Perspective | In Russell Westbrook, the Clippers found a path to the 2017 NBA title

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By Amit


No player in the NBA evokes more sentimental feelings than Russell Westbrook.

Though he may shoot against the wishes of his teammates, as well as those of an entire arena, Westbrook still will find a home in this league, one with open arms ready to catch one of his errant jumpers clanked off the top of the backboard. He may eschew even the appearance of playing defense, but that only will rally his longtime defenders. Expertly disguising a reckless approach as “playing hard,” he will seduce his peers, who hold all the power in this league, into ignoring reality and hinging their hearts onto his past.

This week, the Los Angeles Clippers got caught up in all the nostalgia. In particular, players such as Paul George openly campaigned, recruited and called out the team’s need for a pure point guard, name-checking Westbrook along the way. So when the franchise agreed to a deal with Westbrook, it felt as if it snatched up a player, whom the other Los Angeles team recently let go, in the same way someone might spy a discarded VCR on their neighbor’s curb: Sure looks perfectly fine, sturdy even. Why would anyone throw this out? Not until later does it become clear that it plays only a grainy highlight tape from a bygone NBA era.

Once the news hit that the Clippers found treasure in the Lakers’ throwaway, the enthusiastic reactions started to pour in. One national media outlet shared a photoshopped picture of Westbrook, already in a black Clippers jersey and generously positioned in the middle of his two all-star teammates, Kawhi Leonard and George. Another’s social media team airbrushed Westbrook in front of George. No matter that there was only one 2023 all-star in the picture — George — he was stationed behind Westbrook’s shoulder like a trusty wingman. Almost like it was 2017 all over again.

Even George reacted in the over-the-top way we have come to expect when an elite NBA player joins forces with what seems to be equitable running mates and christened the new group as “The beetos.” Either George’s excitement caused him to send a typo, or he was workshopping a comparison between the Clippers’ new trio and the fab four ahead of Westbrook’s expected debut against the Sacramento Kings on Friday night in Los Angeles.

This kind of heightened interest might have made sense back when Westbrook was a nightly triple-double machine on the cusp of winning the 2016-17 MVP award. It doesn’t now. Once upon a time, when a point guard could attain elite status by outplaying everyone, Westbrook, Leonard and George would have been a nightmare for the rest of the league. This Big Three, however, came six years too late.

Since he signed that historic five-year extension worth $205 million that kicked in during the 2018-19 season, Westbrook hasn’t impacted winning the way a superstar who is paid nearly a quarter of a billion dollars should. Westbrook’s teams — the Clippers will be his fifth since he inked that deal — have struggled in the playoffs. Twice, they have bowed out in the opening round, and last year, a Lakers team led by future Hall of Famers LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Westbrook couldn’t even make the play-in tournament. Even Don Lemon would suggest those Lakers were a “super team” past its prime.

Two summers ago, it was James’s turn to get sentimental. He pushed for Westbrook to be traded to the Lakers from the Washington Wizards, and when it happened, he celebrated on Instagram by sarcastically taking a shot at critics who questioned the fit: “I agree I don’t think this will work.” As it turned out, it didn’t.

Over the past two seasons, the Lakers’ uneven roster, with three alphas surrounded by bargain-bin role players, had no chance of succeeding in today’s NBA, especially with a superstar point guard who refuses to adapt his game to modern times. While collecting triple-doubles, Westbrook never saw the need to develop into a consistent three-point threat. Even now, his 29 percent shooting from deep makes him an afterthought in the half court, while his 2.1 assist-to-turnover ratio (a low number that reveals suspect ball control) means he’s not the best decision-maker, either.

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Still, the old footage of Westbrook charging up and down the court, veins popping from his neck as he attacks the rim, has a stranglehold on his most ardent fans. They still claim he plays harder than everyone else on the floor. While there are few statistics to measure how hard a player actually goes, the narrative of Westbrook as a hard worker no longer aligns with the numbers that do exist in 2023.

This season, the Lakers had a 110.6 defensive rating when Westbrook was off the court. That number ballooned to a 114.4 rating when he was on the floor. Also, opponents scored 5.3 points more per 100 possessions when he played, according to the statistical website Cleaning the Glass. Overall, teams outscored the Lakers by 44 points in Westbrook’s 1,491 minutes played. Conversely, Los Angeles outscored opponents by 125 points during James’s 1,632 minutes and were a plus-55 when the oft-injured Davis logged his abbreviated workload.

Learning no lessons from James’s failed experiment, Clippers such as George played shadow GM and went after Westbrook anyway. They didn’t seem to notice the flaming red flags on Westbrook’s game film this season — or really any of the past five. He no longer plays with the stunning athleticism that once defined his stellar career. This hasn’t stopped teams — and more specifically his peers — from returning to Westbrook time and time again. Blinded by incandescent memories, they can’t resist attempting to rekindle that flame, ignoring that it extinguished years ago.

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