Veteran point guard Russell Westbrook will come off the bench on Friday night during the Los Angeles Clippers‘ matchup with the Houston Rockets, according to Chris Haynes. The lineup change is particularly notable becuase Westbrook was the one who suggested it to the coaching staff. Per Haynes, the sacrifice has earned Westbrook praise throughout the organization.
Terance Mann will start in Westbrook’s place against the Rockets alongside James Harden, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and Ivica Zubac. Westbrook will now lead the second unit for a Clippers team that has lost six games in a row, and is 0-5 since acquiring Harden from the Philadelphia 76ers in a blockbuster trade. The losing streak has seen them sink to 12th place in the Western Conference.
The Clippers could make excuses about the slide, such as trying to integrate Harden on the fly, or the fact that Harden is still working his way back into shape after sitting out of the majority of training camp, but even so it was clear that this group just didn’t work together.
In 58 minutes over five games, the Westbrook-Harden-Leonard-George-Zubac lineup was a disaster on offense and had a minus-14.1 net rating. Of the 42 lineups that have played at least 50 minutes together this season, their 90.0 offensive rating ranked dead last. They shot 38.2% from the field and had just 39 made field goals to 22 turnovers.
Upon arrival, Harden raised eyebrows by saying “I’m not a system player, I am a system.” As CBS Sports’ Sam Quinn pointed out earlier this week, the Clippers had indeed begun adopting Harden’s style of less movement, both with and without the ball, and fewer passes. That simply doesn’t work with four ball-dominant players, including one (Westbrook) who is non-shooter, and one (Harden), who is reluctant to take catch-and-shoot 3s.
Westbrook’s move to the bench won’t solve everything for the Clippers, who ultimately need Harden to be much better than he has been for this experiment to work. However, it will help balance the rotation and give the Clippers a better chance to get the best out of their talent.
Mann’s versatile skillset is a better fit in the starting lineup, as he can play off the ball — 39.9% on catch-and-shoot 3s last season — defend multiple positions and do some of the dirty work on both sides of the ball. Westbrook, meanwhile, can now command the second unit, where he’ll have more freedom to play his brand of basketball. He’s still at his best when he’s in control of the ball and pushing the tempo — two things that weren’t happening alongside Harden.
All told, this is a savvy move by Westbrook. If any of the four stars were going to get benched eventually, he was the most likely candidate. By volunteering to take the demotion, he not only helps the team and himself, but looks good in the process.