Clippers players were starting practice Thursday morning when they first realized the team’s starting lineup had suddenly changed.
The signal was the sight of Russell Westbrook flipping his practice jersey to its white side, the color worn by reserves.
Bringing Westbrook, the starting guard since his first game as a Clipper last February, off the bench had been in the works since the day before, according to people with knowledge of the events who asked to remain anonymous to discuss internal matters.
While some within the organization felt Wednesday that such a change was being considered, later that day — one day after the Clippers lost their sixth consecutive game to fall to 3-7, including five losses in a row since James Harden joined the lineup — Westbrook sent coach Tyronn Lue a text message saying he would do whatever was needed to help the team. Lue suggested they discuss it in person the following day before practice, the people said.
Their meeting before Thursday’s practice ran long and was why Westbrook wasn’t on the court early getting shots up before practice, as is his custom, and why assistant coaches were charged with starting the practice with Lue occupied.
Terance Mann will start in Westbrook’s place Friday against Houston. Mann earned a starting job before injuring an ankle in practice days before the season opener last month. Since returning from the injury, he’d averaged 26 minutes but also a career-low usage rate while trying to figure out a much different role than he’d prepared for during the preseason. Speaking with reporters before Thursday’s practice, Mann said that since the trade for Harden “it’s just a whole different scheme now. We have James Harden. So, different.”
Westbrook averaged 27.6 minutes a game since Harden joined the lineup, six fewer minutes than in the season’s first five games. Opposing scouts had wondered since the Clippers agreed to its roster-shaking trade with Philadelphia on Oct. 30 how Westbrook and Harden, though former teammates in Oklahoma City and Houston, would fit on the court together with the Clippers, saying what both players have acknowledged since — that this is a much different situation than their previous stops given this roster also includes Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, two additional stars who need the ball.
“Russ has done a great job of just being patient,” Harden said after Tuesday’s loss in Denver. “He got to the rim a lot. Made some really good passes. Yeah, that’s what Russell does. He gets to the basket, pushes the tempo of the pace and he makes great passes. So we’re definitely going to need that from him.”
Asked whether he had thought of bringing Westbrook off the bench before Tuesday’s loss, Lue said he had not and that the Clippers had wanted the pairing of Westbrook and Harden to work in the same backcourt. The team saw Harden as the elite creator it needed to set up teammates, while also viewing Westbrook’s competitiveness and intensity as necessary in the first unit to counteract the starters’ tendency to too often gradually ease into games. The new starting unit including Harden had outscored opponents by one point in 25 first-quarter minutes together.
Yet sometimes it was unclear who would bring the ball upcourt as the offense’s initiator and when either Westbrook, Leonard or George acted as the playmaker, Harden, by his own admission, acknowledged he had some initial difficulty adjusting from his long-held role as an on-ball creator to a catch-and-shoot threat, even though he has shot 62% on catch-and-shoot opportunities and been urged by the team to not turn down such shots. As games wore on, the starters’ effectiveness waned — outscored by 21 points in their combined minutes during second, third and fourth quarters together.
It led to the first course adjustments since Harden’s acquisition. Three games into Harden’s tenure, in a loss Nov. 10 at Dallas, Lue tried to alleviate their fit together by making Westbrook his first substitution in order to bring him back quickly to lead the bench unit. Lue later said it was done because he wanted to, in effect, give each guard his own unit to helm. One game later, in a loss to Memphis, the offense with Harden in the game became tailored to his preferred style of isolation and creation, the team putting the ball in his hands to run pick and rolls. Now Westbrook and Harden will each have their own units.
The team has long maintained confidence in its experiment of pairing four future Hall of Fame talents together, just as it believes Westbrook’s bench role can be beneficial, too.
But, as one person with the Clippers said Thursday while describing the difference between the team as it prepared to be during training camp and the current version it has tried to update on the fly, “it’s kind of like starting all over again.”