The Los Angeles Clippers pulled off as divisive a move as they could make when they decided to add Russell Westbrook off the buyout market. The Clippers’ rivals, the Los Angeles Lakers, notably traded Westbrook in a bid to improve their team; adding Westbrook thus became understandably polarizing for a fanbase wishing for nothing more than a legitimate chance at a championship.
Integrating Westbrook into a team that hasn’t really played particularly well with a “traditional” floor general leading the way will be an interesting endeavor. Terance Mann’s emergence as an efficient scoring option and as a solid point-of-attack defender as the Clippers’ starting point guard has also made having a point guard in the mold of Westbrook not such a pressing need.
However, Russell Westbrook should, at the very least, give the Clippers squad another dimension as they try to continue their ascent atop the Western Conference standings. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George will still bear the responsibility of getting the Clippers where they want to be at season’s end.
With that said, here are three bold predictions for the Clippers as they try to come out of the NBA All-Star break scorching hot.
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3. Terance Mann remains as the starting point guard, Russell Westbrook accepts bench role wholeheartedly
Head coach Tyronn Lue and the Clippers coaching staff inserted Terance Mann in the starting lineup for good since January 6; since then, Mann has started 21 straight games for an uninspiring Clippers team that has barely clawed above a neutral point differential in recent games. (T-Mann has started 35 games overall.)
Over that span, the Clippers have gone 12-9. On the surface that looks like not much has changed. But with Mann starting alongside Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the Clippers have gone 10-2 – a sterling record more befitting of a team with championship aspirations.
Clippers lineups with Mann, Leonard, and George have put up a stellar 126.8 offensive rating due to some torrid shooting; lineups led by that trio have outscored opponents by 8.8 points per 100 possessions in 284 minutes of action. Simply put, Mann fits like a glove alongside the Clippers’ foundational stars, and the 26-year old appears to have done more than enough to cement his place in the rotation.
The addition of Russell Westbrook, however, complicates things. Law Murray of The Athletic reported that the plan is for Westbrook to start eventually.
Nevertheless, if Westbrook accepted a bench role with the Lakers, the expectation for Russ should be that he remains more than willing to come off the pine. It only makes sense that he continues to make sacrifices, especially for a team with his good friend Paul George in it.
Westbrook should have some semblance of rapport with Eric Gordon off the bench as well, having played with him on the Houston Rockets, and the former MVP, as always, has natural chemistry with a pick-and-roll big, like Mason Plumlee. He could run riot off the bench against weaker opposition and help his teammates feast with Leonard and George resting.
Westbrook’s locker room issues have always been a tad overblown; by all accounts, Westbrook’s past teammates love the energy and professionalism he brings. Thus, on a low-cost, free-agent deal, expect Westbrook to take a backseat and give it his all even in a limited role.
2. Kawhi Leonard plays in both games of a back-to-back set
It’s been around 22 months since Kawhi Leonard last played in both games of a back-to-back. Leonard did so on April 8 and April 9, 2021, in a two-game sweep over the Phoenix Suns and Houston Rockets. And with everything that has transpired since – Leonard’s ACL tear in June 2021, his lengthy rehab that forced him to miss the entirety of the 2021-22 season, and his slow start to the 2022-23 campaign – he may never play in a back-to-back again for his career.
However, with the Western Conference playoff race turning into a horrifying teeter-totter, Leonard will do everything he can so that the Clippers earn a favorable first round draw. And that includes playing in his first back-to-back in quite a while, especially with the Clippers having the second-most difficult remaining schedule.
The Clippers have four back-to-backs remaining on the season, so Kawhi Leonard will have a few chances here and there to prove that he’s all business. Whether the Clippers would be willing to risk Leonard’s health, that remains to be seen.
1. Clippers try to match up with the Sacramento Kings in the first round
It’s not the first time that a team held out a few players at the end of the season to, perhaps, manipulate the seedings and gain a more favorable first-round draw. The Denver Nuggets appeared to have done so in 2019, losing to the Portland Trail Blazers to avoid the Houston Rockets and effectively sentence them to a second-round matchup against the Golden State Warriors.
Meanwhile, the Clippers seem to be guilty of this as well. They lost the last two games of the 2020-21 regular season against two of the worst teams in the league in the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder so they could avoid the Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix Suns, and Denver Nuggets’ side of the bracket.
While their 2021 first-round matchup against the Dallas Mavericks proved to be trickier than expected, they ended up making the Western Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history. They potentially could have gone even further had Kawhi Leonard not injured his knee.
Messing with the basketball gods may not be the best idea in the world. However, the Clippers, like any other team, would rather face the Kings in the first round than the Suns or Mavs, lest they end up running into the likes of Kevin Durant, Luka Doncic, Devin Booker, and Kyrie Irving earlier than necessary. Thus, expect there to be some silly season shenanigans as teams in the West jockey for positioning.