Why the Clippers' Kawhi Leonard-Paul George partnership is likely to continue

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Clippers forwards Kawhi Leonard and Paul George celebrate during a playoff win over Utah.
Clippers forwards Kawhi Leonard and Paul George celebrate during a playoff win over Utah. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

On the June night when Kawhi Leonard’s season abruptly ended, the full potential of his partnership with Paul George was only beginning to be realized.

There had been flashes of it in their two seasons on the Clippers. On a cold Minnesota night in December 2019, the All-Star forwards became the first players in franchise history to both score at least 40 points in the same game. Months later in their first postseason together, George scored 35 points and Leonard 32 in a rout of Dallas that set up their eventual first-round series victory.

But not until last month, after the Clippers returned home having lost their first two games at top-seeded Utah, only to even the series behind a pair of dominant performances by their stars, had Leonard and George produced overlapping, dominant performances so consistently under significant stakes.

Leonard responded with 34 points and 12 rebounds, while George added 31 points, including six three-pointers, in a Game 3 victory. Their assists led to 25 more points. Two nights later, George scored 31 more, his nine free throws the result of aggressive drives, and Leonard added 31 — including two on a stunning dunk — behind 10 free throws to level the series.

“We got full trust in our teammates,” George said after Game 3. “Myself and Kawhi got full trust in each other. It’s a healthy mix.”

This was the mix envisioned from the pair in 2019, when Leonard signed as a free agent after spurring the Clippers’ front office to acquire George in a trade that limited the Clippers’ future assets but intended to maximize their present. The pair of Southern Californians had wanted to team up. But it had taken time to learn how to complement another, Leonard acknowledged after the win in Game 3. The two-year process required Leonard and George to recover from injuries, commit to more engaged leadership styles and a challenge from coach Tyronn Lue to become better playmakers for their teammates. Patience was required as they adjusted from Doc Rivers’ playbook and style during their first season together to those of Lue.

It laid the groundwork for their controlling performances to spark the Clippers’ resurgence against the Jazz — a two-game run that left some to dream about how deeply the 1-2 punch could take the Clippers in the postseason.

“Our chemistry is still growing,” Leonard said after Game 4.

Whether that union will continue to grow is the central question facing the Clippers’ offseason. Two years after Leonard, enticed by the presence of George, chose the Clippers, will he still feel the same when free agency begins Aug. 2?

Leonard can opt into the final year of his contract for $36 million, or become an unrestricted free agent by declining. Even after injuring his right knee in Game 4 against Utah and missing the Clippers’ eight remaining games, Leonard will hold significant leverage after averaging 30.4 points, 7.7 rebounds and 4.4 assists in the postseason while shooting 57% from the field, his career high in the playoffs.

“We’ve made great connections; I think we’ve both grown, myself and Kawhi, together,” George said after the Clippers’ season-ending loss Wednesday. “I think we really enjoy being teammates, and we see what we can be and what we can do.

“So, I’m happy. I’m happy to be his teammate. I was very excited. Proud of what we accomplished. … I think we’ve got a good foundation.”

For months, NBA observers pegged the Clippers as the favorite to retain Leonard while stressing that his intentions can be famously difficult to forecast. And yet what Leonard always has made clear is that his decisions revolve around finding ways to win.

Geography and family played an important role in his 2019 decision, but so was the Clippers’ clear pathway to contention. The severity of his injury could complicate the Clippers’ status as contenders next season, but the team’s vision for retooling its roster regardless figures to remain a factor. The front office swung a trade with Atlanta in March to acquire Rajon Rondo, the point guard who was supposed to create easier opportunities for the stars in the playoffs, but his influence was diminished by ineffectiveness. Rondo has one year left on his contract. Can the Clippers ask their wings to continue to handle as much of a playmaking load as they did this season, or can they acquire a guard who can relieve pressure, not only through passing but also scoring?

Among the factors working in the Clippers’ favor is the experience of the last season, Lue included. Multiple Clippers described Leonard as much more vocal and engaged. A locker room with cliques last year grew tighter, as reflected by their ability to win despite multiple injuries, players said.

“We got a lot of guys that like each other,” forward Marcus Morris said. “We stay connected.”

That process was aided in training camp. Unlike in 2019, when Leonard and George waited more than six weeks to play together because of their recovery from offseason surgeries, the two were healthy from the start of camp in December. Leonard later recalled feeling a difference.

“Seeing us focused in that first practice, or in these games, it just trickles down and these [teammates] know there’s no playing around,” he said.

Clippers coach Tyronn Lue talks to Paul George.
Clippers coach Tyronn Lue talks to All-Star forward Paul George during a game against Phoenix. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The former assistant Lue, once elevated to coach, forged trust with his stars by challenging them while also playing to their strengths.

“They grew a lot as leaders, I’m not going to lie,” second-year guard Terance Mann said of Leonard and George. “It took them some time to figure out the team, figure out what everybody was about. But a big part of it was having T-Lue back. It wasn’t too new. Everything wasn’t unfamiliar just because T-Lue was with us before. He played a big role in helping Kawhi and PG learn the team and lead the team.”

Playing with two healthy shoulders for the first time in two years, George looked like the quintessential running mate for long stretches while averaging 23.3 points, a career-high 5.2 assists and shooting 41% from deep, just shy of his career high, before going on to produce “a hell of a playoff run,” Lue said. Despite Leonard’s injury and fatigue, George produced 37- and 41-point performances to win games in Salt Lake City and Phoenix.

“I don’t really care what people say about that guy, I think he redeemed himself and he showed that he’s a big-time player in this league, and he deserves all the praise in the world,” said Nicolas Batum, one of the Clippers’ unrestricted free agents. “I’m very happy for him that he could show the world who he is.”

Next season, George’s four-year, $190-million extension will kick in, a contract the Palmdale-raised player signed with the intent of one day retiring close to home as a Clipper. He said Wednesday that he will try to recruit the team’s free agents, including Leonard, in hopes of accomplishing something not done since San Antonio in 2014 — a title team led in scoring by a pair of teammates both 30 and older.

“One of the commitments I made signing my contract was to show I’m here for the long run and I’m committed to this team,” George said. “Hopefully that weighs on anybody’s decision. But it’s no hard feelings. You know, these guys, they got decisions to make on their own.

“… I haven’t talked to any of them. But hopefully this is where they want to continue to play and grow and be something and do something special in the long run.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.