Clippers still believe they can win title behind healthy Kawhi Leonard, Paul George
In the coming days the Clippers will meet with players for individual meetings, review the season day by day, reevaluate their internal processes and analyze, for the umpteenth time, how to surround Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to best support a championship run.
But less than a week into an offseason that arrived earlier than the Clippers expected, the coolly analytical approach has been replaced, if only briefly, by the viscerally emotional feeling.
In an hourlong review of the season with reporters Wednesday, president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank described missing the postseason for the first time in four seasons with words including misery, disappointment and pain.
The Clippers finished with the Western Conference’s eighth-best record at 42-40, the franchise’s 11th consecutive winning record, and authored 13 victories when trailing by double digits — including a 35-point comeback in January — despite Leonard missing the entire season while recovering from knee surgery and George missing the majority of the schedule because of an elbow injury.
Yet they played their way out of a postseason berth during the play-in tournament after losing double-digit fourth-quarter leads against Minnesota and New Orleans.
It’s wait ‘til next year for the Clippers after losing Friday. It always is, and that’s getting tired, writes L.A. Times columnist Helene Elliott.
“We watch all these playoff games because there’s a lot of learning to be done, but you do watch it with a degree of emptiness and envy,” Frank said. “But I also think fuel for a great offseason to build great momentum into a great season next year.
“With that being said, we’re not going to allow two games where we came up short to overshadow that it was a special regular season.”
Five months before training camp begins, five things learned from Frank’s review of last season and lookahead to next:
Kawhi Leonard’s timetable to return? Clippers still won’t say
Asked whether he anticipated Leonard being ready to play on October’s opening night of regular season — which will arrive 15 months after Leonard underwent surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee — Frank said he wouldn’t discuss timetables for recovery. Nor would Frank detail what stage Leonard has reached in his recovery.
Frank did credit Leonard with staying disciplined in his recovery despite the “emotional toll” of a long-term injury.
“He’s a maniacal worker,” Frank said. “He puts a ton of time, effort, focus into his daily rehab, so he continues to make progress. We’re encouraged by the progress he’s making.”
The Clippers’ championship hopes are constructed entirely around Leonard and George. Each are in their 30s with a history of injuries. Frank expressed confidence the all-star duo will be able to stay on the floor next season, describing the “flukiness” that led to both stars’ latest long-term injuries.
Leonard’s knee injury occurred after he was bumped in transition during the 2021 playoffs. George suffered a torn elbow ligament after Portland center Jusuf Nurkic landed on the arm in December.
“I really do have good faith that we’re going to get great health for not just those guys but for our team,” Frank said. “We all acknowledge that injuries are part of it, but I do think that we’re going to run to great fortune next year.”
If it wasn’t clear already, next year is all about a title
Knowing Leonard would miss most, if not all, of last season, the team treated it as a gap year to get a head start on 2023’s title pursuit.
“From a process standpoint [it] went better than expected, Frank said, calling the development from the team’s 25-and-under players playing larger roles than usual a “huge silver lining.”
But if this season was in part measured by nuanced, internal reviews of each player’s development curve, next season will be measured against a championship banner. Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti said last week the Clippers have arguably the NBA’s best roster and “will win a title, maybe multiple times, in the next couple years.” Frank smiled at that.
“I pray Sam is right,” he said.
Breaking down each Clippers player’s situation by key stats, contract status, preseason expectations, current reality and what the future holds.
Three seasons after Leonard and George teamed in Los Angeles, the Clippers are still seeking their first Finals berth. Frank said he sees employees “extremely driven to do something so special that’s never been done for this organization.”
“The reality is we haven’t achieved anything,” he added. “We’re never the favorite, so to speak, because we haven’t done any — we haven’t won a championship. We haven’t been to the NBA Finals. It’s your everyday work habit, and it takes a lot. It takes a lot. From everyone. Like the amount of work, commitment, sacrifices, humility, hunger, thirst, willing to do things that make you uncomfortable. Like it takes so much.
“Then with that, you also need an element of some circumstances going your way.”
Retaining their free agents is a priority. How successful will they be?
Robert Covington called his time with the Clippers the most enjoyable part of his season, after his arrival midseason from Portland. Frank liked hearing that from the unrestricted free agent to be.
“We’d like to be able to keep him here,” Frank said of the wing, saying he’d seen Covington develop a “really, really good” relationship with coach Tyronn Lue. Covington was one of several players praised by Frank who have decisions to make about their futures.
Amir Coffey, who can become a restricted free agent, “has shown he’s a rotation player in the NBA” after a breakout third season. The 6-foot-8 wing went from signing a second two-way contract to averaging more than 20 minutes per game and earning a standard deal in March before scoring 32 points or more twice in April.
“We’re really just proud of Amir because, like I said, it wasn’t an easy path,” Frank said.
As for the team’s centers, Frank said Ivica Zubac (team option for next season) and Isaiah Hartenstein (unrestricted free agent) still have room to improve but deserve credit for consistent rim protection that underpinned a top-10 defense despite Leonard and George’s absences.
“Isaiah had an unbelievable year,” Frank said.
Is adding a point guard in offseason plans?
For three seasons the same question has circulated: Do the Clippers need a traditional point guard to unlock the best version of Leonard and George’s combination? They tried in 2021 by trading for Rajon Rondo, but the move yielded little postseason benefits. In February, the Clippers played after the trade deadline without a backup point, preferring their wings to expand that area of their game.
League sources believe the Clippers indeed will explore options to add a point guard, but with the ball in the high-usage hands of Leonard and George’s hands a lot next season, pursuing any guard doesn’t make sense — only one who can move the proverbial needle.
“The game now is played a little bit differently, there are some obviously elite point guards in the league, but a lot of teams are playing through their wings like we do,” Frank said. “So I look at it as do we have enough play initiators between Kawhi, PG, Norm [Powell], Reggie [Jackson], Terance [Mann]? I don’t know; we’ll look at it. We’re not averse to it, but we’ll continue to evaluate and see if we have to address it.”
Could Jason Preston fill such a guard role in rotation?
Preston, a 2021 second-round pick out of Ohio, turned heads during offseason workouts but injured his foot on the eve of training camp and missed the entire season.
Fellow rookie Brandon Boston Jr. had nearly 800 minutes of playing time this season in which to make mistakes and develop but Preston will be making his NBA debut under far higher stakes as the team’s title pursuit restarts. That doesn’t mean there won’t be opportunities for the young guard, Frank said.
“There was an old-school way of looking at it as ‘Oh, young player, you’ve just got to wait your turn,’ ” Frank said. “Well, that’s not necessarily true.”
The Clippers fell short of the playoffs with injuries and COVID hurting their chances until the final game Friday. They still have plans for a title run.
Frank noted New Orleans beat the Clippers in the play-in tournament using three rookies in prominent roles. For Preston, it’s a matter of wait-and-see. The team is hopeful Preston — and Jay Scrubb, who underwent turf toe surgery in February — will be healthy enough to participate in summer league in July.
“I think it’s just being totally open, and his game and his rate of development and improvement will show us,” Frank said. “And I think the great thing about Ty, his loyalty is to winning that game, meaning whoever gets us the best chance to win a certain game plays.”
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