I think it’s really easy, especially if you are a frequent Twitter user like myself, to paint in broad brush strokes. It’s probably not news to anyone that Twitter is great for quick and easy engagement, but not the best for having any type of nuanced conversation where we seek to understand each other or dissect complicated topics. I’m spitballing here, but I think this has a bit to do with the platform itself (tweets are short and there’s lots of them) and a bit with how we use it (we want instant gratification and to avoid accountability). So, back to broad brush strokes. It’s no secret that the hot topic of debate on Clippers Twitter (and anywhere else Clippers fans congregate, like (shameless plug) the 213Hoops Discord channel) for weeks has been Russell Westbrook. As tends to happen with such drawn-out, polarizing discussions, people have more or less sorted into “Pro-Russ” and “Anti-Russ” camps and settled in for a long campaign.
We might all have a better time–and come to a better understanding of the situation–if we asked some different questions.
Right now, the knee-jerk reaction seems to be to identify if a person, post, or piece of data is “Pro-Russ” or “Anti-Russ” and proceed accordingly, depending on your prior belief. I would, generally, belong to the “Anti-Russ” camp–I don’t think the Clippers should have signed him, I don’t think the early returns have made them a better team, and I don’t think they should continue to start him. But I’m not afraid to approach the early data that we have with some balance and nuance and an analytical lens. I’m also not afraid to be wrong: if I didn’t have opinions about the Clippers, nobody would still be reading my Clippers blog 12 years later, and if my opinions were never wrong, I’d have better things to do than blog about the Clippers for the last 12 years. (I’m sure longtime readers can recall some of my funniest misses.)
So, while I remain broadly opposed to the Russell Westbrook signing and his current role on the Clippers, I have no interest in aligning with most of the “Anti-Russ” presence on Twitter. I don’t believe he’s a “vampire” in the locker room, or whatever else the Laker PR machine wants to say about him. But I also have a higher bar for what his success as a Clipper would mean than a lot of “Pro-Russ” Twitter, who are maybe so weary from his Laker tenure and the discourse and trolls surrounding it that they are ready to declare every bright spot, no matter how small, as a victory.
The problem is that the wires are getting crossed between participants in these discussions with competing priorities. I’m going to try to stop approaching Russ discourse from a “is this pro- or anti-Russ” place and instead ask myself “what question is this asking/answering?” The reason why I think this is a useful reframing is because it strikes me that so much of the conversation around Russell Westbrook and his short Clippers tenure seems to be built around implied questions that I actually don’t care about at all.
One of these questions is: “Is Russell Westbrook a toxic individual personality who is going to derail the Clippers’ chemistry and culture and cause major issues if he sees his minutes cut or is asked to do unglamorous work on the floor (like screen, cut, or defend)?” Don’t get me wrong, I totally understand why the “pro-Russ” camp, whether long-time Russ stans, Clippers fans with a positive orientation, or both, want to take every opportunity to answer that question with a resounding NO. The treatment he got via anonymous Laker leaks as they scapegoated him for the team’s issues was absolutely unfair–something that I had said before he was a Clipper, and maintain now while simultaneously wishing they hadn’t signed him. But when it comes to analyzing the Clippers and what’s best for this team, I just don’t find that to be super meaningful. Yeah, it would certainly be bad for LAC if he was that interpersonally toxic, but I never really had concern that he would be, and him not being toxic doesn’t mean that he’s helping the team win basketball games.
Another question I don’t really care about is: “Is it possible for an NBA team to succeed with Russell Westbrook in a significant role?” I’ve seen a lot of posts during the Clippers’ 3-day break about Westbrook’s favorable on-off differential, and my reaction is always an eye roll. He’s played 8 games and played 69% of his minutes with Paul George and Kawhi Leonard while other guys have 60+ game samples where they’ve played hundreds of minutes without the stars, of course Russ has a better on-off differential per 100 possessions than Terance Mann, who has comparatively only played 20% of his minutes alongside both stars. But maybe I’m being too quick to dismiss these claims, too centered on the questions that I care about. Because if you care about recent weeks as an experiment to prove that a team can win with Russ on the floor as a way of disproving a deluge of Laker trolls and hate, I can see why this would be meaningful to you. For some (Russ stans w/ no Clipper attachment), this is the defining question, proof that he can be part of a positive lineup/team. For others (Clippers fans), it might be a secondary question–the primary goal is LAC winning, but the extent of the anti-Russ trolling is so extreme that there’s a secondary investment in getting some vindication over the trolls by proving that winning with him is possible.
But it being possible to win with Russ on the floor isn’t news to me. Even as I harshly critiqued the Russell Westbrook signing, I said that the Clippers would still win plenty of games and maybe a playoff series. I was surprised that they started 0-5 in his first 5 games, and I still expect them to clean up their remaining easy schedule with a strong record.
So, even though I’m not interested in those conversations, I get it. I get that there are constant, incredibly annoying conversations going on out there that I am not a part of where these are meaningful pieces of information to dispel demonstrably false myths about how uniquely terrible Russ (both the person and the basketball player) is. (I might add that anyone saying “Russ is a vampire” or “no team could ever win a game with Russ on the floor” is so obviously arguing in bad faith that I just wouldn’t bother with them.)
Let me tell you, then, what question I actually do care about: “Does Russell Westbrook replacing Terance Mann in the starting lineup make the Clippers a better basketball team?” To me, this is both more interesting (compared to the other 2 which are refuting bad-faith troll arguments) and more relevant to the thing that I generally care about, which is the Clippers being as good as possible. I hope we can agree why him being a nice guy and good teammate doesn’t mean the answer to this question is “yes.” It might take a little more context, like the % of their minutes they play alongside the stars, but I think we should generally be able to understand why Russ having a better on-off differential in 8 games than Terance in 69 games also isn’t really relevant data here. Here’s a chart that probably has more useful information:
|Mann +/- per 48
|Russ +/- per 48
|With both stars
|With one star
|With neither star
Now, if your first reaction here is to note how small the raw +/- are, I think it’s a good observation. Pretty much everything except for Mann w/ no star (which it shouldn’t surprise us is a struggle lineup) would swing pretty strongly if that lineup won or lost its next 8-minute shift by 10 points. This is why we like to work with as big of sample sizes as possible–because everyone is gonna have good shifts and bad shifts, and the smaller our sample is, the more likely that any analysis we base on that sample is going to be pointless in a few days. It’s also possible that your first reaction is “holy shit, the Russ one-star and no-star minutes are insane.” A little bit of sample size caution is warranted here as well, but there’s lots of theoretical on-court skillset/fit reasons to support the idea that Russ would be a much bigger asset in a 16-20 minute role aiding the 2nd unit as Kawhi and Paul stagger their rest than he is as a starter featuring alongside them.
Of course, there’s a difference between analysis that describes what has occured and predicts what is going to occur next. It’s a lot easier to describe what has happened with accuracy. It’s a lot more useful to predict what is going to happen in the future with accuracy. I would offer that the Mann samples here are probably relatively stable, but the Westbrook ones will probably all trend towards less extreme over time. I’d bet money that Russ w/ both stars will end up being positive by the time the regular season ends. Will they be as positive over a large sample size as with Mann, or Reggie Jackson, or what could have been with Eric Gordon were he playing significantly more point guard minutes on a non-Russell Westbrook Clippers roster? It’s far to early to say with any certainty, but it won’t be a secret to anyone who has paid attention to me in the last month that I am skeptical. And there are plenty of questions that are appropriate to measure going forward (how much of the early Russ starter struggles can be attributed to playing with Plumlee at center instead of Zu? How do we weight recent wins against weak opponents vs early losses against playoff opponents?) that we simply don’t have enough data to do more than speculate about now. There’s also lots of additional factors on the team that warrant addressing, most prominently how absymal the second unit (which Russ is not a part of) has been since the Russ signing.
I’ll add a quick (ok, I’ll be honest, it’s not quick, but you also knew I was lying) note here regarding the argument I have seen from a few people about the “trend” with Russ + 213 in the last 3 games. The case for dismissing Westbrook’s first 4 games with PG and Kawhi (Kawhi didn’t play in his 5th game as a Clipper, where Russ was spectacular) and focusing on the most recent 3 is ostensibly that the team needed time to adjust to his presence in the lineup. I think the real motivation here is probably more out of a desire to find some good numbers, whether driven by “pro-Russ” or just good old-fashioned optimistic desire. There is nothing magical about the first 4 games with a new player that says they’re freebies and by game 5 the team is fully-formed. That cutoff point is arbitrary and insignificant, and also brushes aside the fact that the Clippers lost 4 (they weren’t winning @ SAC w/ Kawhi resting) important games that they might not have lost had they kept the existing, working lineup intact.
I don’t see a compelling reason to think that Westbrook/George/Leonard winning their minutes vs sub-.500 Eastern Conference opponent Toronto by 6 in their 6th game together is more meaningful than them losing their minutes vs potential Western Conference playoff opponent Golden State by 11 in their 4th game together (they won their minutes vs a severely depleted Memphis Grizzlies team by 1 in game 5 together). Just as importantly, the more you slice up a sample to eliminate the bad spots, the more you are left with something small and covered with asterisks. LAC was +18 in 64 minutes of Russ/PG/Kawhi in their last 3 wins, 3 games which they were favored to win. In LAC’s last 2 games with Mann starting, they were +20 in Mann/PG/Kawhi in 44 minutes. Going +18 in 64 minutes in 3 should-win games certainly isn’t bad, but we can put a hold on the parade plans. It’s proof that Westbrook doesn’t make winning games impossible, but it’s certainly not proof of added value to justify his starting position relative to other options. You would expect ANYONE to have a positive 3-man +/- with George and Leonard–in fact, in both the 2020 and 2021 seasons, not a single George/Leonard teammate lost their minutes while sharing the floor with both stars. Being positive is a foregone conclusion–being more positive than the alternatives over a prolonged period of time is the bar he needs to clear to justify deserving to start for this team.
My overall conclusion? If we’re focused on describing what has happened so far, I think it’s pretty conclusive that the the Russ+starters formula has fallen short of the Mann+starters formula overall through 8 games. I also think it’s pretty easy to argue that they would be better than 3-5 in those games had they stuck with what was working going into the All-Star Break. Now, measuring the last 8 games isn’t the same thing as predicting the future (by the way, LAC is about to play a bunch of under .500 teams at home, so they better do well enough to pull those overall Russ numbers up into the positive range). If the Clippers go on to win the title behind a firing-on-all-cylinders Russ/Paul/Kawhi big three, I will have absolutely no care in the world about the first few games that they lost figuring it out. If you believed all along that Russell Westbrook was the Clippers’ missing piece, I get why you’d still feel optimistic right now (especially after a harsh reality check at first). But for those of us, like myself, who were extremely skeptical of the move helping the Clippers win extra basketball games, we are still very, very far away from having that concern alleviated.