Kawhi Leonard is in an entirely different place than he was one year ago.
And not only because he now calls Los Angeles, not Toronto, home.
“I feel healthy,” the Clippers’ superstar small forward said. “That’s all that matters.”
Whereas a lingering leg injury led Leonard to begin last season with the Raptors under a strict plan to lighten his regular-season workload, he reiterated Thursday, following a 102-87 loss to Dallas that wrapped the Clippers’ preseason schedule, that the management of his health “this year will be a lot different.”
After taking longer than usual to recuperate this summer following a title run in June with the Raptors, Leonard began full-contact scrimmages two weeks ago. The rest led to rust, by his own admission. But after playing 33 minutes in two preseason games, Leonard feels prepared, “for the most part,” for Tuesday’s season opener against the Lakers.
“We’ve still got 82 games and I’ll find a rhythm going into there, as well, if I’m not happy with it,” Leonard said.
His attitude at preseason’s end is emblematic of his team’s.
The Clippers call themselves prepared for the season, but with dreams of playing in June, they believe they can build their rhythm as they go.
They have no choice but to do that given the need to eventually integrate All-Star forward Paul George, who has been unable to fully participate in scrimmages as he waits for his surgically repaired shoulders to heal, on the fly.
Since training camp opened Sept. 30, the Clippers’ roster has had the feel of a new puzzle: exciting to ponder what it will look like but with no way of knowing how long it will take for the pieces to fit.
“I don’t know if I think we’re ready or not,” coach Doc Rivers said. “We’ll just see. We’ll have to wait for the first game and then I’ll evaluate.”
As a rule, Rivers said he does not sweat preseason results, such as the Clippers’ 29th-ranked true-shooting percentage, which factors in the value of three-pointers and free throws. The loss against the Mavericks, in which the Clippers shot dreadfully, did not create an exception, either.
One player who rested during the defeat was Lou Williams, a three-time sixth man of the year who averaged 14 points in less than 17 minutes a game, showing no signs of decline during his 15th preseason. He’ll enter the season alongside fellow reserve Montrezl Harrell, who made 50% of his preseason shots.
“They know how to play together,” Rivers said. “That’s the group I’m least concerned with, so I think they’ll be ready for sure.”
If George’s fit remains a giant, unanswerable question, the last three weeks also provided some answers.
The Clippers still have length — see: Terance Mann, a 6-foot-7 point guard — and different ways to use it. JaMychal Green, a 6-9 forward, is an option to start at center but is more likely to start at power forward when matchups call for a more powerful defensive presence, Rivers said. The Clippers likely will use 6-9 Maurice Harkless against quicker forwards, or in lineups alongside George and Leonard because their similar builds and skillsets would allow for maximum defensive switching.
“Defensively, that would make you pretty amazing,” Rivers said.
Mann, their second-round pick in June’s draft, will be an immediate contributor after displaying different sides of his game with every outing. Early it was his passing vision and offensive rebounding. On Thursday it was a feisty attitude, when he poked a dead ball out of the grip of Dallas star Luka Doncic. Last season’s rookie of the year took exception and the two had to be separated. Mann, who called his reaction “just adrenaline,” then scored on the next possession.
“He needs to be more solid overall, but Terance Mann is not going to back down from anybody,” Rivers said.
Leonard learned that Rivers has unearthed plays for him and George that the coach last ran in Boston for Paul Pierce. Teammates, in turn, learned that Leonard is more vocal and engaging than his public reticence suggests.
“He’s not the guy that’s going to yell nonsense and all that stuff,” center Ivica Zubac said. “But everything he sees that’s important, he’s going to let you know.”
Said Leonard, who shot 32% in two preseason appearances but also averaged 2.5 steals and four assists: “That’s why you want to get around guys early, so you can build a team chemistry and you feel comfortable talking to someone when you’re on and off the floor. Hopefully it can have some carryover, but we’ve got some work to do.”
Indeed. Leonard may be starting this season under dramatically different circumstances than last, but his expectation for how it will end remains the same. Toronto made good on its championship goals.
How about the Clippers?
“It’s about the work we do and what our mindset is going to be,” Leonard said. “If we don’t want to win, then we’re not going to win. If we want to, then we have a big chance to win.”