those guys easy shots [is] where I think I can help out a lot,” he said. “Everything else, I’ll fit right in and continue what they have going on right now.”
Lue didn’t want to compare Westbrook’s situation with the Lakers to his current fit, and the coach pushed back on the concept that Westbrook would be accepting a diminished role.
“I would say there are things that he can help our team that we need as far as passing, as far as pace, getting into the paint, downhill attacks,” Lue said. “We need those things every single night. He brings a lot of things that we can use. I’m focused on the things he brings every single night.”
Westbrook said he was glad to be reunited with George, his former teammate, and Lue, a longtime friend. Of Leonard, Westbrook said, “I’m super excited not just to be here but to pick his brain, find ways to make the game easy for him, and I’m looking forward to that.”
The Clippers will need to not only integrate Westbrook into a team that has picked up momentum but also with guards Bones Hyland and Eric Gordon, both of whom the Clippers acquired in recent trades. Finding a rhythm and having the new players adjust to their roles will take time, Frank said, but he noted his confidence in Lue to find the right balance.
Westbrook, though, kept coming back to the same theme: He’ll do whatever it takes.
“Whatever is asked of me, whatever they need me to do, I’ll do it and do it to the best of my ability,” he said. “I hope everything goes well with that.”