The Los Angeles Clippers are a contender. On paper. Kawhi Leonard can still be the best player on a championship team — in two playoff games against the Suns last season, against Kevin Durant and Devin Booker, Leonard was the best player on the court. Paul George is an elite No. 2. There is shooting and defense all around them with a versatile group of role players, plus Russell Westbrook stepped in and fit in, playing better than everyone outside the Clippers locker room expected last season.
That's on paper. In reality, Leonard — coming off missing a season due to an ACL injury — was out after those two playoff games due to a torn meniscus. George didn't even play in the series due to injuries. The Clippers tried to load manage their way through the past couple of seasons to be ready for the playoffs only to have that plan backfire.
Clippers coach Tyronn Lue — working this summer on his side hustle of being an assistant coach on Steve Kerr's Team USA staff — took a break to join Chris Haynes and Marc Stein’s #thisleague UNCUT podcast. Lue said Leonard and George are expected to be healthy to start the season, and the Clippers want to focus on taking the regular season more seriously this year.
"They're both on track to be 100% by the time training camp starts, and that's what we need. You know, our best players will be healthy, and we've just been in an unfortunate situation where our two best players [haven't had] a full season together the last three years and that's been tough on us...
"We have to, like I say, start respecting the regular season and giving our fans what they want to see and playing hard every single night, putting our best product on the floor."
Lue is saying all the right things, which is easy to do a month before training camp starts and the medical/sports science people start talking about Leonard's knee to him. Lue was frustrated with the shifting lineups around the Clippers last season, he wants that to change this season — as does management — and they are laying the groundwork now. And doing it publicly.
Lue also praised Westbrook and said both he and Mason Plumlee had other, more lucrative options this offseason, but chose to return. Lue credited that to the Clippers organization and he is not wrong there. Under Steve Ballmer's ownership the Clippers have gone from a laughing stock to a player-friendly, highly respected organization by players and agents. Guys want to come there.
This is a massive upcoming season for the Clippers, one where both Leonard and George will be extension eligible (there have been few rumblings about that, things are quiet for now). The Clippers are potentially approaching a pivot point, although entering a new building next season puts added pressure on them to win over the next couple of years (or, at least have a team capable of winning). A healthy Leonard and George make those decisions easier in the short term.
The Clippers are paper contenders, but we're all going to need to see it on the court for an extended period before we buy in.