The 2018-19 Clippers were incredibly gritty.
The 2019-20 Clippers are incredibly gifted.
It hasn’t been the easiest adjustment.
Last year, the Clippers played hard and tough. They had one of the best-ever seasons for a team with no All-Stars, present or past. L.A. won 48 games and pushed the Warriors in the first round of the playoffs. That roster created an appealing culture.
Enter Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
The Clippers added those stars last summer and became an instant championship contender. That’s the primary goal – getting in that hunt.
But big-time players usually require more maintenance, and Leonard and George are no exceptions.
While with the Spurs, Leonard was reportedly envious of the star treatment other teams’ players received. Leonard’s uncle and advisor, Dennis Robertson, reportedly asked the Lakers and Clippers for illegal inducements during free agency last summer.
George has twice pushed his way off teams while still under contract. He didn’t request a trade from the Pacers, but by informing them he’d leave the next year, he essentially sealed his early exit. George made a big show of re-signing with the Thunder in 2019 then requested a trade to L.A. only one season later.
And of course, there are Leonard’s unique injury issues. He misses several games each season for what was confusingly called load management but is now dubbed injury management. That leaves his teammates to pick up the slack.
One of those teammates, Montrezl Harrell, sounded particularly upset with the Clippers’ outlook earlier this month. Harrell is a grinder, one of the key players on last year’s overachieving squad. And it turns out his tone amplified a larger concern.
Jovan Buha and Sam Amick of The Athletic:
Off the court, sources say there are some teammates who have struggled with the organization’s preferential treatment that is afforded to Leonard and George.
“I think it boils down to Kawhi not talking, and so who is their true leader?” one source with knowledge of the Clippers’ dynamics said. “How do you get around that?”
He isn’t necessarily standoffish, sources say, and there are times when he lives up to that “Fun Guy” reputation that has become part of his one-of-a-kind profile — even more so recently as he’s grown more comfortable around his teammates. He’s certainly more talkative and playful behind the scenes than in front of the media, when he rarely says a word outside of the scrum of reporters who speak to him, on average, for a few minutes at a time. But there can be a tangible distance, sources say.
Multiple players, according to league sources, don’t feel the team practices as hard or as seriously as it should at this point in the season.
Nearly every team in the NBA would trade its problems for the Clippers’ problems.
The Clippers are 31-14. They’ve gone 21-6 when Leonard and George both play. Winning cures most ills, and that will likely take care of these.
In the meantime, everyone involved should take a step back and be just a little more understanding.
Leonard, George and everyone else in charge – including coach Doc Rivers – should see how this looks to everyone else. Other players are scraping every night. It can be frustrating to see Leonard and George reaping the benefits without exerting as much energy right now.
In particular, Leonard should understand how his quiet nature can come across. That might be natural for him, but teammates are far more likely to rally behind a leader with whom they have a personal connection.
The upset Clippers also ought to realize this is how it works. Stars get preferential treatment. They’ve often earned it. Practicing a lot is more likely to wear down the team – especially Leonard – than help. Ditto Leonard playing more often.
With a few months left in the regular season, the Clippers have plenty of time to get past these issues. This team is still well-equipped to win in the playoffs, and lot of this tension is just about how to proceed through the long regular season to that point. Get through it, and a championship is still well within reach.