SPORTS DIGEST: Clippers take a gamble, sign Russell Westbrook

By Don Wanlass

Contributing Writer

The Clippers return to play following the All-Star Break Feb. 24 hoping they have filled all the holes in the roster.

If the playoffs started tomorrow, the Clippers would have home-court advantage for the opening round. They are currently fourth in the NBA Western Conference, half a game ahead of the Phoenix Suns and only a game behind third-place Sacramento.

The Clippers can only hope their last roster move — signing Russell Westbrook — doesn’t blow up in their face.

Point guard was the glaring hole in the Clippers lineup. It has been since Chris Paul left after the 2016-17 season.

The Clippers have tried Reggie Jackson, John Wall, Terence Mann and even Paul George there this year. They won games, but the offense hasn’t flowed smoothly all year.

Now insert Westbrook. Will the offense flow better with Westbrook running things?

That depends. If it’s the Westbrook that almost led Oklahoma City to the NBA Finals in 2015-16, then it’s a great move for the Clippers.

The only problem is that Westbrook hasn’t been that Westbrook for some time. Westbrook has always put up numbers. He averaged 15.9 points, 6.2 rebounds and 7.5 assists for the Lakers this year. 

The Clippers would love that production from a point guard. 

But Westbrook is not a good shooter. He hit only 41.7% of his shots with the Lakers, 29.6% from three-point range and 65.5% from the free throw line. That’s a lot of misses.

He also turns the ball over 3.5 times a game and rarely exerts any effort on defense. And for a point guard, he sometimes does a horrible job of running the offense. Far too often, he dribbles out the shot clock until he or a teammate has to take a forced shot before it expires. He can make a fancy pass to set up an easy shot one time down the court and throw the ball out of bounds the next time.

Paul George played with Westbrook in Oklahoma City in 2017-18 and 2018-19. He averaged 28 points a game in 2018-19, a career high.

George highly recommended his former teammate to the Clippers front office. Kawhi Leonard supposedly did the same. Those of you who can remember the summer of 2021 will remember that LeBron James spoke highly of Westbrook, too. Until he played with him for a while.

The Clippers made some decent moves at the trade deadline. They acquired Mason Plumlee to provide a solid backup to center Ivica Zubac. They acquired a veteran role player in Eric Gordon and a younger role player in Bones Hyland.

They have George and Leonard to carry the scoring load, Norman Powell to provide offense off the bench and solid veteran role players in Nicolas Batum, Marcus Morris Sr. and Robert Covington. 

Yes, they needed a point guard, but I don’t think Westbrook was the right answer.

The Clippers face Sacramento Kings Feb. 24, the first of their last 21 games. The Western Conference is tightly bunched between the third-place team and the 13th-place team (the Lakers). Only five games separate those 11 teams.

Westbrook could make or break the season for the Clippers. It’s quite a gamble, one I wouldn’t have chosen to make.

23 BIG ONES: The Laker’s LeBron James is on record: the Lakers’ last 23 games of the season are the biggest games of his career. Maybe a little over-dramatic, but LeBron has always been over-dramatic.

Before the NBA All-Star fiasco Feb. 19 (more on that later), James told the media the remainder of this season is “23 of the most important games of my career for a regular season. And it’s the type of mindset that I have and I hope the guys will have coming off the break.”

That’s something I would expect to hear from Kobe Bryant. Or Magic Johnson.

If that is James’ mindset going into the final 23 games of the season, then I like the Lakers chances to make the playoffs. I don’t like their chances to go very far in the playoffs, but I think they can climb over three or four teams down the stretch, make it into the play-in tournament and maybe advance to the first round and get blown out by Denver.

It all depends on how well James can lead the Lakers. When healthy this season — he’s played in only 45 of the Lakers’ 59 games — he has averaged 30 points, 8.4 rebounds and 7 assists a game.

That’s very good for a 28-year-old player. James is 38 and has played more than 1,400 regular-season games in his 20-year career and another 266 playoff games. 

He has a lot of mileage on his body and is still one of the best players in the NBA.

If James and Anthony Davis can stay healthy down the stretch, the Lakers can play their way into the playoffs. 

It will take a concerted team effort and Davis and James won’t be able to sit out many games, but the Lakers improved themselves enough at the trading deadline to put a run together, especially with D’Angelo Russell running the offense at point guard instead of Russell Westbrook. 

Jarred Vanderbilt and Rui Hachimura are better than Lonnie Walker IV and Troy Brown Jr., who have played the other forward spot opposite James most of the year, Malik Beasley provides another outside shooting threat to go with Austin Reaves and Mo Bomba gives the team another rim protector when Davis strays outside.

The Lakers will be a scrappier team that will have to play good defense, but head coach Darvin Ham has been preaching that all season. It’s time for the Lakers to put up or shut up.

James sounds ready to pick up the leadership mantle and lead the way. It starts Feb. 23 against the Golden State Warriors, one of the teams the Lakers are going to have to pass.

The schedule is difficult. Only four of the remaining 23 games are against teams out of the playoffs — two with the Chicago Bulls and two with the Houston Rockets. 

The other 19 games will be against teams that are fighting for playoff position, just like the Lakers.

James has made his statement. It’s time for him to live up to those words.

ALL STAR FIASCO: It is time to put the NBA All Star Game with the NFL Pro Bowl — on the scrap heap.

The Feb. 20 game in Salt Lake City, Utah, was horrible. Except for the Slam Dunk contest, so was the skills competition the night before. It could have been the location — Salt Lake is not the liveliest of NBA cities — but the players seemed disinterested in everything except the music. I’ve seen more defense in a 40-and-over men’s rec league.

Maybe the league would be better off just giving the players a week off in the middle (or three-quarters through) the season and let them recharge their batteries. The television ratings showed that the audience at home wasn’t going to care if the players didn’t.

I realize no one wants to get injured in what is basically an exhibition game. In that case, cancel the game. Don’t insult the intelligence of fans by pretending that the game matters.

RIVALRY RENEWS: The Los Angeles Galaxy and the Los Angeles Football Club have created quite a rivalry in the five seasons since LAFC debuted in 2018.

The games are always soldout and the respective fans have developed a healthy dislike for each other.

The two local teams will open the 2023 season Feb. 25 at a neutral site — the Rose Bowl. Instead of 21,000 people squeezing into BMO (formerly Banc of California) Stadium or 27,000 people at Dignity Health Sports Park, the Galaxy and LAFC will find out how many people will pay to see them at the Rose Bowl. 

The game, which starts at 5:30 p.m., also will debut Major League Soccer’s new television deal with Apple TV.

LAFC is the defending MLS champion. The Galaxy has won seven of the 17 prior matches with five ending in ties.

It should be a great match.

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