In the middle of last season (before the coronavirus shut down and the season was upended), The Athletic and writer Jovan Buha wrote in detail about the Clippers’ locker room’s chemistry issues — and he got intense blowback from players and the organization. The team denied it all.
Those problems were then laid bare when the Clippers blew a 3-1 series lead against a gritty and connected Nuggets team that had all the intangibles the Clippers did not.
The biggest question for the Clippers this season is not talent, it’s can new coach Tyronn Lue — with more self-awareness from Kawhi Leonard and particularly Paul George — turn the chemistry issues around? Can the Clippers reach their potential?
In a new story at The Athletic, Buha details the locker room chemistry issues from last season. For example, Leonard got a private room to do his pregame stretching and warmups out of the public eye, and occasionally that meant bumping female staff members from their locker room.
If there was one dynamic that showed the issues with some of the preferential treatment the Clippers conceded to Leonard and Paul George last season, and how it affected both other players and staffers, it was Leonard’s pregame privacy request. And while the locker room space situation didn’t happen in the NBA’s restart in the Orlando bubble, the chemistry issues created earlier in the season contributed to the team’s shocking loss in the Western Conference semifinals…
“How do you ever build a strong team with that s*** going on?” one team source said. “I thought from the beginning, ‘We’re doomed. Kawhi wants too much special treatment.’”…
But George’s treatment was more of an issue within the locker room, league sources said. George, while a perennial All-Star and All-NBA candidate, didn’t carry the same cachet with his teammates. There was a sentiment among certain teammates of, “What have you accomplished in the playoffs?” multiple league sources said.
George and Leonard were the only players with their own security details, Leonard lived in San Diego and commuted to Los Angeles for practices and games, Leonard and George had sway over the team’s practice and travel schedules (although Doc Rivers holds formal practices less than any coach in the league anyway), and Leonard and George both avoided media as much as they could, speaking last after games for example (usually 30-45 minutes after the game), forcing other players to be the face of the team.
Lue was there for all of this as Rivers’ lead assistant. He knows what needs to be changed. He comes in with a ring, a mandate, and the gravitas to shake things up. He’s going to expect more accountability from Leonard and George, he’s going to limit the perks — although the NBA is a star-driven league and the elite players everywhere are treated differently — and he’s going to have to get the team’s best players on the court at the same time to build chemistry (something Rivers was limited in doing because of injuries).
Ultimately, however, it’s not a coach that sets the tone for a team, it’s the star players. The Warriors culture is an extension of Stephen Curry. The Lakers’ current culture is an extension of LeBron James, just like it was Kobe Bryant before that. The Spurs were Tim Duncan. It goes on and on like that back to Bill Russell and the Celtics, and before.
The darker, more serious, less joyful Clippers chemistry of last season — compared to the playoff-season before where all the players hung out and enjoyed each other and being underdogs — was an extension of Leonard. He’s not going to change his personality and suddenly become Boban, but it does fall on Leonard to help lead the change.
If not, the 2021 Clippers playoffs could be a movie we have seen from this franchise before.