The Clippers left Ontario’s Toyota Arena as quickly as they could Wednesday following a 126-115 loss to Denver in their preseason finale.
A long commute awaited, followed by a day off Thursday and then, starting Friday, the final push of practices before the start of one of the most expectation-laden seasons in the franchise’s five-decade history.
Here are five takeaways from the Clippers training camp and their 2-2 preseason record:
Their expectations are clear and so was their coach’s displeasure
Coach Tyronn Lue has been explicit in setting the bar high for the Clippers. And when they have failed to meet it, he has been just as clear in his critique of the team.
Before tipoff Wednesday, it was Lue who summed up the mission statement: “Our goal is to win a championship and so let the whole world know that.”
Yet after a loss to Denver that Lue called unprofessional, and with a curt tone accompanying his remarks that he “didn’t like the way we approached the game tonight,” Lue returned to a point he has made repeatedly since the summer — their title goals will be worth nothing if they don’t put in the work. Guard Norman Powell, who scored 34 points against the Nuggets, agreed that the Clippers “didn’t have that right mental approach.”
Clippers coach Tyronn Lue knows firsthand the uncertainty Kawhi Leonard and John Wall will face after returning from long layoffs.
Oct. 12, 2022
“We got to tighten up,” Powell said.
In many ways the central question faced by the team is the same the Clippers struggled to answer three years ago: How would a roster full of holdovers from a team that thrived as the underdog adapt, with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George healthy, to being the hunted?
To Lue, the answer lies in ensuring the team’s mentality doesn’t change from year to year. Last season’s team was characterized by its relentlessness. He expects the same from his loaded roster and didn’t receive it Wednesday.
Starting point guard remains unsettled
Reggie Jackson started at point guard Wednesday for the second time this preseason along with the bulk of the team’s regular starters, with John Wall coming off the bench. That arrangement could be the way things settle to start the regular season — after all, Lue has said it makes sense to pair the speedy Wall’s desire to push the pace with the second unit’s younger legs.
Whatever pecking order Lue thought he had entering Wednesday remains unresolved because of the performance. Asked to evaluate Jackson and Wall, Lue mentioned that experience told him what Jackson can do before quickly noting, “You just have to play the game the right way, be locked in.”
Asked when he would name a starter, Lue responded with few words that said a lot.
“I thought I knew,” Lue said, “but I don’t know now.”
Jackson played 12 minutes, missing his lone shot, and had two assists. Wall had eight points, four assists and three rebounds.
In one regard, mission accomplished already
The Clippers’ foremost preseason goal has already been reached: Exit with Leonard healthy.
“He’s healthy, he feels good, that’s most important,” Lue said, adding that Leonard sat out Wednesday out of caution.
So far during camp, the only thing the Clippers have expressed as often as their optimism about Leonard’s early play has been their caution regarding how they will handle his minutes to start the season.
What that translates to in terms of total games played by Leonard during the season is anyone’s guess, but with 11 sets of back-to-back games before the mid-February All-Star break, Lue has already said he plans to use a deeper rotation to keep the team’s core fresh, making it likely Leonard is used sparingly again on back-to-back nights.
Minutes precious? Message received
Almost to a man, the Clippers have acknowledged that sacrifice will be necessary on a team with more credible contributors than opportunities for consistent rotation minutes. It’s the so-called “good problem” for Lue — yet he’ll have to manage players’ expectations and buy-in all season to ensure those most affected by the inevitable squeeze on minutes don’t bristle and create a persistent problem.
During the preseason, at least, the Clippers were adamant about saying the right thing, starting most notably at the top of the rotation, when George declared Sunday, unprompted, that Leonard was the team’s first option and he the second. Such a statement from a player of George’s All-Star caliber can have a trickle-down effect on teammates’ willingness to accept a narrower role on any given night, Lue said.
“The chemistry is going to work itself out because we get along together off the court,” Powell said. “On the court, everybody is coachable and talking to one another when they see things unfolding as the game goes along. But it is going to be everybody’s approach day in and day out that is going to put us over the hump.”
Weeks after Nicolas Batum re-signed as a free agent this summer, Lue visited him in Paris and the two talked “for a very long time” about how his role as a backup power forward would not be the same as last season.
“You have a couple guys like [Robert Covington], myself, and John [Wall], we were technically free agents, we re-signed knowing what’s gonna be our role,” Batum said. “We could have better playing time, more playing time, or a better role somewhere else, but we choose to stay there because we know we’re gonna make sacrifices anyways, but we know why. And everybody on this team knows that.”
Rookie forward shows ability, but will he get playing time?
Between rookie forward Moussa Diabate’s two-way contract, the glut of veterans ahead of him on the depth chart and the team’s championship aspirations, Diabate could spend a chunk of his season back in Ontario continuing to develop his offensive repertoire with the Clippers’ G League affiliate.
Yet it’s also fair to wonder how much that development could improve with some seasoning with the main Clippers roster. Diabate, 20, constantly asks questions of coaches and teammates who find his goofy sense of humor refreshing and his ability to guard multiple positions already at the start of his NBA career impressive.
The raw potential of his physical gifts was on display in Wednesday’s second half with his soaring right-handed dunk, a play so athletic and physical it sent the Clippers’ bench sprinting down the baseline.
There was also the flip side during the fourth quarter as Diabate struggled to create his own shot when he didn’t have as much room to engage his athleticism as he did on the transition dunk. He is a project and has been labeled as such by the team since the day he was drafted, but the flashes he showed during the preseason showed why the Clippers were so glad to draft him. Diabate said he hadn’t been told by the team how much time he would spend in the G League. The 6-foot-9 French native said the mental side of the game was where he would progress most, regardless of whether he spends time in the NBA or G League.
“Obviously when I came in I was really nervous if I was able to hold my weight, hold my own against other grown men,” he said. “But when pretty much I started playing with PG, Kawhi, all them guys, they’re the best players in the world and I do a pretty decent job for me, myself as a rookie.”
Andrew Greif is the Clippers beat writer for the Los Angeles Times. He joined The Times after covering college football and sports enterprise at the Oregonian. A University of Oregon graduate, he grew up on the Oregon coast.