Column: Feel-good Clippers story won’t end in triumph without Kawhi Leonard and Paul George
Forward Nicolas Batum can’t help but wonder: If the Clippers are playing this well without Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, how good will they be when their two superstars return?
“It’s natural,” Batum said.
The Clippers are the more likable of the city’s two NBA teams, a collection of anonymous overachievers who erase gargantuan deficits and are positioned to reach the postseason.
They are a feel-good story — for now.
This reality will change when Leonard, George and recent trade acquisition Norman Powell come back from their respective injuries, whether it’s this season or next. The Clippers wouldn’t be viewed as a plucky little team anymore. They would be contenders. They would be expected to win.
Realizing Steve Ballmer’s championship aspirations will require the Clippers to avoid the same problems they encountered the last time they were in this position.
They will have to do a better job of integrating Leonard and George.
Leonard is recovering from knee surgery, George is working his way back from a damaged elbow ligament, and coach Tyronn Lue can’t, or won’t, offer timetables for either of their returns.
Reggie Jackson scored 31 points as the Clippers clawed back to beat the Washington Wizards 115-109 on Wednesday at Crypto.com Arena.
“I’m tired of hearing that s—,” Lue said Wednesday after he was asked for an update on Leonard and George. “When they are playing, I’ll let y’all know. I’m tired about talking about them every day.”
Lue’s frustration over the inquiries is misguided but understandable. The day the Clippers have their full team back together feels as if it’s somewhere in the distant future. George could rejoin the lineup in the next month and this could still be a lost season, in which case the quest for the elusive first championship will carry over to next season.
Urgency will be heightened then because Leonard will be 31 next season and George 32. After next season, the Clippers’ nucleus could start looking old, the anticipated declines of Leonard and George coinciding with Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks entering his prime. The young cores of the Memphis Grizzlies and Phoenix Suns should also be further developed.
There are striking similarities between the team the Clippers have on the court now and the team they fielded the season before they acquired Leonard and George.
Personified by the tenacious Patrick Beverley and Montrezl Harrell, the 2018-19 Clippers made the playoffs as the eighth-seeded team in the Western Conference. Popular thinking was that the Clippers had assembled a perfect supporting cast for a player such as Leonard, who was an impending free agent at the time.
They succeeded in signing Leonard and trading for George the following offseason.
The result in Leonard’s and George’s maiden season with the Clippers: a humiliating elimination in the Western Conference semifinals after blowing a 3-1 series lead to the Denver Nuggets.
The process of adding two franchise players to an established locker room proved difficult, particularly in a season interrupted for four months by the COVID-19 pandemic and finished in a bubble at Disney World.
Chemistry shouldn’t be a problem this time. Leonard and George have played with most of these players and there’s no question whom this team was built around. As many touches as Reggie Jackson and Marcus Morris Sr. are getting in Leonard’s and George’s absences, they know what their roles will be and why they are here.
“If they come back,” Batum said of Leonard and George, “we’re going to be ready for them.”
The two All-NBA performers have remained engaged by dispensing advice to the team’s younger players.
“They’ve been great, just being around,” Lue said.
From purely a basketball standpoint, these Clippers also look more capable of complementing Leonard and George.
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They have a roster packed with players who can defend multiple positions, including Powell, a trade deadline addition who is currently sidelined because of a broken foot. They have a number of shooters who can spread the floor, such as Batum, Morris and Luke Kennard. They have depth.
What they don’t have is what they didn’t have when they collapsed in that series against the Nuggets two years ago: a true point guard.
Leonard and George can be serviceable ballhandlers, but neither one is LeBron James.
Can a championship be won with a bunch of wing players and no natural distributor? The Clippers could be a case study.
Of course, none of this will matter if Leonard and George aren’t healthy. Reintegrating them back into the team will require them to be on the court first.
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