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Is Russell Westbrook the championship X-factor? Five questions Clippers must answer

Clippers teammates Bones Hyland, left, and Paul George exchange high-fives during win over the Phoenix Suns on Feb. 16.
Clippers teammates Bones Hyland, left, and Paul George exchange high-fives during win over the Phoenix Suns on Feb. 16. Can the new-look Clippers emerge in the second half of the season as serious NBA title contenders?
(Darryl Webb / Associated Press)
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As Bones Hyland stood in one corner beyond the three-point arc Thursday morning before Clippers practice, Mason Plumlee curled around the top of the arc to set an imaginary screen used by Eric Gordon. He caught a pass from Russell Westbrook, and coach Tyronn Lue blew his whistle, calling for the group to run the play again.

None of the four were on the Clippers’ roster before the Feb. 9 trade deadline. Now, with only six weeks left in the team’s regular-season schedule, all will be counted on in their own way to mesh within the rest of the roster if the Clippers’ championship ambitions are to be realized. Knowing the roster is now set, after the past month of trade rumors, and most recently buyout discussions with Westbrook, has left the Clippers feeling “like, OK, this season is really starting right now,” reserve forward Nicolas Batum said.

Winners of 10 of their last 14 games since Jan. 20, the Clippers have trended in the right direction, though star Kawhi Leonard noted last week they are not yet playing at a championship level. Can they get there? They have a league-low 21 games to answer that question, and others.

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How effective will Russell Westbrook be?

Russell Westbrook smiles and holds a basketball in a portrait.
Will Russell Westbrook fare better with the Clippers than he did with the Lakers?
(Juan Ocampo / NBAE via Getty Images)

Westbrook could help in the ways the Clippers have outlined. He rebounds at an elite level. The offense generated by the Lakers when he acted as the pick-and-roll ballhandler was below league average, according to Synergy, but it didn’t change the fact that he was in the paint 15 drives per game in only 28 minutes, and the Clippers staunchly believe their collection of shooters around Westbrook will turn his drives into open, made shots more often than with the Lakers. Just as the Clippers, who rank 24th in pace, saw John Wall as a one-man fast break, they have the same expectations for Westbrook.

“I heard Ty say he’ll get some easy ones just being out there,” said Plumlee, the backup center who has already shown he can push the pace with his outlet passing.

Yet the X-factor is whether Westbrook can shoot consistently to space out defenses when driving lanes are cut off and, in turn, reduce how much defensive traffic superstar teammates Paul George and Leonard must navigate to get to their preferred spots on the floor. Of the 130 guards who have averaged at least 20 minutes this season, Westbrook’s 46.6% effective field goal rate — a measure of shooting efficiency that accounts for a three-pointer being more valuable than a two-point shot — ranks 118th. He has made 32% of his shots this season on opportunities deemed wide open, with the closest defender at least six feet away.

The Clippers introduced veteran guard Russell Westbrook to the media Wednesday, and he said he vows to do what it takes to win with his new team.

Feb. 22, 2023

The Clippers know this as well as any team. In one matchup against the Lakers this season, they guarded Westbrook with a center. Since he joined their side, the Clippers have shown Westbrook where to be to optimize his fit with Leonard and George. Will that job description include setting screens for either in the kind of pick-and-rolls between guards and wings that Lue preaches?

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“If you are in the flow of the offense and it’s swing [pass], swing, swing and it’s open shot, then take it,” Lue said. “It’s just the early shots in the shot clock where we haven’t worked the ball, worked the offense [that the Clippers want to limit]. We’ve put in different situations where we can move Russ around and make sure we get him in the right spot to be effective.”

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What happens to Terance Mann’s role?

Los Angeles Clippers guard Terance Mann plays against the New York Knicks on Feb. 4, 2023, in New York.
Clippers guard Terance Mann controls the ball against the New York Knicks on Feb. 4.
(Mary Altaffer / Associated Press)

Terance Mann was plugged in as the nominal starting point guard in early January when Reggie Jackson lost his rotation spot as a stop-gap measure. The Clippers love his Swiss Army knife versatility and the pace and defensive help he added to the starters. Nonetheless, Lue views him as a small forward. Now that Westbrook has joined, Lue has the experienced lead ballhandler he has long sought to keep in his rotation, one described using many of the attributes the team has used to praise Mann — pace, speed, force. Mann would seem to be one of the first affected, even if Lue has not yet publicly confirmed who will start.

“It should be a headache for Ty Lue, that’s exactly why I don’t want to be a coach,” Batum said. “But no, I mean, either one’s gonna be great. I think those guys, both of them know whatever we ask him to do, they’re gonna have to do it 100% and he can help us to win no matter what.”

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Roster buy-in is easy. Will it remain when the honeymoon ends?

Bones Hyland plays in the NBA Rising Stars game during NBA All-Star Weekend in Salt Lake City on Feb. 17.
(Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

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The Clippers were up-front with Westbrook before his signing in communicating that his role could change. Lue usually gives players a warning if theirs is about to, as well. Leaving the All-Star break, everyone has said the right things about having just one, championship goal. It’s Lue’s job to maintain that unity when decisions about playing time inevitably keep a few on the outside of the rotation, looking in from the bench.

“Seven, eight guys gonna be on the bench, so you have to put your ego on the side,” Batum said.

“I have great faith and trust ... that T-Lue’s gonna put the players that fit best together on the court,” said Lawrence Frank, the president of basketball operations. “He’s shown that, especially come playoff time, that regardless of resume, pecking order, veteran, youth, he always figures it out.”

The Clippers’ decision to sign Russell Westbrook is really dumb. Apparently they didn’t see all the bricks and problems he had playing for the Lakers.

Feb. 20, 2023

Hyland, a second-year guard, was elated to leave Denver at the trade deadline after he’d sought a larger role. His place in a playoff rotation was hardly guaranteed even before Westbrook’s addition. Now that the Clippers, who made moves at the deadline to reduce their number of guards, have a glut of backcourt options again, he could be the odd man out in the short term. In Lue’s conversations with Hyland this week, the coach shared a message of “keeping him positive, making sure that he’s ready to go.”

“I love what he brings to this team,” Lue added. “It’s not over for him.”

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Can their progress on limiting turnovers continue?

Clippers coach Tyronn Lue watches during a game against the Brooklyn Nets on Feb. 6.
(Frank Franklin II / Associated Press)

Through their first 39 games, the Clippers ranked sixth worst in the league by turning the ball over on more than 15% of their possessions. Since early January, however — a 21-game stretch — their turnover percentage of 11.6% ranks third lowest, a massive improvement for a team whose issues with turnovers and rebounding often created an insurmountable math problem when it came to winning games. They simply didn’t have enough possessions.

Here, again, is where Westbrook will be under a spotlight. He has turned the ball over on 15.7% of possessions he has used, the highest mark of his career since his rookie season in 2008-09. With his potential running mate, George, averaging a team-high 3.3 turnovers, making sure the Clippers get the most out of their late-game possessions will be critical.

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Can Paul George and Kawhi Leonard stay healthy?

Clippers guard Kawhi Leonard, right, drives past Phoenix Suns small forward Torrey Craig.
Clippers guard Kawhi Leonard, right, drives past Phoenix Suns small forward Torrey Craig during a game on Feb. 16.
(Darryl Webb / Associated Press)

All of the nuances about roster fit and incorporating the new additions will be moot if George and Leonard, the franchise cornerstones who handle the heavy offensive and defensive lifting, are unavailable in the postseason.

The next six weeks will be a test of how the franchise strikes the balance of getting as many repetitions as possible with their revamped roster in games and practices while still ensuring they are as fresh as possible for the playoffs where their best will be needed to outlast a Western Conference whose contenders fortified their own rosters in recent weeks.

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