As is often the case at the start of NBA training camps, which for the L.A. Clippers kicked off Monday, a few executives around the league are beginning to divulge behind-the-scenes details about newly minted offseason moves.
One such example involves the mind-melting five-team, nine-player trade that ultimately resulted in nine-time All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook joining the Lakers after just one ridiculously productive season in Washington.
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It’s no secret that Westbrook, an L.A. native who played college ball at UCLA, has longed to return to his hometown, and in the past, he’s been connected to trade speculation involving the Clippers, including an alleged phone call to Kawhi Leonard in 2019 that didn’t go as planned. So when the news broke, at the end of July, that the Wizards and Lakers (and Nets and Spurs and Pacers) had finalized a deal, naturally some onlookers wondered if the Clippers had ever been in the running for the league’s fourth-highest paid player.
Turns out, according to a recent interview with Wizards GM Tommy Sheppard, they had not. Quite the opposite.
Westbrook Did Not Mince Words
On Tuesday, Sheppard revealed Westbrook’s appetite (or lack thereof) for joining the Clippers in an interview with NBC Sports Washington’s Chris Miller, during which the Wiz general manager debunked rumors that Westbrook had strong-armed his way out of Washington mere months after lifting the team to the playoffs and leading the league in triple-doubles (38) for the sixth time in the last seven seasons.
“I really have to make sure the record is straight on that,” Sheppard said. “Russell actually never asked to move on. He just said, ‘If I can get to the Lakers, that’d be something I would love to do. If not, I’ll be back here.’”
Of course, Sheppard was well aware of Westbrook’s desire to play in Los Angeles, just as he was well aware that there are, in fact, two teams in the city, despite what Lakers fans may think.
“I said, ‘What about the Clippers?’ He said, ‘Hell no.’
In the interview, Sheppard lauded Westbrook’s professionalism and his “profound” impact on the Washington franchise, and he spoke about wanting to do right by Westbrook so long as any trade was also “great for us,” meaning the organization. Obviously, players without a no-trade clause can’t call their own shots, but Sheppard seemed truly interested in helping get Westbrook to where he wanted to go.
Though Sheppard did not indicate if Westbrook had anything more to say about the Clippers, and nothing suggests the Clippers were ever willing (or able) to fork over the necessary players to match Washington’s expectations and Westbrook’s $44.2 million salary, it’s not hard to deduce why Westbrook might favor the Lakers over the Clippers.
First off, he grew up a Lakers fan. Fair enough. On top of that, he and LeBron James are good friends and the two must surely believe that together, along with a healthy Anthony Davis, they have an excellent shot at winning a title. A ring would be Westbrook’s first, and Sheppard touched on how that played a role in Westbrook’s request.
“Russell was very direct about ‘Hey, I want to win a championship. I don’t know how many more of these I have,’” said Sheppard.
Although the Clippers advanced further than the Lakers last season — the latter getting booted in the first round of the playoffs — the odds are against the Clippers returning to the Western Conference finals this year given the significant time Leonard will miss following July ACL surgery. If the Lakers can remain healthy, they will be a frontline contender from the West. The Clippers, meanwhile, figure to be an ongoing question mark.
But even setting aside his affinity for the Lakers, LeBron and a title, Westbrook might’ve still found enough reasons to shun the Clippers. There is, after all, history.
Beverley and a Phone Call Gone Awry
Point guard Patrick Beverley, who would eventually be traded to the Memphis Grizzlies in mid-August, was still a Clipper when Westbrook went on the market this summer, and though Beverley would have likely been part of any deal that brought in a star, let alone a point guard, Westbrook couldn’t have been jazzed at even the slightest chance of sharing a huddle with Beverley.
In 2013, during the first round of the postseason, Westbrook tore his meniscus and was forced to miss Oklahoma City’s final nine playoff games after Beverley, then a Rocket, aggressively lunged for the ball while Westbrook tried to call a routine timeout. Beverly claimed he was just hustling, but Westbrook felt it was a dirty play and ever since has not been coy about his disdain for Beverley. In 2018, in a Clippers regular-season road game, OKC security guards stood on the court during a timeout to make sure Beverley and Westbrook didn’t get any funny ideas.
And early in the 2019 season, Westbrook belittled Beverley’s reputation as an elite defender by telling reporters that “Pat Bev trick y’all, man, like he playing defense. He don’t guard nobody, man. It’s just running around, doing nothing.”
Beverley, however, would have not been the only potential dealbreaker on the Clippers for Westbrook. According to ESPN’s Ramona Shelbourne, in the summer of 2019 Westbrook called Leonard and pitched the two of them joining forces for a homecoming in Los Angeles. But not only did Leonard rebuke Westbrook’s proposal, he turned around and called Paul George, then Westbrook’s teammate in OKC, and instead convinced him to push for a trade to the Clippers.
Westbrook eventually got over George’s decision to bounce westward, but it’s not difficult to imagine a lack of trust still existing between the three superstars. One thing’s for certain: the intensity will be sky high when the Clippers and Lakers meet December 3, the first of several chances George and his teammates will have to make Westbrook eat his words.
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