Fresh off failure and amid coronavirus crisis, Clippers still see reason for optimism

Dallas Mavericks' Luka Doncic, front right, fouls Los Angeles Clippers' Kawhi Leonard (2).

What should have been basketball paradise was anything but.

When Clippers training camp opened in Hawaii one year ago, All-Star forwards Kawhi Leonard and Paul George enjoyed some perks of their tropical locale. One night, in the water off Waikiki, they hung out with teammates on a catamaran as the sunset faded.

But on the court, their first camp as Clippers was hardly smooth sailing.

Offseason surgeries left each limited to watching as teammates scrimmaged, or working one-on-one against an assistant coach. Leonard, who would go on to start opening night of the season, was more available to practice than George, who wouldn't be cleared to practice for another month as he rehabbed from surgeries on each shoulder. Even after each made his Clippers debut, it took until December for George and Leonard to practice together for the first time.

Their delayed starts were a harbinger of a disjointed season in which the Clippers only briefly achieved full health and never achieved cohesion on their way to a disappointing second-round exit in the postseason.

“Team chemistry builds from Day 1,” Leonard said Friday. “I had a procedure done, PG had a procedure done, some of the other guys were in and out in training camp. Me and PG didn’t play hardly any of the preseason games, I probably played one or two. But we wasn’t in training camp.”

That won’t be the case Sunday when the team practices as a group for the first time, Leonard and George included.

That has given way to optimism that this season will not only start but finish much differently than last.

“This year, us being able to start training camp and going full speed with the guys since Day 1, I think that will just build up for a better chemistry so guys aren’t either falling in line in the middle of the season or first game,” Leonard said. “We are all here together now.”

Team president Lawrence Frank said the team would have a better indication Sunday, after players have undergone medical testing, about the health of the roster. One player who won’t participate is rookie guard Jay Scrubb. The 55th overall pick in November’s draft is expected to miss between three and four months after undergoing surgery last week to insert a screw in his injured right foot.

“With those two guys starting from the beginning of the season and building that relationship and building that continuity on the court is going to be major for us,” forward Marcus Morris Sr. said of Leonard and George. “All of us getting out there, we all are going to have a chip on our shoulders.”

The Clippers will have five days before their first preseason game Friday against the Lakers inside an empty Staples Center. The teams will meet two days later and again on the season’s opening night of Dec. 22.

The Lakers’ 17th NBA championship was fueled by the bond between stars and first-time teammates LeBron James and Anthony Davis, who played 1,455 regular-season minutes together. That continuity helped the Lakers gain strength en route to the Western Conference’s top playoff seeding and a title.

Leonard and George, meanwhile, played 890 minutes together, with Leonard not playing on consecutive days and George battling hamstring injuries at midseason.

Injuries, and the February addition of Morris, led the starting lineup used most often during the postseason to play only 147 minutes together during the regular season.

In recent weeks Leonard and George “spent a little time not too long ago working out, training together,” said George, who said his shoulder discomfort was behind him. “But our ultimate goal is just to make sure this is a winning environment and making this about this year. That's the only thing that's important.”

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise across the country and NBA teams prepare to travel for the first time since leaving the relative safety of the league’s “bubble,” the unanswerable question is how often teams such as the Clippers will be able to keep their core rotations together throughout the season.

There were 48 positive tests for COVID-19 out of the 546 players tested last week, according to the NBA. Players who test positive but are asymptomatic cannot work out for 10 days, or must wait 10 days from the end of any symptoms. The potential for a rash of positive tests is a “great concern,” Frank said.

“I feel like if [the NFL is] able to get the 12th week, 13th week, I have confidence in the NBA getting through the season,” Leonard said. “We're taking the right protocols. … We're getting tested still every day. It's just on the onus of us, just making sure each player is being as careful as we can be. Obviously, if you stay home and do the right procedures, you could get the virus. But yeah, I think if we're being smart, still taking the right protocols, we'll finish the season.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.