Russell Westbrook entered his career’s latest chapter Wednesday through a side door of the Clippers’ practice facility, taking a seat on a podium surrounded by more cameras and microphones than have shown up at the Playa Vista headquarters in five months.
For the next 10 minutes, when Westbrook wasn’t smiling, he was reiterating a promise.
“Whatever they need me to do,” Westbrook said, “I’ll do it and do it to the best of my ability.”
Westbrook is a Clipper because coach Tyronn Lue, stars Paul George and Kawhi Leonard and top basketball executive Lawrence Frank still are believers in the 34-year-old former most valuable player’s abilities. They believe those abilities will fill in gaps and provide things the team lacked, from attacking defenses with drives into the paint to rebounding and athleticism.
“We want Russ to be Russ,” Lue said, “and so if he’s doing too much, or not enough, I’ll let him know. But we wanted him to be the player that he is, you know, the MVP, the Hall of Famer, everything he brings every single night.”
The Clippers are his fifth team in five seasons, the most recent stop a 130-game sample size with the Lakers in which the heralded potential of a starring trio with Westbrook, LeBron James and Anthony Davis never materialized. By the end of his tenure this month, James was describing disappointment that the Lakers had not been able to trade for Kyrie Irving — a trade that would have been possible only by including the salary of Westbrook.
Days later, after Westbrook had been jettisoned to Utah, attached with a first-round pick, George — a defender of his former Oklahoma City teammate during Westbrook’s up-and-down tenure with the Lakers — and starting forward Marcus Morris Sr. publicly campaigned for Westbrook’s signing.
George hoped Westbrook would see Clippers support. He did.
Knowing the Clippers wanted him “meant a lot to me” and factored into his signing, Westbrook said.
“That’s a huge part, man, for anybody, for any normal human being in any situation in the workplace,” Westbrook said. “A lot of teammates and people that want you here, it’s very important to me. I value that a lot.”
Asked why his fit with the Lakers didn’t work and why he believed it might be different with the Clippers, Westbrook studiously avoided mention of his former team, saying he planned to “make the game easy for all these guys that are here.”
Frank called Westbrook, the roster’s oldest player, also arguably its most athletic, praising his durability. Frank described the guard’s rebounding, willingness to defend bigger players and his drives inside as elements the Clippers didn’t have.
But Westbrook’s strengths and weaknesses — his 29% three-point shooting figures to make spacing a challenge, with the Clippers even guarding him with a center during one matchup this season — are well known. How effectively Westbrook can mold his game to the needs of this new roster is the looming, as-yet-unanswerable question. Westbrook initially bristled at playing off the bench this season with the Lakers, saying it had led to an injury, but coach Darvin Ham repeatedly praised him throughout the ensuing months for his willingness to change roles.
Frank said he and Lue had “up-front, honest dialogue” with Westbrook, “and I think my couple of takeaways without going too in depth is Russ wants to win, regardless of the role.”
“The dialogue is just about winning,” Westbrook said. “I think the most important part is the ultimate goal is to win a championship.”
He was not promised a starting role during conversations with team officials in the run-up to his signing, but such a job has been seen as the eventual outcome. Lue views Terance Mann, the nominal starting point guard since early January, as more of a small forward. The Clippers own the NBA’s sixth-best offensive rating, scoring 119 points per 100 possessions, since Mann’s insertion into the starting lineup. When Mann, Leonard and George play together, that offensive rating jumps to 129 points per 100 possessions. Frank said the team was cognizant of that success.
Still, with one final roster spot open, the team’s major stakeholders lobbied for Westbrook’s addition, believing his explosiveness and ability to reach the paint made him valuable. Those conversations altered the team’s initial plan to patiently evaluate a 14-man roster that already added three new players at the
Feb. 9 trade deadline.
Lue said he was unsure yet how the ripple effect of Westbrook’s addition affects the usage of Mann, who acknowledged struggling to find his footing as his role repeatedly changed during the season’s first months, and new backup guard Bones Hyland, who desired a larger role in Denver before his trade to the Clippers. As practice opened Wednesday, Lue and Hyland were in conversation while sitting off to the side of one court.
How the team incorporates Westbrook will be made tougher by the timing, with just 21 games remaining in the regular season and the majority of the Clippers’ upcoming schedule loaded with opponents surrounding them in the Western Conference playoff standings. Westbrook will debut Friday against Sacramento in a game with no small stakes: At third in the West, the Kings are one spot and just one game ahead of the Clippers, and with the teams so far 1-1 in their four-game season series, Friday will go a long way toward determining a tiebreaker.
Meanwhile, Westbrook’s old Lakers team was moving forward too.
“I appreciate Russ for everything he tried to do for us, for sacrificing, complying with my vision of him coming off the bench and having a more balanced lineup,” Ham told reporters at the Lakers’ Wednesday practice. “I wish him well.”
Lakers center Anthony Davis demurred when asked about Westbrook joining the Clippers because he didn’t know the team’s chemistry.
“I know they got rid of John [Wall] and Reggie [Jackson], so it’s another point guard for them,” Davis said. “I’m not sure how T-Lue and the coaching staff will utilize him, but I’m pretty sure he’s happy to stay in L.A.”
Very happy, in fact. Westbrook took his children to school and went on a vacation with his family over the break. It was time well spent. But he desired spending the coming months on a contender.
“I’m excited,” he said, “to get back to work.”
Times staff writer Dan Woike contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.