Clippers’ Russell Westbrook to come off bench vs. Rockets, Terance Mann to start: Sources

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When the LA Clippers acquired James Harden from the Philadelphia 76ers, the billing was that four stars from the Los Angeles area were coming together, with Harden joining Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and starting point guard Russell Westbrook. But with the Clippers on a six-game losing streak, including a 0-5 mark with Harden in the lineup, Westbrook will come off of the bench starting Friday night against the Houston Rockets, sources briefed on the decision said Friday. Bleacher Report first reported the news.

Terance Mann, who was originally named a starter before suffering a sprained left ankle before the season opener and returning to a bench role after the trade, will be re-inserted into a starting lineup that will include Harden, George, Leonard and center Ivica Zubac. The move has been speculated about all month given the fit of Westbrook and Harden as players who are most comfortable with the ball in their hands.

But unlike last season, when Westbrook had to prepare for a possible bench role in the preseason with the Los Angeles Lakers while playing with a star who was open to moving on from him, the Clippers spent this preseason building an infrastructure that promoted Westbrook’s strengths. Coach Tyronn Lue embraced and empowered Westbrook consistently, and the team emphasized forcing turnovers, pushing the pace in transition and cutting appropriately off of Westbrook as a primary ball handler.

Westbrook established himself as a team leader, with George as his biggest advocate. And Leonard said repeatedly that having two point guards in Westbrook and backup Bones Hyland would help himself and George focus on scoring efficiently and leading a top-five defense. Moreover, Westbrook’s competitive nature led the team to have a training camp, preseason and start to the regular season that fostered a more determined approach compared to previous years.

The Harden trade has been comprehensively disruptive. Harden did not have a training camp and did not play in preseason games after requesting a trade out of Philadelphia in June and clashing with the 76ers front office. His statistics have been acceptable through five games (15.0 points, 47.1 percent field goals, 4.4 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 2.2 turnovers, 1.2 steals, 2.0 3s, 37 percent 3s). But Harden’s impact has waned in fourth quarters, where the Clippers have struggled to finish close games both before and during his brief tenure. And Harden’s fit in any lineup has been poor, as the Clippers have been outscored by a team-worst 70 points since Harden’s debut on Nov. 6 against the New York Knicks. The next-worst plus-minus of any Clippers player in that span is in Zubac’s minutes, where the Clippers have been outscored by 36 points.

The decision to bring Westbrook off of the bench is not one that the players or coaches would have wanted. Lue wanted to establish Westbrook as the primary ball handler when he shared the floor with Harden, with Harden being the shooting guard. But Harden’s discomfort shooting 3s off of the catch became a recurring theme, along with his passive approach to scoring that led Lue to say Harden was being “too polite” after a bad loss Sunday against the Memphis Grizzlies. Lue decided to have Harden be the primary ball handler in Tuesday’s loss in Denver, and Harden closed the game over Westbrook in a fourth quarter that saw the Clippers lose a 7-point lead and get outscored 19-9 in the final six minutes of the game.

The move also comes after a practice where Mann appeared flustered by his ability to impact games more, and after Lue’s assistants had to start practice while Lue met with the media. The team also did not host shootaround availability before Friday’s game. Westbrook had an event Thursday in Los Angeles where a community basketball court was named after him, but Westbrook declined to accept any questions about the team.

The reality of this move is that Harden was brought in to ultimately replace Westbrook in the case that a partnership between the two players on the floor did not work. While Lue advocated for Westbrook, the Clippers front office has always preferred a point guard who is a theoretical fit with Leonard and George in terms of size and shooting ability. Last year at the trade deadline, the front office identified Eric Gordon as that player and had to be convinced to sign Westbrook after the All-Star Weekend. This offseason, the Clippers attempted to acquire Malcolm Brogdon from the Boston Celtics, even while preparing to bring Westbrook back. The Clippers were interested in trading for Jrue Holiday before the Celtics acquired Holiday from the Portland Trail Blazers in exchange for Brogdon.

Harden fits the front office’s ideals, and they kept players like Mann and Norman Powell out of the trade with Philadelphia, sacrificing the team’s veteran power forwards instead. The Clippers still need to balance the roster out and are expected to continue evaluating the team going forward. That evaluation now includes Harden as the undisputed primary playmaker, Mann as a starter and Westbrook as an increasingly expendable asset who will have to adjust to a new role — which will also cost Hyland a spot in the second unit as well. If the losses continue, there will be more pressure on the front office to consider whether they can keep the four Los Angeles stars together. But the player who has the most to lose is Westbrook, who is already on a much lighter deal than Harden and extension-eligible stars George and Leonard.

Westbrook, who signed a two-year deal this offseason that includes a player option, is eligible to be traded Jan. 15.

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(Photo: Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)

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