Can Harden and Westbrook co-exist and win on the Clippers?

Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports
The Sporting Tribune's Mark Medina wonders if Russell Westbrook and James Harden can team up to win a title with the LA Clippers.

LOS ANGELES — Over 24 hours had passed after Russell Westbrook warmly embraced James Harden in the locker room. Over 24 hours passed after Westbrook displayed an infectious smile.

Once the LA Clippers officially announced that they acquired Harden and PJ Tucker from the Philadelphia 76ers, Westbrook displayed more seriousness and defiance on the next steps ahead.

Westbrook repeatedly stressed that “it’s going to be a process” with figuring out how the Clippers will integrate Harden along with Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, himself and a cast of dependable role players.

Naturally, that led to the most important question that will likely determine whether the Clippers have any shot at winning their first NBA championship. What will it take for Harden, Leonard, George and Westbrook to bring out the best in each other during this process?

“Give it a break. It’ll be a process,” Westbrook said following the Clippers’ 130-125 loss to the Lakers on Wednesday at Arena. “I don’t have the answer. I don’t predict the future. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know, bro. But it’s going to be a process. It’s going to be ups and downs. There are going to be good games and bad games. It’s not going to come together and mesh, and we’re going to be perfectly fine. That’s unrealistic expectations for everybody. The realistic expectations is that it’s going to be a process. I don’t have an answer for what that is.”

Westbrook’s answer didn’t just show his defiance and impatience with this reporters’ question. Westbrook offered a stark contrast to how Clippers coach Tyronn Lue and the team’s core players addressed that same topic.

All parties preached patience as well. But Lue, Leonard, George and Tucker all individually brought up the word “sacrifice.” Lue will plan to spend the Clippers’ next few days of practices before Monday’s game in New York to talk with his core players to add more definition to that word. But generally, Lue already said that involves shots and minutes. Though Lue has not yet committed to a starting lineup, here’s a safe bet that Harden’s arrival will most directly impact Westbrook.

The reasons? Well, Leonard and George are the Clippers’ cornerstone players and aren’t losing their spot in the starting lineup. Though Harden’s arrival will lead to the Clippers’ stars assuming fewer ball-handling duties, Leonard and George have thrived in the past with scoring off-the-ball amid improved spacing and a reduced workload. As shown during his time with 1 ½ seasons with the Lakers, however, Westbrook looked more uncomfortable playing off the ball.

“I’m going to figure it out. I’m going to compete every night and do my part,” Westbrook said. “I can’t control what other people do. How it meshes, I don’t really know. I don’t have that answer. I’ll try my hardest to make it as comfortable for everybody like I’ve done since I’ve been here. That’s all I can do. After that, I don’t know what else I can do.”

It doesn’t seem likely Westbrook will experience the turbulence that the did with the Lakers once again. Though he bore blame with his inconsistent shooting, costly turnovers and defensive mistakes, Westbrook also played as both a starter and reserve on a roster featuring James and Davis nursing overlapping injuries without much shooting and defensive depth. Even with the Clippers trading Nicolas Batum, Marcus Morris Sr. and Robert Covington, the Clippers still have quality shooters (Norman Powell, Terance Mann) and defenders (Mann, Tucker, Ivica Zubac) to shield Westbrook’s weaknesses.

Westbrook appears more revitalized with the Clippers. He has expressed gratitude for Lue and his teammates to encourage him to play aggressively at his pace. It’s not a coincidence that he has embraced a bigger defensive role, saying, “I can help impact winning by defending pretty much any position.”

As shown in the Clippers’ overtime loss to the Lakers, however, Westbrook still displayed the good, bad and ugly on what he can bring. He finished with 24 points on 9-for-21 shooting. But he missed all three of his shots in overtime, including a 26-foot 3-pointer that could have tied the game at 128 with 39.5 seconds left. Westbrook finished with eight assists and six steals, but he also committed six turnovers, including three in the fourth quarter.

Though Harden and Westbrook have already played together in Oklahoma City (2008-2012) and Houston (2019-20), their partnership came under different circumstances. Harden played as a sixth man with the Thunder before leaving for Houston on a max deal. While Westbrook and Harden showed mixed success as a duo in Houston, they played on a team that featured more shooters and less length.

“I don’t know if that applies to this situation,” said Tucker, who was on that Rockets’ team. “Russ and James have known each other for years. They’re familiar with each other and have played with each other. But I don’t know if it’s the same, especially with Kawhi and PG. I think this team has a totally different kind of dynamic.”

Here’s where the dynamic could become similar: how the Clippers figure out to use Harden and Westbrook separately and together. Throughout the 2019-20 season, they mostly ironed out a healthy dynamic.

If the Rockets made a defensive stop or Westbrook grabbed the defensive rebound, he ran the offense at a fast pace. Westbrook then either decided to drive to the rim or kick the ball out to an open shooter. Otherwise, Harden ran the offense at a more deliberate pace that often entailed isolation plays that ended in either a step-back 3 or a trip to the free-throw line. That makes it conceivable Lue could feature Harden playing more methodically with the starters while Westbrook plays at a faster pace with the reserves.

“Russ is more attack, get downhill and speed and pace. James is more slow, playing his game and so it’s a difference,” Lue said. “It’s a big difference between those two guys. Now when you’re staggering those guys, it’s going to be a different pace to the game.”

Though the Harden-Westbrook pairing in Houston ended in a second-round loss to the Lakers, there is more context on what led to that early playoff exit.

Westbrook missed four seeding games and four playoff games after straining his right quad. In Game 6 against Oklahoma City, Westbrook finished with 17 points on 8-of-15 shooting along with seven turnovers, four rebounds and three assists on a minutes restriction (27), two days after returning in Game 5 with a seven-point performance on 3-of-13 shooting in 24 minutes. Though the Rockets stole Game 1 against the Lakers, they simply did not have the depth and defense to match up with the Lakers in the rest of the series.

Here’s where things can get tricky. Will Westbrook feel frustrated with assuming a bench role for his second team? Or would he feel more uncomfortable playing off the ball as a starter? Will Westbrook and Harden complement each other well as they did for most of their part time in Houston? Or will they face turbulence on how to handle end-of-game situations as they did with the Rockets?

“Honestly, I think very well; very well. They are two different beasts,” George said. “We got to get out there to see how it all meshes. But those two played together before. There obviously is chemistry on two separate occasions. Like I said, we got to get out there and see what it looks like. I can’t see the future. But I’m just hopeful and looking toward playing once the ball is tipped up.”

So is Westbrook, who already has talked with James well before the Clippers acquired him.

“It’s going to be a process,” said Westbrook, who will show, for better or for worse, whether that process makes for a smooth or bumpy ride.

Mark Medina is a Lakers/Clippers writer for The Sporting Tribune. Follow him on TwitterInstagramFacebook, and Threads.

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