The Clippers prided themselves on not needing superstars to succeed last season. They embraced the identity of scrappy underdogs who played defense with a scowl and rode the energy of their explosive bench, and it worked pretty well, leading them to 48 wins before they pushed the Golden State Warriors in an entertaining first-round playoff loss.
But now, with their acquisition of Paul George and signing of prize free agent Kawhi Leonard, the team that said it didn’t need superstars to win has two of the NBA’s best players. These are not the plucky little Clippers anymore. They’re considered a favorite to win it all, heady stuff considering they’ve never gotten past the second round of the playoffs.
“We know we’ve got a target on our back. It’s not going to be easy,” power forward JaMychal Green said Sunday during the Clippers’ media day event.
The arrivals of Leonard and George have changed the Clippers’ expectations, but the powerful dynamic that drove them last season — the scrappiness and hunger and selfless team-first attitude — must remain the same in order for them to have the bigger success they think they can achieve.
“I think it’s important for us to maintain that mind-set. I think that works in our favor with the personalities that we have in our locker room. That should be the majority of our makeup,” said guard Lou Williams, who’s coming off his second straight Sixth Man of the Year award and third in five seasons.
“I don’t think we should stop being ourselves because we have the addition of those guys. I think all of those things mesh well together, especially when you’re trying to do something at a high level.
“I don’t know if there’s a way to tell Pat Beverley to chill out,” he added, drawing laughter from an audience familiar with Beverley’s relentless intensity. “So I don’t think that changes. Especially for me, I don’t think my mind-set changes either.”
In other words, the Clippers have to be the team Leonard admired from afar and chose when he decided to come home to Southern California. He sounded happy to be one of the guys, a process he accelerated by joining his new teammates for fishing trips, workouts and paintball competitions.
“I wasn’t able to play against them last year just from dealing with injuries, but watching, they did their thing. They’re a confident unit, play very hard. It seemed like everybody, there was a brotherhood here,” Leonard said. “They all went out and did their job, and if somebody was doing great that night, they fed him. Coach Doc [Rivers] did a great job of getting that group ready and pushing them to the playoffs. ... Going through my process of free agency, that’s what I looked at and I thought I could join in and help.”
In an odd move, the Clippers didn’t make Rivers available to the media Sunday. A team spokesman said Rivers will speak Monday, the first day of workouts at their Playa Vista training center.
Players are expecting it won’t be a typical meet-and-greet first day. “The second this came together, we were on a group chat, talking, laughing, building that togetherness, that camaraderie,” George said. “We fast-forwarded all that getting to know each other.”
The familiarity they built over the summer, they hope, will show up on the floor.
“Chemistry is a real thing. I thought it was important for us to be in a room as much as possible to start building that camaraderie and understand what each guy brought to the table personality-wise,” Williams said. “That way, once we get into the season, once we get into those fourth quarters where we need to communicate and our competitive spirits are high, your words won’t be misconstrued. Your teammates can understand you’re coming from a positive place and you have a common goal — you’re trying to win the basketball game.”
Beverley said he wants the team to be as scrappy as it was last season, “but on steroids,” he said. And he believes it’s possible based on the players’ interaction during the past month or so when everyone has kept in close contact.
“We really enjoy each other. We can police each other. We can coach each other,” Beverley said. “It’s no big ‘I,’ it’s little ‘you.’ There’s no big ego. The low man on the totem pole or the top guy, there’s none of that with us. If guys have a problem, communicate, nip it in the bud, get over it. Let’s get better. Let’s be great. And that’s been our motto.”
It all sounds great now, before the opening tipoff. Will their teamwork and work ethic hold firm when players’ roles inevitably change, or will they and Rivers become tempted to let their two superstars carry them? It’s impossible to win in the NBA without superstars, but balancing egos and chemistry can be tricky. The Clippers believe they can do it.
“We want to get as close together as we possibly can, that family environment that we had last year,” Beverley said, “and see where it takes us at the end of the year.”