Will Russell Westbrook return to the Clippers?

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
The Clippers and Russell Westbrook both have said they want to renew their partnership.

The Clippers say definitively that they will continue to build around Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. How that will look like, though, appears unclear.

Obviously, the Clippers will show more clarity once NBA free agency starts on Friday (3 pm PT). Even in that case, the Clippers’ options seem limited. 

The Clippers waived veteran guard Eric Gordon on Wednesday, whose $21 million contact would have cost the Clippers over four times that amount in luxury taxes. With the Clippers already fielding a heavy payroll, they only have an exception ($3.8 million) and veteran’s minimum deals at their disposal.

If the Clippers make any significant headway, they will have to do so via trade. Otherwise, they have to hope Leonard and George stay healthy, while further investing in their younger players.  Still, the Clippers have some free-agency decisions to make. Below is a look at those players and the variables in play.

Russell Westbrook, point guard

Status: Unrestricted

Analysis: The Clippers and Westbrook both have said they want to renew their partnership. The Clippers appreciated Westbrook for showing flashes of his prime, while increasing the team’s intensity. Westbrook appreciated the Clippers for granting him a starting position, while putting him in positions both to succeed (athleticism, playmaking) and to shield his weaknesses (shooting, turnovers). The added context: Westbrook rejuvenated himself after struggling for the previous 1 ½ seasons with the Lakers because of both roster construction issues and his own shortcomings with adapting his game. The Clippers still believed Westbrook would excel with them because they had more defenders and shooters than the Lakers. That dynamic would allow Westbrook to run more in transition and create easy baskets without exposing him as much with his limitations in the half-court game.

Will that recent history be enough to back up both parties’ sentiments with actual actions? Westbrook would love to stay in his hometown with an organization that made him feel comfortable, but the Clippers can only pay him up $3.8 million to stay. Other NBA executives around the league believe Westbrook could still attract offers worth $10-$15 million per season. The Clippers may not have offered that money even if they had the space. Despite gushing about how Westbrook upgraded the point-guard position, the Clippers still tried to acquire Celtics guard Malcolm Brogdon last week only for the deal to fall through after becoming concerned with his injury history.

Westbrook surely has to entertain other offers in case he still has one big contract left to land. The Clippers will likely try to package together another trade in hopes to upgrade their roster. For both sides, it appears Westbrook and the Clippers will use each other as a fall-back option in case other possibilities fall apart.

Mason Plumlee, center

Status: Unrestricted

Even in the modern NBA that puts more premium on wing depth, 3s and small-ball lineups, Plumlee represents the value with having depth at the center position.

Plumlee complemented Ivica Zubac with additional rim protection, superb passing and ridiculous efficiency (7.5 points on 72.7% shooting). He also became a valuable insurance policy after Zubac suffered a handful of rare injuries. Plumlee wasn’t the most polished player. But he made up for that with everything else with easy shots near the basket, rebounding (6.9 per game) and consistent defense.

After making $8 million last season, Plumlee will likely receive plenty of interest from teams that want to bolster their front-court depth as an antidote for the NBA’s elite big men (Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid). As the Clippers can attest last season, they struggled mightily on the glass and with stopping big men at the rim with their small lineups. Therefore, the Clippers would love to keep Plumlee. With only veteran minimum deals at their disposal, however, that might not be enough.

Brandon Boston Jr., shooting guard/small forward

Status: $1.84 million contract could become guaranteed by Friday

Analysis: After the Clippers drafted him with their No. 51 pick in 2021, Boston has spent most of his first two seasons with the team’s G League affiliate. But Boston has impressed the Clippers both during his time in the G League and his occasional appearances in NBA games with his productive scoring and aggressive defense. Amid the Clippers’ quest to go young and save salary, Boston has a shot at landing a more substantial role.

Boston never appeared overwhelmed with the moment. During his occasional appearances due to team absences related to injuries or COVID-19, Boston cracked double figures in 21 appearances. Should he receive more opportunities, Boston will have to prove he can stay efficient against defenders that will pay more attention to him. Of course, the Clippers could package his contract as part of a larger trade. Either way, Boston’s dollar figure seems low enough that the Clippers will guarantee his contract by the end of the week.

Jason Preston, point guard

Status: $1.49 million contract could become guaranteed by July 7

Analysis: After the Clippers selected Preston at No. 33 in 2021, Preston ultimately missed his entire rookie season to recover from surgery on his right foot after injuring it before training camp. Preston also played limited minutes last season. Despite that lack of playing time, Preston has impressed the Clippers in other ways. Preston remained positive throughout his season-long injury. The Clippers often have raved about Preston’s practice habits and positive locker room presence. And the Clippers drafted him partly because of his remarkable passing. Though Preston is not high on the Clippers’ depth chart, expect Preston to have a bigger role next season.

Moussa Diabete, center

Status: Restricted two-way

Analysis: The Clippers extended a qualifying offer to him after he thrived well enough in the G League to land on the league’s all-rookie team. They drafted the French-born Diabete at No. 43 in last year’s draft after playing one season at University of Michigan after becoming intrigued with his motor and positional versatility. The Clippers became further validated with that pick after seeing Diabete show off his strong agility, leaping ability and hustle in the G League. It’s a no brainer for the Clippers to further commit to Diabete. The Clippers might not be able to retain Plumlee or find a suitable replacement. But the Clippers still view Diabete as a long-term development project. He’s not excepted to contribute in any major way just yet.  

Xavier Moon, point guard

Status: Restricted two-way

Analysis: Following various overseas stints, Moon landed three 10-day contracts with the Clippers throughout the 2021-22 season in between stints with their G-League team. Moon impressed the Clippers enough to land a training camp invite last season, but not quite enough to make the actual roster. Still, the Clippers later signed Moon on a two-way contract late last season and will likely grant him a spot on their respective summer league and training camp rosters. Those opportunities might not lead to a full-time position. But there’s no harm in Moon taking them in case it helps his case with the Clippers or another NBA team.

Mark Medina covers the Clippers & Lakers for The Sporting Tribune. Follow him on Twitter and on Instagram.

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