Plaschke: In signing Russell Westbrook, Clippers foolishly mirror the Lakers' mistake
Fool you once, shame on Russell Westbrook.
Fool you twice, shame on the Clippers.
Are they serious right now? Do they have any idea what they just did? In their constant worldwide evaluation of players, did they not bother to look down the hall?
The Monday news that the Clippers are acquiring the locker room stink bomb that is Russell Westbrook struck the sensibilities like a Westbrook jumper off the side of the backboard.
In keeping with the Presidents Day theme, I cannot tell a lie.
This is really, really dumb.
You may recall Westbrook spending the last season-and-a-half with the Lakers. The Clippers apparently didn’t.
You may recall the bricks, the ball hogging, the sullenness, the selfishness, the complete lack of self-awareness from a bitter former MVP flailing against his declining skills. The Clippers apparently had no idea.
Westbrook was happy after losses when he played well, dour after wins when he was ignored, and divisive in a locker room that was roiled by his tension. The Clippers must not have noticed.
For Westbrook’s final act as a Laker, in a perfect bit of sour symbolism, he threw the pass that LeBron James transformed into his record-breaking shot … then left the arena without talking to the media, willfully skipping out on a chance to honor his teammate.
The Clippers might have somehow slept through all this, but here’s one thing they surely did not miss. We’ll put it in bold so they can’t miss it now.
Russell Westbrook was so much trouble, the Lakers traded a first-round draft pick just to get rid of him.
Think about that. How much dissension must he have caused? How ugly must it have become?
Westbrook was available only because Utah, who traded for him, doesn’t want him around and will buy him out of his contract. He was available despite being given every chance to succeed for a hometown team that bent over backward to placate him. He was available because even the most player-friendly franchise in the league decided they could no longer be friends.
Yet here come the Clippers, their deadline trades were strong, their lineup was finally playing together, their championship pursuit was real and within reach …
And they suddenly decide to pull the pin on Westbrook and roll him into the middle of the huddle?
Once again, the Clippers Curse is not only real but self-inflicted, and the heart goes out to all their poor loyal fans who have been knocked down again like that usher flattened Clipper Darrell.
Steve Ballmer, the Clippers’ owner, is a smart dude. Surely this wasn’t his idea. A man who is spending billions to build a new arena in hopes of connecting with hard-core Los Angeles basketball fans would never acquire a player who is so disliked, even his local roots are lost in the boos and catcalls.
Lawrence Frank, the team’s basketball boss, is a shrewd guy. A man who added valuable role players at the trade deadline in Eric Gordon, Mason Plumlee and Bones Hyland — and who has a solid point guard in Terance Mann — surely didn’t think they still needed a volatile veteran who absolutely hates coming off the bench.
This was seemingly a players' deal. Just as LeBron James and Anthony Davis once pushed for the Lakers to trade for Westbrook over GM Rob Pelinka’s better judgment, it appears the Clippers veterans were pushing for the same thing.
Paul George, who had his best season while playing with Westbrook in Oklahoma City in 2018-19, recently told The Times' Andrew Greif, unsolicited, that he wanted the two to reunite.
“We can run with him and that’s kind of our game, is spacing the floor,” George said.
Let’s see if he’s saying the same thing when Westbrook is running and gunning and clanking.
Marcus Morris Sr., who has no idea what awaits him, agreed with George that the Clippers needed Westbrook.
“I want him to come,” he said. “I think that you can’t kill a wounded dog. You give him an opportunity to come back, it could be dangerous.”
What’s dangerous is how, with the acquisitions of Leonard and George five years ago, the Clippers have seemingly surrendered control of their culture to a locker room that has no feel for chemistry.
Led by the frequently unavailable and often distant figure that is Leonard, they have a group of championship-type players who have never truly meshed into a potential championship-caliber team. Remember, this is the same group that imploded in the 2020 bubble, the same group that got Doc Rivers fired, the same group that sometimes this season has played like strangers.
This isn’t going to make it better. This could only make it tougher. Westbrook grew up in Los Angeles at a time when the Clippers were a laughingstock. He surely viewed them through that lens. As recently as two years ago, his opinion had not changed, judging from the comments made by Washington Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard to NBC Sports Washington after trading him to the Lakers in the summer of 2021.
Sheppard said he was discussing Los Angeles trade possibilities with Westbrook when he brought up the city’s "other" team.
“I said, ‘What about the Clippers,’” recalled Sheppard. “He said, ‘Hell, no.’”
However, Ballmer has made it clear that this team belongs to its stars, and those stars want Westbrook, even if their priorities seem to diverge drastically with those of the front office.
After the trade deadline two weeks ago, Frank was asked by reporters what the team still needed at point guard.
“We need someone that won’t be played off the floor defensively, someone who can share the ball responsibilities, but not yet be so ball dominant,” he said. “You know the ball is going to be in Kawhi [Leonard] and PG’s [Paul George] hands about 60% of the time so it's a delicate balance. So, I think with it regardless of 'point guard' or not they got to be able to shoot.”
With the exception of the sort of one-on-one defense that Westbrook can still play, almost none of those parameters describe him. Most of it is the opposite of him.
Frank was asked how he viewed the team’s open roster spot, and he implied he would like to watch the reconstituted Clippers play a few games before making a decision.
“My instinct is to, let’s kind of let’s see what this looks like and see how this fits,” he said. “We only have maybe five, six games until the buyout market when guys have to be bought out or waived prior to March 1. But I would like to let this marinate for a minute.”
Yet this Los Angeles basketball team waited barely a second before deciding to sign the most troublesome of Los Angeles basketball players.
This is going to be wild. This is also going to be so unnecessary.
The Clippers are finally on the verge of completely separating their brand from the Lakers.
They don’t need to be making the same mistakes.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.