‘I want him back’: Clippers coach Tyronn Lue thinks Russell Westbrook is a good fit

Clippers guard Russell Westbrook dribbles the ball while pointing up court and having a few words to say.
Former MVP Russell Westbrook was a better fit with the Clippers than the Lakers this season, his energy and availability to play helping during their playoff run.
(Matt York / Associated Press)

As Lawrence Frank, the Clippers’ top basketball executive, expressed his disappointment Thursday with his team’s laissez-faire approach to regular-season intensity, it was hard not to think of a scene from March.

After playing a league-high 61 games before the All-Star break, the Clippers finally hit their schedule’s lull last month. In 11 days, they played just three games. The break afforded an NBA rarity: practice time.

The Clippers practiced hard — harder than coach Tyronn Lue expected, anyway, from one of the NBA’s oldest rosters. Weeks later, he revealed point guard Russell Westbrook as the reason why.


“I credit Russ for a lot of that because you wouldn’t get a veteran team like this to practice as hard as we did in March but for those six, seven practices we had,” Lue said. “We went hard. And so he led that charge as far as just getting everybody going, doing it full speed.”

Of the many questions surrounding Westbrook’s arrival in February, after the Lakers cast him off and the Jazz bought out his contract, the Clippers worried least about his effort and availability. Long before his jump-shooting accuracy returned and his pestering, playoff defense against Kevin Durant earned Westbrook a widely acclaimed reappraisal of his NBA future, he earned respect within the Clippers by doing things that Frank acknowledged were a season-long struggle: playing hard consistently and consistently playing .

“Bringing Russ here really, really saved our season as far as making the playoffs, having this run we had in the playoffs,” Lue said after the season-ending loss Tuesday in Phoenix. “He really saved us. Hats off to Russ for bringing it every single night.”

Lawrence Frank, the Clippers’ president of basketball operations, says Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Tyronn Lue remain part of the team’s future plans.

April 27, 2023

The two-month stint left both sides feeling validated for their belief the pairing could work, and bullish it can work again, with Westbrook an unrestricted free agent.

“I love it here,” Westbrook said. “I love the people, just the fans overall, embracing not just me but my family and close friends. I know, end of the year, a lot of things have happened, but I’m grateful. I definitely love being here.”

Westbrook turns 35 in November, but his intensity seems sustainable.

“The dude has more energy than most people I’ve ever seen on the court,” teammate Eric Gordon said.


What the Clippers must answer internally before free agency this summer is how much else Westbrook can replicate from his encouraging, albeit brief, tenure — and whether that strong initial impression is worth orienting the team around a guard/wing tandem of Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

“He brings a great energy and spirit every single day to the team, around the building, and it’s good because it filled something that we needed,” Frank said.

The trio of Westbrook, Leonard and George played 230 minutes together, with a net rating of 5.2, a measure of how many more points per 100 possessions a team scored than allowed. In other, slightly larger samples playing alongside different lead guards, Leonard and George produced a net rating of plus-15.2 with Reggie Jackson (in 308 minutes) and plus-7.7 with Terance Mann (320 minutes).

The Clippers’ season ended with a first-round loss to Phoenix. Now they face questions concerning Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Tyronn Lue and more.

April 26, 2023

Westbrook’s turnovers remained flat during the regular season and virtually all of his shooting numbers increased from his start of the season with the Lakers, most dramatically from the midrange. His 50% shooting on shots between three-10 feet was an increase of 17 percentage points; his 56% shooting between 10-16 feet was an increase of 15 percentage points.

To stay, Westbrook might have to accept less money. The Clippers don’t have Westbrook’s Bird rights, which limits their offer to not much more than the minimum salary, projected to be around $3.8 million.

“This has opened eyes for a lot of the teams, give him an opportunity if he can go out there and really get paid,” Lue said. “But I want him back, for sure.”


George, the Clippers player who campaigned most vocally for Westbrook’s addition in February, said he was “definitely vouching for him to come back.”

“I just think he brings so much to his team and I mean it’s amazing to watch him,” George said. “He’s older than me and he’s putting his body on the line. He’s giving literally everything he’s got to our franchise during this playoff run. So I just think he’s the leader that we need at the point guard position going forward.”

Signed to complement Leonard and George, Westbrook passed a test early on whether a former most valuable player would accept a smaller role. It was telling when he began setting screens, which he’d rarely done in previous stops.

Clippers guard Russell Westbrook reaches for a loose ball above Suns forward Kevin Durant.
Clippers guard Russell Westbrook reaches for a loose ball above Suns forward Kevin Durant and teammate Eric Gordon.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

By season’s end, Westbrook was doing something else the Clippers struggled with throughout the season: adapting to unexpected change. With both stars injured in the playoffs, he had to become a top scoring option, and averaged 23.6 points — his highest postseason average in five years. In the final three games without either Leonard or George his field-goal percentage dipped to 44%, though his long-range shooting remained above career-average levels.

Something else saw a dramatic uptick: His feeling of being valued, considering his tumultuous start of the season with the Lakers. Perhaps drawing a contrast with his previous stop, Westbrook said he was struck by the atmosphere within the Clippers.


“A happy and enjoyable environment is something that you don’t see everywhere,” he said. “Happy to come to work, being around people that actually enjoy their job, enjoy what they’re doing.”

Whether that will lead to a reunion will be known in July.

“It started off difficult honestly,” Westbrook said of his 15th NBA season. “I’m so grateful and blessed to end up in a situation where I’m just allowed to be myself, be able to be brought in with open arms, allow me to go out and play and compete. I’m super grateful just for that.”