Thirteen months ago, on a hot day in a crowded gymnasium in South Los Angeles, Lawrence Frank approached a lectern to introduce a superstar who needed no introduction.
In describing Kawhi Leonard, who sat next to Paul George during the pair’s official introduction as Clippers, Frank could have chosen any number of starting points. The Clippers’ president of basketball operations could have mentioned the 6-foot-7 forward’s status as one of the NBA’s preeminent scorers and defenders. He could have mentioned the work ethic developed while growing up in Moreno Valley, the kind his coach would later describe as “maniacal” and a teammate would say “changed my whole life.”
Frank did, eventually, cover such ground. But on a day when the Clippers announced that they expected to win championships, not just compete for them, Frank didn’t bury the lead.
The Clippers hadn’t spent the better part of the previous two years planning to sign Leonard as a free agent solely because his production ranked among the league’s elites. The team had had superstars before. No, they wooed him because they needed a postseason Sherpa. Leonard had climbed basketball’s mountaintop with San Antonio in 2014 and Toronto five years later.
And in the two-time Finals MVP, a Clippers franchise that hadn’t produced so much as a conference finals appearance in five decades saw a star with the experience they hoped would lead them to the top, too.
“He’s a champion, he’s a winner,” Frank told the crowd. “He wins everywhere he goes, from King High School to San Diego State to the NBA.”
Nine months after the most unpredictable season in NBA history began, the Clippers’ long-anticipated ascent attempt begins Monday with a first-round playoff series against seventh-seeded Dallas. The Clippers won all three matchups with the Mavericks this season, including a 15-point victory last week. Dallas, whose offense has edged the 2019 Golden State Warriors’ as the most efficient in NBA history, is their focus now. But ever since Leonard’s signing as a free agent, their goal has been to be the last team standing.
“We want to win it all,” coach Doc Rivers said.
Rivers coached Boston to the 2008 championship. Five of the team’s assistants have won championships as well. But sideline strategy can only influence so much in a league driven by stars.
“Kawhi Leonard is our quiet leader,” said assistant Sam Cassell, a three-time champion. “He’s not a rah-rah guy. He’s not a guy that’s going to cheer every time he makes a big shot. He’s a guy that’s going to lead by example.”
Leonard averaged a career-high 27.1 points and 4.9 assists this season and George averaged 21.5 points with 5.7 rebounds and 3.9 assists. Both battled injuries to start — and throughout — the season, but the Clippers’ confidence in their title chance is as bullish now as it was during the stars’ first news conference because the lineup’s linchpins have been healthy throughout the NBA’s restart. Leonard has scored at least 20 points in 11 consecutive games and George’s current streak is six.
“Kawhi and P.G. in particular, they’re in great shape right now,” Rivers said. “That’s where we want it to be.”
Since joining the West two seasons ago, George has averaged 26.5 points, 7.2 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 4.0 turnovers while shooting 34% on three-pointers in 11 playoff games. Though he last advanced out of the postseason’s first round in 2014, he has conference final experience against LeBron James — the now-Lakers foe the Clippers could meet in the Western Conference finals — from early in his career, with Indiana.
“I’m just happy we’ve got them on our team,” said center Ivica Zubac, who has played in four playoff games. “It’s much easier going through this process with them and with their experience, they’re willing to show us and give us some advice and teach us.”
Leonard’s career playoff averages of 19.5 points, 7.7 rebounds, 50.6% shooting and 41% three-point shooting all exceed his overall career averages. He is one of only three players, joining James and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, to win Finals MVP for multiple teams. And yet, even he will be learning as he goes during these playoffs because of their unprecedented nature.
Hostile visiting crowds? All games will be played at Disney World’s Wide World of Sports complex because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Two months of constant travel? The resort’s arenas are a six-mile round trip.
“The little things like that, you know, just traveling to that different city and trying to establish yourself and see what routine you can make out there, those are pretty much the difficulties of ballgames in the playoffs,” Leonard said.
The lack of a discernible home-court advantage for higher seeds such as the Clippers will make the postseason more unpredictable, Rivers said.
“Absolutely it’s going to play a factor,” he said. “I’m not sure who it gives an advantage to yet but I actually think that having, let’s say seven ‘neutral site’ games will absolutely play or have an impact in some of these games.”
A Clippers-specific factor is how quickly the roster meshes once backup center Montrezl Harrell, who’d left the team in mid-July because of a family emergency, clears a league-mandated seven-day quarantine process and rejoins the roster as expected Monday.
The Clippers played only 11 games — with a 10-1 record — at full strength and have yet to have their entire roster together in Orlando. That lack of continuity revealed a team still working to understand itself even 37 games into the season, when Harrell told reporters that a blowout January loss should “wake up” the roster to an uncomfortable reality that “we’re not a great team.”
Leonard’s response, after the loss, was to draw on his experience to find a path forward.
“I’ve been here before and I’ve been in situations like this and the outcome was great,” Leonard said. “We still have a chance. It’s not over.”
He was right. Despite 32 different starting lineups this season, second-most in the league, the roster’s depth lifted it to the fourth-best winning percentage in franchise history. They are the first team since the 1967-68 San Francisco Warriors with four players averaging at least 18 points per game, according to the team. Cohesion was built through winning 10 of the last 11 games before the season’s suspension in March, followed by four months of communicating via a players-only group chat.
“I think the only thing that can stop us really is the effort we put forth out on the floor, how much we play together,” said Lou Williams, who joins Harrell as a finalist for the league’s top reserve. “Meshing is important to us, everybody being on the same accord on the offensive and defensive end. We probably are going to be our own worst enemies when it comes down to that.
“We feel like we are in control of our destiny. If everybody locks in, get on the same page, I really like our opportunity.”
Considering the season’s unexpected twists and turns, finishing with the conference’s second-best record is a “great accomplishment,” Leonard said. But whereas last year’s roster popped champagne upon clinching a playoff berth, just reaching the postseason was never the height of this group’s ambition.
“We’re still in the journey,” Leonard said. “We’ve just got to keep enjoying each day and the process.”
1. The league-record 115.9 points per 100 possessions scored by the Mavericks this season dipped to 106.0 during three meetings against the Clippers. And the Clippers scored 115.9 points per 100 possessions against Dallas.
2. Clippers center JaMychal Green made 38% of his catch-and-shoot three-pointers this season. Since the restart began, that accuracy has spiked to 51.5%.
3. Will Patrick Beverley (strained calf) play in Game 1? When the starting guard is on the floor, the Clippers have outscored opponents by 10 points per 100 possessions, the third-highest mark on the team this season.