There were no warning signs last year before the Clippers traded Blake Griffin, the face of the franchise.
One year later, leading scorer Tobias Harris was among those caught by surprise when the Clippers dealt him.
Those trades brought the Clippers salary-cap space, draft picks and the opportunity to pull off an even more unexpected move. Their late-night July 5 trade for All-Star forward Paul George while simultaneously getting a commitment from free-agent superstar Kawhi Leonard, rocked the NBA enough to overshadow an actual earthquake that shook the Las Vegas Summer League only hours earlier.
If stealth has been the Clippers’ ally in recharting the trajectory of their franchise, the result of all those moves is a roster that no longer will be sneaking up on anyone.
Led by Leonard, the reigning NBA Finals most valuable player, and George, the Clippers return eight contributors from last season and enter the new campaign as a betting favorite to win their first NBA title. A franchise whose 49 previous seasons never even produced a conference finals appearance finds itself talked about as a championship contender.
It is an unfamiliar, but welcome place to be.
“You don’t think we’re going to win some ballgames this year with Paul and Kawhi on our team?” owner Steve Ballmer said at Leonard’s and George’s introduction in July. “We’re going to win some ballgames. There’s only a few games we need to win. The last game played during the NBA season, that’s the game we gotta win.”
The Clippers are not running from expectations, but getting to the Finals is easier said than done.
Their roster possesses perhaps an unrivaled mix of star power and depth, but also faces significant questions, starting with how Leonard and George — a pairing that team president Lawrence Frank has called the top all-around duo in the NBA — will play off one another, and when the first glimpses of that combination will be seen. George underwent surgeries in the spring on both shoulders, and while it is viewed as encouraging that he has taken part in portions of offseason workouts, there is no clear timetable for his return.
The availability of Leonard, who has missed significant time during his career with leg injuries and did not appear fully healthy at the end of his title run with Toronto in June, is not nearly as concerning, but his status will be constantly monitored.
The Clippers also enter camp with one open roster spot and several options for filling it.
Is the biggest position of need a backup center capable of protecting the rim? The team had hoped to work out center Joakim Noah this week, but it was postponed and the possibility of a rescheduled audition is unclear.
Or is it a playmaking guard who can act as a primary distributor? The Clippers have several capable ballhandlers and willing passers, but departed guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was beloved for his preternatural feel for the game.
The Clippers also are known to be among several teams interested in Andre Iguodala, a savvy veteran still capable of big playoff moments at age 35.
The biggest playoff moments last spring belonged to Leonard. En route to his second championship and Finals MVP, he produced 30.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.7 steals — playoff averages exceeded only by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook.
That Leonard did it while dragging a Raptors team with multiple playoff disappointments in its past to new heights is another source of confidence for the Clippers as they attempt to shed a woebegone history and raise a championship banner.
Yet for all the optimism produced by the additions of Leonard and George, the huge expectations surrounding the Clippers also owe significantly to those the team has retained.
It began in the spring. General manager Michael Winger declined to interview for Minnesota’s vacant top front-office job, assistant general manager Trent Redden turned down an offer to become New Orleans’ general manager, consultant Jerry West signed on for another season and coach Doc Rivers, who has guided a star-laden team to a title before, signed a contract extension.
The continuity carried into July’s free agency. Guards Patrick Beverley and Rodney McGruder as well as big men JaMychal Green, Ivica Zubac and Johnathan Motley all re-signed, meaning 64% of the team’s playoff scoring returns. Just as important is that last season’s tone-setting voices — Beverley, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell — all return. Those players stoked last season’s superstar-less and drama-free locker room, full of players who fed off the belief they were overlooked.
That won’t be the case anymore.
More than 400 media members are expected to convene for Sunday’s media day — more than four times the amount from last season — to get a first look at a Clippers team that, since its earthshaking July moves, has been anything but quiet about its hopes for the upcoming season.
“They expect to win championships,” Frank said in July, while Leonard and George sat nearby. “So do we.”