June 21, 2024

Halfway through a recent Clippers practice the point guard who will one day have a plaque in basketball’s Hall of Fame took aside a rookie who has yet to have a place in a rotation. He wanted to make a point about foot placement when fighting past a screen.

Spotting some new basketball nuance to teach a few minutes later, 34-year-old Russell Westbrook sought out 23-year-old Kobe Brown once again.

Since joining the Clippers last February after being traded away by the Lakers and having his contract bought out in Utah, Westbrook has been called by teammates generous with sharing his time, knowledge and interest in teammates’ lives on and off the court, and quick to speak up in an otherwise reserved locker room. It has surprised “everybody,” Westbrook said, to see that he is not the cantankerous locker-room presence that, as he believes, past news reports have unfairly portrayed him to be.

“I want to make sure that I’m personable to people and just being myself, and I’ve done that,” said Westbrook, who hosted a players-only minicamp in Las Vegas in September.

“Now, on the court? Yes, I’m not nice. I don’t want to be nice. I don’t want to be your friend. I don’t want to hang out. I don’t want to talk. So if that to people feels as though I’m a mean guy, I’ll take that. But off the floor, I got no problem doing anything you want to do. I’ll go do whatever. It is a surprise for some people, which is fine, and I’m used to it by now.”

Since February, he has continually upended expectations. Another such opportunity awaits Wednesday, when his first full Clippers season begins at home against Portland.

Westbrook won over teammates who were initially skeptical about how his ego would mesh in the locker room. He made 35% of his three-pointers, five percentage points above his career average, when defenses backed away, daring him to shoot. On Monday, the player who often had little time for reporters’ questions in the past offered introspection and insight into his worldview.

Asked whether he believed he could still perform like the perennial All-Star he was before a tumultuous Lakers tenure began in 2021, Westbrook said he measured himself against his own expectations only.

“I know where I want to be, I know what I want to do,” he said. “And if I exceed those, then cool. If I don’t, then I know I got some work to do. But I’m the only one … I can set that bar.”

“The bar,” he added, “is 30-11,” referring to his 2016-17 season in Oklahoma City, when Westbrook averaged 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists. “That’s the bar when I won MVP. That’s the bar. But honestly, even then, I didn’t even know I could do that. I mean, to be honest, I just was playing and I’m blessed and thankful that that happened and God’s will and I was able to do that. And then once it happened, once, I was like, OK, well, let’s do it again. So I did it the next year. I like, oh, OK, well let’s try it again. So I did it again. You know what I’m saying?

“So for me, I just play and try to play the right way. Yes, it hasn’t resulted in rings, it hasn’t resulted in things that people feel that’s important. But as a basketball player and things that you strive to do, I strive to be the best I can be, lay it all on the line. If everything aligned, I have an opportunity to be able to win the championship, then cool. If I don’t, then that’s cool, too. As long as I lay it on the line and exceed my own personal expectations, I’m OK.”

Westbrook will be the Clippers’ starting point guard on opening night, leading a starting unit — featuring Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, Ivica Zubac and new starter Terance Mann — that has never played together in a game but has spent practices together “getting used to each other, figuring stuff out, figuring out what to do in different situations because guys are going to be paying a lot of attention to PG and Kawhi,” Mann said.

Many will be paying attention to see whether the Clippers will ever fulfill championship ambitions. What they have proven during training camp, players said, was that they could instill a hardened “mindset,” which Westbrook himself called a preseason priority.

“Everyone was healthy, so just from that aspect [preseason] feels way, way better than the other ones,” Zubac said. “And now including Russ who’s been very vocal, he’s been big for us leading the team on and off the court, and just having a training camp like that, I think it changes a lot. I think our mentality is different.”

Coach Tyronn Lue wanted “Russ to be Russ” from his first practice in February, while also drawing red lines they preferred he not cross. Off-the-dribble three-pointers were advised against; he attempted only 12. So were shots early in the shot clock that disrupted the offensive flow; he complied. The team’s shot-selection preferences are the same this season — and so is their commitment to letting Westbrook be himself, even as he incurs turnovers and off-shooting nights.

Westbrook, George and Leonard played only 230 minutes over 10 games together before knee injuries ended George’s season in March, and Leonard’s in April, but all three have been healthy to start this season. Westbrook’s role when paired with the team’s offensive focal points is to “be a creator … giving those guys a rhythm,” he said before an early practice.

In a lineup with three players not known for their outside shooting in Mann, Westbrook and Zubac, ensuring that Leonard and George “are playing at the best level they can play at,” as Westbrook added, will mean knocking down open shots to provide more spacing around the stars. Lue has expressed confidence Westbrook can do that, which would upend some skepticism that Westbrook’s serviceable outside shooting since joining the Clippers can continue.

If it doesn’t, and if losses build, “I will cover and make sure that I take all the heat before I pass [it to] anybody else,” Westbrook said. “I will never point a finger at anybody about anything because I will own things. Even if it’s not my fault, I’m OK with it. I feel like God blessed me with — I laugh and I say this at the house — but with the ability not to care what other people think or what they feel about me, because I’m very strong-willed.

“And I feel very confident in myself and my abilities to be able to help and to look out and help a lot of people.”

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