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Clippers

Column: Why Kawhi Leonard and Paul George make Clippers contenders

Clippers forward Paul George answers a reporter’s question during media day on Sunday.
Clippers forward Paul George answers a reporter’s question during media day on Sunday.
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

They’ve been texting for months, the Clippers’ newest stars Paul George and Kawhi Leonard connecting with their new teammates. Even though they haven’t played together — and even though they won’t officially practice together until Monday — they already know each other.

“That relationship was established early. We came into the facility and it was like I knew them, [like] I’d been around these guys,” George said Sunday during media day.

Whether or not this matters, it’s hard to say, but the Clippers seem to know that with the stakes higher than ever, it’s best not to leave anything to chance.

Like they did a year ago, the team traveled to Miami for a bonding retreat, a trip that ended this time when a hurricane chased the Clippers back home. The entire team has been under one roof for more than a month. One longtime team official said he’s never seen a Clippers group spend this much time together working that early before the season began.

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As the team’s practice facility underwent renovations this summer, the players found another roof in the area to work under.

“I think we’re further along than people actually think,” forward Montrezl Harrell said Sunday. “… We’ve been going for a while.”

The Clippers aren’t alone. Players have been organizing offseason mini-camps and facility workouts — the Lakers spent some of their last days before opening camp by training together in Las Vegas — all across the NBA.

The Clippers prided themselves on being a scrappy team that didn’t need superstars. Now they have two, but they say their identity will not change.

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Everyone knows the season is long. The sports science says, at least in general terms, that there’s no sense in pushing too hard so soon. But teams across the league are entering training camps with a greater sense of urgency to get it right, and to get it right more quickly.

So why are they doing it? In the Clippers’ case, the urgency comes from a couple of places, starting with a group that should know exactly how fragile championship opportunities can be.

George and the Indiana Pacers were set to make a nice run in the East in 2014-15, but he gruesomely broke his leg while scrimmaging with Team USA. He later asked to be traded, ended up in Oklahoma City and partnered with Russell Westbrook — the kind of one-two punch that should’ve given the Thunder a real chance at contending. Instead, George (and then Westbrook) were dealt this summer after two consecutive first-round exits from the playoffs.

Leonard was in position to be the next great Spurs lifer. He was a Finals MVP in San Antonio and had morphed from a project into one of the NBA’s premier two-way players. But an injury, and fallout from how it was handled, fractured his relationship with the club, setting an entirely new set of events into motion, including the Raptors’ first title and the Clippers signing their biggest free agent ever.

Things in the NBA can change quickly — and this summer the NBA’s landscape underwent extreme plastic surgery. It’s another reason why the Clippers and other contenders aren’t wasting time.

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They know they have more than a championship window — this is a giant open doorway. The Clippers can be great at a time when nobody can make a clear argument another team is better.

“You seize the opportunity. You know what’s ahead. You know what you have,” George said.

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An injury or a trade demand at any moment could turn contenders into rebuilders overnight.

The Clippers might be good enough where a fast-forwarded cohesion is good enough. It was good enough last season in Toronto, a team that barely played its title-winning starting lineup in the regular season. The Clippers, who are only guaranteed to have George and Leonard for two seasons, have to operate as if they’re being pushed by a ticking clock.

They have the necessary talent. No team has won a NBA title without a player on either the All-NBA first or second team since the 1995 Houston Rockets. It’s a must that you have the very best of the best, and the Clippers have two of those players.

Paul George is not expected to take part in any Clippers games during October and could be available by early to mid-November, while Kawhi Leonard says he’s healthy.

They don’t have the time together that some other Western Conference contenders like Denver, Golden State, Portland and Utah have built. But the Raptors? They didn’t have the same history as the Warriors last season — and they beat them for the title in six games.

“If you can’t have a team that has the same group of players, you can get to the top. You’ve seen what the Warriors did in the last five years with their same core. But last year, I think with me and Danny [Green] going in there, we just both had a drive and championship experience,” Leonard said. “They just needed to get over that hump. We knew what a championship team needs. We made sacrifices as players as well. We just went in, with that group of talent, and everybody was smart and we just bought into one goal.”

It’s impossible to ignore the similarities, an organization that’s had good chances to make history but stumbled, a team that looks like it’s ready to win if only it had the right talent at the top. It’s also impossible to ignore how fast today’s favorite can become the NBA’s next disappointment.

“You just never know,” George said. “... You’ve got to give everything. You’ve got to invest everything. You try to pull the best out of that season, that group.”

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And you can bet they’ve probably already texted about it.

The Clippers had the most lethal bench in the NBA last season, led by the dynamic duo of Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell. It could be even better this season.


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