LOS ANGELES, CA – Sometimes a change of scenery is all one needs to change the trajectory of their future. It happens everywhere in the world, and that's exactly what Austin Rivers says can happen with Russell Westbrook and the LA Clippers.
“I think it’s a great fit, honestly,” said Rivers before the Timberwolves-Clippers game. “I like it. They got rid of a lot of guards. They got rid of Reggie and John and you add Russell, so they needed a point guard, it’s just a natural fit.”
In three appearances with the Clippers so far, Russell Westbrook has averaged 16 points, 5.7 rebounds, 9.3 assists, and 2.3 steals per game on 53 percent shooting from the field.
However, the Clippers are 0-3 since adding Russell Westbrook so far.
Clippers 3 Losses
– A one-point loss in double OT to the 3rd seed Kings when they were up by 3 with under eight seconds remaining in regulation. They turned the ball over 26 times in the game.
– A 10-point loss in OT to the 1st seed Nuggets when they were up by one and forced a miss with 34 seconds remaining. A rebound away from potentially winning that game.
– A seven-point loss to the Timberwolves in a game where they turned the ball over 25 times.
Rivers was teammates with Westbrook on the Houston Rockets during the 2019-20 season that was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. That year saw Westbrook struggle to fit into a new role alongside James Harden, but he found his groove in a more spaced out lineup once Clint Capela went down with an injury.
So what worked well for Houston in the games that Westbrook?
Westbrook with Rivers in Houston
“Space, really,” Austin Rivers explained. “Space. I think that’s what worked in Houston, is we had spacing. Obviously, it got a little weird in the playoffs, but he played well with us, played well before that. He even played well in the second half of the season with DC. When he says f**k it and stops caring about all the noise, and just goes right at the basket, he’s who he is, he’s at his best.”
The Rockets traded Capela after seeing how well Westbrook was doing and brought in Robert Covington, who helped create a five-out offense for Houston.
In the 13 game stretch between when Capela was out and NBA was stopped by COVID-19, the Rockets went 9-4 with Westbrook averaging 31 points, 7.8 rebounds, 5.8 assists, and 1.8 steals per game on 53 percent shooting from the field.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 stopped the NBA regular season, putting any rhythm and hopes for a deep playoff run on an indefinite hold. When the season resumed in the Orlando bubble, Russell Westbrook was recovering from COVID-19 as well as a strained quadriceps muscle in his right leg. Austin Rivers did his best to help make up for Westbrook's absence, even scoring a career-high 41 points in a win against the Sacramento Kings.
Westbrook returned for Game 5 of the Rockets' first round series against the Thunder, but never really seemed like himself for the remainder of the postseason. He struggled
“When he’s in attack mode with his head down going to the basket looking to score or create, as long as he keeps his turnovers low, which we know he’s turnover prone, but when he does that, [look out],” Austin Rivers continued. “I mean he’s still so explosive and strong, he’s still one of the most athletic guard and he’s not even in his athletic prime anymore and he’s still one of the most athletic guards in the NBA. He’s 6’5” and he’s strong and nobody’s keeping him out of the basket. That’s when I think he’s at his best.”
Russell Westbrook looking for a good fit
Westbrook is coming off a year-and-a-half with the Los Angeles Lakers where he could never find his rhythm. Whether it was the outside noise or internal issues, Westbrook never seemed like a good fit with the Lakers.
This season, head coach Darvin Ham used Russell Westbrook as a Sixth Man, and it worked at times. Austin Rivers said Westbrook was his leading candidate for Sixth Man of the Year before he was traded from the Lakers.
“You know how that is over there on that team,” Rivers said with a smirk. “They’re gonna find an answer and it ain’t gonna be some other people. It’s gonna be him. I think Russ was just a person at the wrong place at the wrong time and the wrong situation. He played well, the guy’s a first ballot of Hall-of-Famer, they asked him to come off the bench, no problems, comes off the bench, has a good energy about it, good attitude about it, what else do y’all want from the man? They got a lot of things going wrong in terms of like why they weren’t winning before. It wasn’t just Russ.”
Russell Westbrook was traded to the Utah Jazz as part of the trade that sent D'Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley, and Jarred Vanderbilt to the Los Angeles Lakers. He then took about a week to decide his next move, including meeting with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George about joining the Clippers.
Rivers says joining the other LA team while being able to stay home around friends and family has given Russell Westbrook, ‘new life.'
“Sometimes new life is better for everybody. You see the Lakers now look refreshed since Russ has left. You see Russ looks refreshed since he left. Sometimes, it’s a win-win. You see like [Domantas] Sabonis and [Tyrese] Haliburton. They needed to go to a different situation. It wasn’t like it was one of their faults, sometimes situations for everybody man
“It’s one thing when a team is tailor-made around you like it was for Russ his first 80 percent of his career, but at this point in his career, he’s gotta be a complementary piece. When you’re a complementary piece like the rest of us in the league, the league is 100 percent situational. It’s 100 percent situational. So I think he just found himself in a situation that wasn’t really best for him and I’m hoping the best for him in Los Angeles. Not tonight, obviously, but every other night, yeah.”
Now with the Clippers, head coach Tyronn Lue has encouraged him to be himself. With a number of shooters and slashers around him, Westbrook seems like he's able to do just that.
“It's great as a point guard,” Westbrook said. “For you to be able to have many options and it’s hard for the defense because they don't know what to take away. Whether it'll be driving to the basket, touching the paint, and spreading out the guys for open threes. Miss or make, we live with open shots and, you know, it's my job to be able to find them.”
Clippers facing sense of urgency
The big problem for the Clippers now is they need to string together wins. With only 18 games remaining and just a half game away from a spot in the play-in tournament, there's very little time to experiment with different Westbrook lineups to see what works best.
“He starts, that’s exactly what he wanted to be in that situation,” Austin Rivers said. “The pressure’s not on him to close games. They got two closers, so he gets to go play and just kinda be him and not have to worry about all the pressure. I think it’s a great fit, honestly.
“And then they have a lot of guards that they can finish with at the end of the game depending on how he’s playing. You know, you got Eric, you got Bones, you got Powell, you got Terance Mann. They’re guard-loaded and heavy, so they got a really good team man.”
From an outside perspective, the Clippers look really good. Their problem all year, somehow, has been that they have too much depth. The greatness of Kawhi Leonard and coaching history of Tyronn Lue has led a lot of pundits to still believe they can somewhat figure it out come playoff time, but the more you watch them, the harder it is to believe they'll be able to just flip the switch.
Their 0-3 record after the All-Star break is still 0-3, regardless of any potential moral victories you want to try and find. Their 33-31 record entering March 2023 is the same as it was entering March 2022, when Kawhi Leonard missed the entire season, and Paul George played just 26 games.