May 18, 2024

When Clippers players arrived in Las Vegas in mid-September, they expected a weekend of demanding workouts and time with teammates.

When they sat down for dinner inside a private dining room at Delilah, the high-end restaurant tucked inside the Wynn hotel, however, they did not expect the iPhones.

Russell Westbrook, the starting point guard since his midseason acquisition last February and driving force behind convening the weekend mini-camp, went around the room. He purchased an iPhone 15 Pro Max — retail $1,200 for the least expensive option — for every teammate present, from those with maximum contracts to those on training camp deals. Guard Norman Powell, excited, activated his as soon as he got home.

Boxes filled with items from Honor The Gift, Westbrook’s personal clothing brand, were handed out next.

The Clippers, like numerous other teams, have held informal player-run retreats before, including their August gathering in San Diego. But “taking us out in Vegas, I haven’t had a teammate do something like that before,” center Mason Plumlee said Monday as the Clippers began training camp, calling Westbrook an “amazing host.”

Westbrook made clear attending team dinners, and workouts, were mandatory during the weekend. The only players who did not attend were Nicolas Batum and Ivica Zubac, who were out of the country, and Marcus Morris Sr.

“It was all Russ,” forward Amir Coffey said.

“You could tell it was genuine,” said guard Terance Mann. “That he has done this before, in terms of bringing people together.”

Five years since Kawhi Leonard and Paul George joined the team and raised title expectations, the Clippers have gone to great lengths to win a championship that has yet to materialize. They have assembled All-Star talent and surrounded it with a roster that, on paper, appeared to be one of the NBA’s deepest. They have spent generously to hire and retain executives and coaches, and hire a phalanx of trainers, doctors and player-development specialists.

Yet what they have rarely had is a take-charge locker-room leader. Some within the team quibble with definitions of leadership. Leonard prioritizes actions over speeches. George has gained comfort in asserting himself but is not particularly domineering. Yet Westbrook, last season, won over teammates with the future Hall of Famer’s willingness to scrap in practice as if it were a game.

Even inside a locker room where teammates’ overt attempts to be heard can sometimes lead to rolled eyes, players up and down the roster vowed Monday a belief that Westbrook’s always-on intensity and preoccupation with “mind-set” is not bluster, but something else: Precisely what a team coming off of a listless season and preaching accountability during the upcoming regular season needs.

And they added that his communication emerged as soon as he arrived last season, long before he handed out new phones.

“I won a championship in Toronto, and [Leonard] is not the most vocal. He shows by his approach and his play,” said Powell, who has known Westbrook since he attended UCLA, Westbrook’s alma mater. “But having a guy like Kyle Lowry on the team, having a guy like Fred VanVleet on the team that’s vocal and unapologetically him is very important. His approach, his personality and his competitive drive really rubbed off on the team.

“You saw that from Day 1 when we stepped into the facility … you need that. He’s a guy that’s going to say what’s on his mind and he’s going to hold everybody accountable and lift everybody up. So I think [coach Tyronn] Lue and the organization allowing him to be him is the best thing for us.”

Successful teams need more than leadership from the coaching staff or front office, Plumlee said. This is the Westbrook that George saw as his teammate in Oklahoma City.

“He just always had energy, so who am I to be like, ‘Hey, I’m feeling it today, or I’m tired,’” George said. “It just changed the mind-set every time I stepped on the court, and I think that’s just what he brings to this team. I think that’s his value and why I really wanted him here so much.”

Russell Westbrook autographs a table full of basketballs

Russell Westbrook autographs basketballs during Clippers media day Monday.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

“I still see myself as an elite basketball player.”

— Clippers guard Russell Westbrook

That Westbrook is starting this season, his 16th as a pro, with the Clippers is because he believed the best thing for him was re-signing as a free agent even though the team was limited in the size of its offer. The first year of his two-year contract is capped at $3.8 million, far below his maximum-contract past.

“Money is not ever a driver for me,” he said.

His proximity to his children was a reason, as much as the team’s warm treatment of him after a rocky tenure with the Lakers. Westbrook’s reputation had been “bashed,” Mann said. He is one of numerous current and former teammates who have stuck up for Westbrook since his career resurgence with the Clippers last spring.

“A lot of stuff that coming to my defense for is made-up rumors that have never been true or actually never happened,” Westbrook said. “I think the important part is I’m grateful for guys just being truthful and standing up, and I don’t take that for granted.”

Westbrook, who will turn 35 in November, hasn’t considered how far away he is from his career’s end. He said he is still focused on speeding up a plodding offense (“we’re going to run”) and “punishing” mismatches against smaller players.

“I’m still fast as anybody, jump as high as anybody,” he said. “I still see myself as an elite basketball player.”

How closely he can resemble his former MVP self this season is something not even the sunniest projections can predict. He shot almost seven percentage points better from the field and on three-pointers with the Clippers last season than the Lakers, but that isn’t a guarantee it will continue. For a team that has been unable or unwilling to make wholesale changes to its roster this offseason, the Clippers will need their existing players to make a leap in order to make their title ambitions credible.

What the Clippers say they absolutely know they will get from Westbrook is what they saw in September, in the dining room at Delilah, and on the court in Vegas: a teammate they call equally demanding and inviting.

“That stuff leaks onto off the court where he’s so contagious,” George said. “Just the way that he values that team camaraderie, the leadership. It just means a lot.”

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