The Clippers have looked forward to Tuesday’s start of training camp since April’s season-ending loss in the NBA’s play-in tournament.
“It’s like Christmas, you know?” said Lawrence Frank, the team’s president of basketball operations. “Yet what happens to me, what I enjoy is what do we look like in January? What do we look like in February? What are our habits daily?”
Frank isn’t the only one with questions leading into what is surely one of the most anticipated seasons in Clippers history. With a roster loaded with depth and All-Star wings Kawhi Leonard and Paul George finally healthy again, the franchise without an NBA Finals appearance is one of the betting favorites to raise a banner. Whether the Clippers actually will might come down to how they answer some other key questions entering camp.
How can coach Tyronn Lue and the Clippers maximize Leonard and George?
An ACL injury to Leonard would have devastated the Clippers no matter when it occurred but that it came in the playoffs as he and George were playing off of one another better than at any point during their previous two seasons together made the injury all the more painful.
That second-round series against Utah in 2021, in which Leonard and George each scored 30 or more points in consecutive games while playing shutdown defense, remains the clearest evidence that the two superstars can maximize their potential while playing together. Their title ambitions this season hinge on whether they can recapture it. As both acclimate to playing together again, Frank sounded as though he had no concerns that ego would get in the way.
“Many times when you have young, rising stars, one of the things that boils beneath the surface is they’re sometimes competing against each other for the team,” Frank said. “Our guys are competing with and for each other with one goal in mind. We’re very, very lucky that our two star players have that sort of connection and appreciation for each other. You just see continued growth with both those guys.”
Can the Clippers’ past success revitalizing the careers of Reggie Jackson and Nicolas Batum now work for John Wall?
Batum and Jackson rebounded with the Clippers because the one-time franchise cornerstones in Charlotte and Detroit, respectively, responded to reaching a career crossroads by accepting smaller roles and, feeling supported, carried them out with notable enthusiasm and selflessness. That track record of player development was a factor when the Clippers went after Wall in free agency.
If the 40 total games played over the last three seasons by the former All-Star guard are worrisome, then his spirit and intensity during offseason workouts have been termed “encouraging” by Frank. One thing appears clear after three years that Wall has candidly described as the toughest of his life: He wants to make this work.
In July, he said he was excited to no longer shoulder a superstar’s offensive burden and instead help Leonard and George, a close friend, lessen theirs.
Wall can make their lives easier by helping the Clippers score easier. In Lue’s first season as coach in 2020-21, the Clippers produced the fifth-lowest points per transition possession, and last season ranked third worst. Their fastbreaks have often had all the precision and grace of a “Benny Hill” chase scene. Enter Wall, who adds “that fast-paced transition game that we kind of lacked,” George said.
What is the plan for backing up center Ivica Zubac?
Just as last season, the Clippers will open camp evaluating all options behind Zubac. Moses Brown, the 7-foot-2, 22-year-old on a training-camp contract, has size, can protect the rim, and can screen and roll, according to Frank, but “we’re not a prisoner to, OK, playing a backup five,” Frank said.
Expect forwards Marcus Morris Sr., Robert Covington, Batum, rookie Moussa Diabate and wing Terance Mann to shift into the role to pull defenses from the rim.
“Even though, quote, unquote, we call it ‘small,’ think about the sizes, like the different potential lineups that T-Lue can put out there,” Frank said. “You have a lot of size. You can put a lineup out there where with just the length, you’re not really small. Then we’ll just continue to evaluate the position as the season goes on and to see if we need to address it in a different way.”
The Clippers’ depth is enviable, but how will they keep everyone happy with only a limited number of minutes?
Don’t discount the obvious method of trimming a rotation — a trade. The Clippers have been active at every trade deadline since Frank took over the front office. Short of that, however, the Clippers appear to be counting on Lue’s deft managing of personalities, a shared title goal and resting players to keep everyone pointed in the same direction.
As Frank described, being at their best in April, May and June means knowing when to exercise caution in the months before. Games when Leonard, George and the rest of the team’s elder rotation players need a break will turn into opportunities for others such as Luke Kennard, Brandon Boston Jr., Amir Coffey and Jason Preston. With the exception of Preston, who was injured all last season, those players thrived at staying ready and the Clippers expect the same this season.
This team knows where its shooting, versatility and top-end talent will come from. What about its leadership?
The first iteration of the Leonard-and-George Clippers buckled under duress without effective locker-room leadership in the 2020 playoffs, but those around the team suggest lessons have been learned since then. Leonard’s rehab from knee surgery was a model for how to work with discipline, Frank said. George described feeling more comfortable taking ownership of the locker room entering last season and that appears to have continued, with Frank acknowledging that George helped pay for and organize a pair of player retreats this summer to San Diego and Santa Barbara.
The offseason cannot offer the same intensity of a playoff series, just as a team’s star is often not the person best suited to keep things focused or light. When the Clippers hit the difficult stretches of their season, who will keep them on track will be revealed.
“When we talk about leadership, leadership is serving, not being served, and I think Paul embodies it with his actions and what he does,” Frank said. “And the ownership of the team is if you think, like, four years ago, when we got Paul and Kawhi, it was more of a destination place. Now this is home. When it’s home, you want to make this the best home it can be.”