LOS ANGELES – Since acquiring James Harden earlier this month, each of the LA Clippers‘ four superstars have pledged selflessness to make their top-heavy roster work. But with the team flailing, Russell Westbrook has now apparently raised his hand to make a sacrifice.
Westbrook has volunteered to come off the bench for a team needing a shakeup following six straight losses, according to Bleacher Report.
Yes, this is coming from the same guy who had previously drawn skepticism for saying he believed an injury was caused by him not starting.
When Westbrook was with the Los Angeles Lakers, he controversially said in the team’s 2022-23 opener that he “absolutely” believed a hamstring strain he sustained during the preseason finale could have been caused by him coming off the bench.
That immediately raised questions about his willingness to sacrifice alongside then-teammates LeBron James and Anthony Davis, especially considering he had made a similar comment the season prior about being benched down the stretch, attributing back tightness that February to “sitting down long stretches.”
Regardless, Westbrook was moved into the second unit after the Lakers’ 0-3 start and eventually even entered the Sixth Man of the Year conversation before the then-struggling Lakers dealt him to the Clippers last February.
Now, Westbrook is apparently asking for a role he reluctantly accepted in the past.
Really, it’s something either he or Harden needed to do if either one of them wants to win their first championship. Together on the court this season, they are -36 in 85 minutes.
From the eye test alone, the pairing was doomed.
Westbrook and Harden are both ball-dominant guards with completely different styles of play. Westbrook is frenetic and thrives amid controlled chaos, using bursts of speed to confound opponents. Harden operates at a much slower pace, often drawing defenders beyond the 3-point line to free up lanes for himself and his teammates.
Clippers coach Tyronn Lue recently even acknowledged that the best way for them to coexist is to be passing ships in the night.
“Just trying to split those guys up as much as possible and let those guys have their own unit,” Lue said.
This way, perhaps they could both shine instead of clash.
The Clippers instantly were considered title contenders when they acquired Harden from the Philadelphia 76ers earlier this month, pairing four future Hall of Famers in Harden, Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
Instead, the team has been in a free fall.
Westbrook has gone from averaging 15.8 points and 7.6 assists last season to 14 points and 5.7 assists this season.
Harden’s downtick, meanwhile, is far more eye-popping. He went from leading the league in assists (10.7) last season with the 76ers, to averaging 4.2 with the Clippers, his fewest since his third season in the league.
That’s a problem for the Clippers, who wanted Harden because of his ability to make others shine. In fact, after the trade was completed, Lue excitedly gushed about how Harden had created 350 open shots for his teammates last season, not the fact that he was a three-time scoring champion or a former MVP.
It has become obvious that playing off the ball doesn’t work for Harden, nor does him trying to defer. In other words, Harden needs to play his game, not some adulterated version of it that stunts him and everyone around him. Asking a former MVP to awkwardly try to reinvent the wheel in his 15th season clearly isn’t working (although, ironically, that’s exactly what is happening for another former MVP in Westbrook).
With Harden, Westbrook sees it. We all do. In fact, Westbrook anticipated it. When he was asked if he believed the team would have a seamless transition after acquiring Harden, he was quick to pump the brakes.
“It’s not just going to come together and mesh and we’re going to be perfectly fine,” said Westbrook, who had played with Harden twice before in Oklahoma City and Houston. “That’s unrealistic expectations for everybody. The realistic expectation is it’s going to be a process. I don’t have the answer for what that is.”
Westbrook hasn’t talked to reporters after the last two games, but it’s clear he has been doing a lot of talking behind the scenes.
Either he or Harden had to make a major change. Take a blow to their ego. Take a backseat. There were too many turnovers. The offensive flow was horrible. The team was clearly stuck.
And to Westbrook’s credit, it seems he’s willingly stepping forward,
We all know Westbrook prefers to start. He finds coming off the bench disruptive to his routine. He finds it discombobulating.
But we also all know that Westbrook is happy with the Clippers.
He went from being chided by pundits and fans as “Westbrick” with the Lakers, to being well-respected with the Clippers. He went from being considered a chemistry disruptor down the hall to being celebrated as an integral piece of his current team.
And after everything he has been through, it’s clear that’s not something he’s going to take for granted.
Even if it means making a sacrifice.
Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.
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