Despite a roster overhaul, the title window is shrinking for LA Clippers

ByOhm Youngmisuk ESPN logo
Wednesday, March 15, 2023

AS THE LA CLIPPERS' charter plane took off from the Los Angeles International Airport runway on a cloudy afternoon on Feb. 25, several players were napping when the Denver-bound flight took a sudden veer toward the left seconds into the air just above the Pacific Ocean.

The Clippers' plane began to shake and rattle before a loud bang could be heard. Some staffers saw a flash on the right side of the aircraft as the engine went eerily silent for a moment before roaring back to life and filling the cabin with thunderous revving.

The plane dropped in altitude several times and shrieks could be heard from passengers in what some staffers called one of the worst moments they've experienced on a flight.

"Us players, we're trying to nap away," guard Eric Gordon told ESPN, calling it the second-worst flight he has experienced in his 15 NBA seasons. "Oh, everybody was up after that for sure."

Shortly after the Clippers landed safely in Colorado, the team saw a mark that took some of the paint off the tail of the Delta Air Lines plane -- the result of a midair lightning strike.

If the Clippers could survive this, coach Tyronn Lue figured his team could certainly navigate any turbulence they experience on the court after the February additions of Russell Westbrook, Gordon, Mason Plumlee and Bones Hyland.

But even he was surprised that the Clippers lost their first five games out of the All-Star break after winning 10 of 14. The Clippers dropped games in tumultuous and breathtaking fashion to playoff contenders Sacramento (twice), Denver, Minnesota and Golden State. Lue's team scored plenty of points but found ways to lose -- blowing multiple double-digit leads, allowing an astonishing 176 points to the Kings in double overtime, failing to secure a late critical rebound in Denver and watching a potential game-clinching pass slip through Westbrook's fingers in Sacramento.

It's no wonder that four days after their lightning-strike scare, the Clippers were walking on the tarmac at LAX to board their charter flight to San Francisco when hail began coming down.

"Our luck was so bad, we even got struck by lightning," Lue said.

But as they head into Wednesday's clash with Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors (10 p.m. ET, ESPN), the Clippers have found a spark, winning three straight games with an improved defense that they'll put to the test against the defending champs.

Entering the season with what was expected to be the deepest roster in the NBA and championship expectations as a preseason favorite, the Clippers decided at the trade deadline to chart a different course toward a first title after their first 58 games of the season didn't go as planned.

The team jettisoned point guards Reggie Jackson and John Wall, along with sharpshooter Luke Kennard. Then with convincing from Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and Lue, Clippers management signed Westbrook despite developing a rhythm with Terance Mann starting.

With the Clippers' title window shrinking, Year 4 of the Leonard-George era got off to a disappointing start due to injuries, minutes restrictions and the failed Wall experience. And it remains to be seen how the Clippers' unexpected risk of adding Westbrook will ultimately impact their chemistry and championship pursuit. But after teetering in play-in territory, Leonard and George are playing like the dominant tandem LA owner Steve Ballmer envisioned.

"We just have what it takes," George said last week after the Clippers defeated Toronto. "It's just putting it together on both ends. Even within the losses, we've proven that we can compete [with contenders], and it's just small stuff that we got to clean up and take ownership of.

"We have all the intangibles. We have the personnel. We have the coaching. Everything that a championship team or a team that can compete for one has, we have in our locker room."

IN WESTBROOK'S FOURTH game with his new team, Warriors forward Draymond Green gave the Clippers a preview of what opposing defenses could have in store.

With less than seven minutes left in the first quarter on March 2, Green was standing deep in the paint while shuffling his feet around the dotted half-circle under the basket but not straying too close to the free throw line as if there was a forcefield.

Green was daring Westbrook to shoot, sagging and leaving him wide open.

"Everybody always judges Russ' jump shot," Green said after the Warriors' 115-91 win. "But what that does to you mentally, it's tough. I think it was more the mental than his shot. He's been shooting the ball well ... but mentally that can get tough. ... It's not necessarily getting in his head, but it will make you think, for sure. You are taught in basketball when you're open, take the shot. But when you are open every play, you kind of start questioning yourself."

This was exactly what Lawrence Frank, Clippers president of basketball operations, was leery of.

Frank admitted after the trade deadline that the team looked into making a deal for a more true point guard for Lue. But Frank made it clear that the ideal point guard would not be played off the floor defensively, won't be ball dominant with the basketball "in Kawhi and PG's hands about 60% of the time" and has "got to be able to shoot."

"Because you know in the playoffs," Frank said, "the stars, they're not going to have all that type of space."

The Clippers are hoping the former MVP can create his own shot at the rim, push tempo, facilitate opportunities for teammates with his passing and bring a fiery intensity and voice to a team that has two quiet superstars -- all attributes they expected from Wall.

The 34-year-old Westbrook has to fit this defined role Lue and the Clippers set for him. If Westbrook deviates and displays poor shot selection, takes 3s early in the shot clock or commits turnovers, Lue has said he will adjust accordingly.

"We had conversations," Westbrook said of what Lue wants from him. "And I know what my job is and make sure I'm getting guys shots and distributing the ball at a high level and defending."

Golden State tried putting this to the test. While Westbrook missed all five of his 3-point attempts with the Warriors standing an average separation of 12.9 feet away, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, Westbrook largely tried to stick to the game plan. He looked to pass or attack the rim instead of settling for 3s.

And the Clippers built a 12-point lead early in the third quarter despite the Warriors' defensive ploy before Golden State went on a 38-8 run in the third quarter.

Westbrook is averaging 13.3 points and 7.5 assists in 29.5 minutes during his eight games with the Clippers. His 3-point shooting (26.1%) and turnovers (4.0 per game) continue to be subpar, but he has mostly tried to play off Leonard and George, moving the ball and attacking when opportunities present themselves while shooting open 3s in rhythm. He is shooting 50.6% from the field, up from 41.7% he shot with the Lakers earlier this season.

Westbrook has a 54.1% effective field goal percentage with the Clippers compared to 47.0% during his season-and-a-half stint with the Lakers according to ESPN Stats & Information.

In his Clippers debut, Westbrook had 17 points and 14 assists -- tied for the most assists in a team debut in Clippers franchise history -- but also had seven turnovers in the Clippers' 176-175 double-overtime loss to the Kings.

When Leonard sat out in Sacramento on March 3, Westbrook went back and forth with Kings All-Star De'Aaron Fox. Fox had 33 points, 7 assists and 7 rebounds; Westbrook had 27 points on 12-for-16 shooting and 10 assists.

"He came out, played his game," George said. "He looked great, look like prime Russ. He was special. Plays after plays; finishes after finishes; big, timely baskets; rebounding; big stops. He gave us that energy and that juice."

However, a crucial turnover with the Clippers up one point led fans at Golden 1 Center to let out an "ohhhhhh" with 15 seconds left. Gordon fired a high pass that slipped through Westbrook's hands as he took his eyes off the ball. The Kings pulled out a 128-127 win.

"He's probably the most scrutinized player in our game," Fox said after the win. "But ... when you are out there, you know he is going to play hard, he is going to create for his teammates, he is going to get to the basket."

Fox certainly has gotten a taste of the Clippers' new offensive firepower. The Clippers were in the bottom 10 in offensive efficiency entering the All-Star break. They rank No. 12 in offensive efficiency since adding Westbrook and have a 117.1 offensive efficiency when Westbrook is on the floor, compared to 109.6 when he is off, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Defensively is where the Clippers took a step back. They ranked top 10 in defensive efficiency before the All-Star break but dipped to No. 25 after, although they played much better defense in wins against the Raptors and Knicks.

Westbrook has made the Clippers faster, as they play with the eighth-fastest pace, up from 24th before Westbrook joined the team.

"In a lot of ways, this is like a perfectly crafted roster for him," Minnesota coach Chris Finch said. "They put a lot of spread lineups out there. They run, cover the 3-point line in transition, really open up his early attacks, which he is elite at."

Westbrook is also trying to set screens, even if it occasionally leads to offensive fouls like it did twice in his Clippers debut. According to Second Spectrum tracking, Westbrook has been the screener for 4.2 on-ball screens per 100 possessions with the Clippers, up from 2.3 with the Lakers this season.

Lue won't hesitate to play Gordon or Mann over Westbrook in the fourth if he thinks the team is in a rhythm, as he did against Toronto and New York. And so far, Westbrook has stayed engaged, leaping off the bench and being the first to celebrate with Leonard during a timeout after the forward posterized Toronto's Jakob Poeltl.

"Russ showed even when PG was [in Oklahoma City], he can defer and make guys better," Lue said after the Clippers beat the Knicks 106-95 on March 11. "He just wants to win. You see him in the fourth quarter, he's up, he's cheering, he's constantly talking to T-Mann, things he sees, he's talking to me. We need that. He's been great."

His addition might have shaken up roles and minutes in Lue's rotation, but Westbrook is determined to provide Leonard and George with whatever they need.

"My job is to make sure to keep instilling confidence in PG and Kawhi," Westbrook said. "And make sure they [dominate] every single night, and we got to make sure the rest of our guys do our part, whatever that may be, any given night.

"And we're going to be a hard team to stop."

IT SURE DIDN'T look that way on March 5 when the Clippers surrendered 51 points in the third quarter to a Memphis Grizzlies team playing without Ja Morant, Dillon Brooks, Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke. Early in the fourth, Jaren Jackson Jr. hit George with an inadvertent elbow and the Clippers All-Star crumpled to the floor, lying face first and writhing in pain.

After the Clippers blew an 11-point lead early in the third quarter and trailed 121-107 with less than nine minutes left in the fourth, this seemed like a possible knockout blow to LA's season.

Two games earlier, when the Clippers blew their 12-point lead to the Warriors, George said the "urgency could be better" and Lue wanted his team to "be mentally tough, mentally strong."

Instead, the Clippers were minutes away from their losing streak spiraling to six.

"It felt like the stakes were high," Lue said postgame.

But George shook off the elbow to his face. And he and Leonard lifted the Clippers out of their malaise, scoring 25 of the Clippers' final 28 points to stun the Grizzlies 135-129.

George and Leonard weren't just unstoppable down the stretch, they displayed their elite two-way game, shutting Memphis down defensively during a 24-2 run.

After delivering 42 points and 11 rebounds, George said he finally feels healthy after dealing with a troublesome right knee that had been flaring up. And it showed with George getting to the line 15 times against Memphis, the fourth time in a six-game span that he went to the free throw line 10-plus times.

Westbrook's arrival also has taken some of the load off George, who was bringing the ball up the floor 27.6 possessions per game from Jan. 17 to Feb. 16, according to Second Spectrum. With Westbrook, George is averaging 19.0 possessions per game.

A fresher George will only help Leonard, who is looking like the player he was before his right ACL injury in June 2021. Since Jan. 8, Leonard is averaging 28.6 ppg on 53% shooting, including 50% on 3-pointers and 91% on free throws. Leonard is the only player averaging 50/50/90 shooting splits while taking at least 50 shots during that span, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Leonard has scored 33 or more points in five of his past nine games. And perhaps a true indication of just how good Leonard feels after being in and out of the lineup early in the season and playing under a minutes restriction is that the forward dunked five times against Toronto. Leonard has 12 career games with at least four dunks -- three of which have come since mid-January.

"Our heads are still high even when we lost those games," Leonard said. "We're still confident in ourselves. And then I'm on the floor and whenever I'm playing, I feel like we can win a basketball game. And I think everybody else feels the same way."

With Norman Powell nursing a left shoulder injury, Lue said he is still figuring out his rotation and the combinations that work best. One thing he has settled on is his starting five, citing the experience that Leonard, George, Marcus Morris Sr. and Ivica Zubac have together as the one familiar thing this team has with so many new players. The team also has taken advantage of the most practice days it has had all season due to a light post-All-Star schedule.

"It's a quick turnaround," George said. "... I've never been in this situation but you almost got to reprogram and fit the way a whole totally different team plays. And I think that takes a while, to put your imprint on a team that already is molded and playing a certain way."

When asked what his marker is for when a team has to develop its chemistry, Lue spoke with the urgency that he and the Clippers feel.

"The marker is now," Lue said.

George believes the Clippers' tough losses to playoff contenders will have them battle tested for any storm that comes their way.

"I think you see the big picture of what we can be and what we will be," George said. "I still believe we're going to be a tough team to beat in seven games. And these tough losses can be lessons learned."

-- ESPN Stats & Information's Matt Williams contributed to this story.

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